Can People Be Addicted to Sex?

Cisgender presenting male and female having sex in bed with sheets covering their bottom halves. Male on top and female on her back looking at her phone.
Published on
November 30, 2023

The short answer is no. The longer answer is here. But to start, what even is sex addiction? Well, it’s a tough one to define because there are no specific diagnostic criteria for it. It’s not a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5-TR (which is what mental health providers use to diagnose clients) or the International Classification of Diseases 11 (a similar diagnostic tool). The reason being is that there is simply not enough evidence-based research to indicate that someone can actually be addicted to sex.

Nonetheless, the general idea is that if someone has sex addiction, they are engaging in sexual behaviors that are completely out of their control and are causing harm to their personal life, be it their relationships/marriage, job, finances, personal health/safety, etc. It takes on the addiction model which is looking at their behavior as a disease and something that will be a lifelong struggle. Typically treatment involves a 12-step group and a period of abstinence from sex and potentially a lifetime abstinence from porn or masturbation.

The specific definitions/criteria for what makes someone addicted to sex vary greatly from a wide variety of sources. Some sources say sex addiction includes engaging in any sort of “deviant” sexual behaviors, including: sex with someone of the same gender, kinky behaviors, sex with someone other than your spouse, sex with sex workers, etc. The trouble with including these in a definition of sex addiction is that it implies that monogamous, heterosexual, vanilla sex is the only “right way” to be in a relationship and engage in sexual behaviors. In reality, there are many different ways to engage in sex and one’s sexuality and we know that polyamorous/CNM/ENM, LGBTQIA+, and kinky relationships are all valid relationships. Definitions also try to quantify the amount of times someone has an orgasm in a week as a means of defining someone being addicted.

What is normal anyway?

Recognizing the subjectivity inherent in defining normal or healthy sexual behavior is paramount. What might cause distress for one person could be a source of fulfillment and joy for another. It's a reminder that a one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality is not only unrealistic but potentially harmful. Factors such as cultural background, personal values, and individual circumstances play a significant role in shaping our perceptions of what constitutes appropriate sexual conduct. Understanding and respecting these differences contribute to a more nuanced and empathetic discourse around sexuality.

We simply have no way to quantify how much sex is too much. What works for one person could be problematic for another, so trying to define a certain number of orgasms or sexual experiences in a week isn’t helpful. For example, one person may masturbate every day of the week and still have a fulfilling sexual connection to their partner (or they may just be single and using masturbation as a form of self-care!). Whereas someone else may masturbate every day of the week to avoid connecting with their partner or to avoid dealing with other life stressors or could be experiencing sexual functioning difficulties as a result. The number of orgasms or times a person has sex/masturbates in a week is way too individualized and cannot be quantified to say that it’s “too much” as a baseline for everyone.

A sex positive approach

Taking a sex positive approach means not judging someone for their sexual behaviors/interests/desires as long as everyone involved is consenting and no harm is being done. Instead, therapists will examine what values are in conflict that may be driving the sexual behaviors to feel out of control.

As a result, rather than calling sexual behaviors “addictive,” many Certified Sex Therapists talk to clients about out of control sexual behaviors. The idea is similar to that of sex addiction, but instead, we are looking at sex as the symptom of a bigger problem. Rather than pathologizing certain sexual expressions, this approach focuses on addressing the underlying causes—be it anxiety, depression, trauma, or other factors. The goal is not to label behaviors as inherently problematic but to collaboratively explore healthier alternatives that align with the individual's values.

So when a client is experiencing distress related to their sexual behaviors that they feel are out of control, we are looking at the impact that those behaviors have on a person’s job, finances, relationships, legal status, etc. It’s a similar assessment that is done for those who report treating sex addiction, but rather than assuming addiction, we are assessing what underlying problems could be driving sex to manifest as a symptom to that problem. A sex positive approach says that sex itself isn't a problem, instead, the way it is being used in a person's life could be causing them problems and we want to address that collaboratively.

An example of when sexual behaviors can be problematic and need to be addressed in therapy would be:

A client comes in and they are reporting concerns with their sexual activity. They share that they are in a monogamous relationship and yet find themselves seeking sexual partners outside of the relationship. They express guilt and shame for cheating on their partner and yet unable to stop themselves. They report experiencing high levels of stress at work and not feeling supported at home and find that they are craving intimate connection as a way to feel valuable and seen. They share that their behaviors have escalated such that they are now putting their job at risk by leaving work in the middle of the day to have a hook up and are concerned for their personal safety in that they have recently stopped using safe sex practices. They share that when stress builds up they feel that sex with another person is their only means of release and are often preoccupied with having sex with others until they are able to make it happen.

As you can see, clinically, we’d be concerned that sex is impacting this person’s life in multiple areas. Work, their relationship and personal safety are all at jeopardy as a result of their current actions. We can also start to get glimpses of the underlying issues that are actually pointing to sex being the symptom of a problem: the person is feeling disconnected in their relationship and don’t seem to have helpful stress management and emotion regulation tools to help them cope.

So rather than judging the person for their sexual behaviors, we want to acknowledge that they are acting outside of their value system and help them to recognize that they can change behaviors to get back in line with their value system. That means examining the underlying causes for why they are acting out of their values (i.e. relationship distress, poor coping skills, trauma, etc.) and treat that root problem. Keeping sex from being the root cause and instead the symptom of a bigger issue ensures that one can find a way to re-engage in their sexuality in a healthy way.


In conclusion, the question of whether one can be addicted to sex invites us to engage in a broader conversation about sexuality—one that transcends rigid definitions and embraces the diversity of human experience. It urges us to move away from stigmatizing perspectives and towards a more compassionate understanding of the complex interplay between mental health and sexual behaviors.

By fostering a sex-positive culture and integrating harm reduction strategies, we empower individuals to navigate their sexual journeys with agency and awareness. Ultimately, the journey towards a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of sex is an ongoing one, inviting us all to listen, learn, and approach the topic with the empathy it deserves.

If you are concerned that you are struggling with out of control sexual behaviors, reach out to a Certified Sex Therapist to further help.

(Photo by roman odintsov)

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