The Internet does not create sexual compulsion, but the affordability, anonymity and accessibility that cybersex offers tends to escalate the progression of the disorder for sex addicts, said Dr. Helen Friedman of St. Louis, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexuality.
"People can't comprehend how this can feel so out of control to someone," Friedman said. "People are accountable for their behavior, but that doesn't mean there can't be understanding and compassion."
Liking sex vs. needing sex
There's a big difference between enjoying sex and needing sex to fill a void in one's life, psychologists said.
"Sex, love and romance are delightful aspects of our humanity," Schaeffer said. But for the sex addict, "it becomes like a need or compulsion. There are negative consequences because of the addiction, but you continue despite those risks. When sex feels like that, you know you've crossed the line."
The Atlanta-based National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (NCSAC) promotes public and professional awareness and understanding of addictive/compulsive sexual behavior and its associated negative consequences. The council defines sexual addiction as "a persistent and escalating pattern or patterns of sexual behaviors acted out despite increasingly negative consequences to self or others."
Sexual compulsion in general might be better understood as an irresistible urge to fulfill sexual desires and inability to control or manage sexual behavior, Kuebbing said.
"Enjoyment of sex, even with someone outside your marriage, even with a few partners, does not mean you're a sex addict," she stressed.
About two-thirds of sex addicts are male, and most are living what appear to be normal lives, said Schaeffer, a veteran member of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity who's written three books that address sex addiction - "Is it Love or is it Addiction," "Loving Me Loving You" and "Love's Way."
Individuals with high sex drives shouldn't be labeled sex addicts, said Friedman, who serves as adviser to the board of directors of the council. She said that while people with active sex drives know when it's in their best interests to put sex on the back burner, sexually compulsive individuals will:
- remain preoccupied with sex to the exclusion or neglect of work, health, family or social relationships
- lack self-control, vowing never to do it again - but always failing
- suffer negative consequences, including broken relationships, self-loathing, anxiety, sexually transmitted diseases, job loss, legal problems and debt incurred from the cost of prostitutes, cybersex, phone sex and multiple affairs.
Schaeffer said compulsive sexual behavior is the only addiction that crosses the three biological thresholds of pleasure - arousal, satiation and fantasy, stimulating the brain chemicals that give addicts the feeling of satisfaction they crave.
"When you feed your brain these stimulating images and experiences, the brain starts craving it, just like it craves another cigarette or another drink," she said. "It's one of the most difficult addictions to overcome."
Evolution of a sex addict