Sex addiction: what it means to be 'hypersexual'

It is not much about sex itself, but that sex is distracting, and offers an enjoyable outlet for frustrations in life, a sort of escapism. If you think you might be hypersexual, ask yourself if your sexual behaviours cause you harm or distress, or impairment in your day-to-day functioning

Whenever we hear about hypersexuality, it is usually in the context of celebrities who have gotten themselves into trouble and are seeking therapy to remedy their ways. However, most people would be surprised to learn that the root cause of hypersexuality, or so-called “sex addiction,” is hardly ever related to sex.

“Why am I like this?” is the most common question I encounter, as a sex researcher working with hypersexual men. Problems with pornography and cheating have had severely detrimental effects on their lives and they are desperate for a solution. After ruling out bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder as the underlying condition (as high-frequency sexual behaviour is a common symptom of these disorders), this is what I have found.

Men with problems with masturbation will spend inordinate amounts of time, up to 12 hours a day in some cases, viewing pornography or interacting sexually through chat rooms, social media, dating apps, and webcam. Many lose their jobs after these activities leak into their work lives. For example, most will tell me that they are chronically late for work due to staying up the night before, and that they view porn while at work or call in sick because they’d rather be watching it at home. (Less is known about hypersexuality in females, as it presents at a substantially higher rate in males.)

These men almost universally have issues with anxiety and depression, and fears around social rejection. Their problem with pornography is not that it is addictive, but that it is used to alleviate stress, boredom, low mood, or to put off doing less fun tasks, like the ones having a job entails.

Caleb* calls his use of porn a “time sink,” but nevertheless finds it comforting because it helps to distract him from the ever-growing list of things to do at work and feeling overwhelmed by his worries about money and his health.

Serial cheating can occur for a variety of reasons, but is most commonly due to a mismatch in sex drive between partners. Most of us would imagine someone with an insatiable sexual appetite, but astonishingly, the “hypersexual” partner’s desire for sex is not usually all that high, and it is their partner’s desire that is low, compared to the average.

In Noah’s* situation, his wife wants sex with him once a year. He accrued $40,000 in debt, spent on strippers and sex workers, because he likes to have sex once a week. He says he doesn’t want a divorce from his wife because he loves his two young children, but feels trapped and doesn’t know what else he can do.

Some men cheat regularly because they prefer the novelty of a new sexual partner to sex with someone they’ve had sex with before. They don’t want to be constrained by monogamy. Others are afforded extra sexual attention due to having been blessed with good looks, and choose to indulge themselves. “I love sex,” Reid* sheepishly says. “Why limit myself?”

Other hypersexual men have paraphilias (or kinks), and they only find sex satisfying when incorporating these kinky activities. If their committed partner is not interested or willing, they will seek sex outside of the relationship with partners who are. Matthew* expresses forlornness when speaking about this, because he finds it alarming to be sexually turned on by things he knows most people don’t find arousing. Some of his preferred sexual activities include cross-dressing, incorporating bodily waste, and being humiliated during sex. He desperately wishes that he could be fulfilled by vanilla sex.

If you think you might be hypersexual, ask yourself if your sexual behaviours cause you harm or distress, or impairment in your day-to-day functioning. The best way to overcome this, as supported by research, is to address the underlying issues driving your behaviours, as opposed to focusing on the sexual nature of them.

And be honest with yourself. For example, for someone who is content in pursuing new sexual partners, perhaps monogamous marriage is not the best idea for him. For those who do choose monogamy, partners should be on the same page with regards to the frequency and the kind of sex they prefer. Those with porn use problems should seek more effective ways of coping with stress and anxiety. Counselling with a mental health professional might also be helpful when working through these problems.

Every man I’ve spoken to tells me that being hypersexual has caused him to feel shameful about himself and to question his self-worth. We, as a society, should undertake to stop stigmatizing sex, because this stigmatization leads to unnecessary suffering in the dark. It hinders our ability to have open discussions about what is really going on beyond what we see on the surface.

Debra W. Soh is a sex researcher, neuroscientist, and freelance writer at York University in Toronto, Canada. Her writing has been featured in Harper’s, Men’s Health, and many others

* all names have been changed

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