Since its inception, hypersexuality—also variously known as sexual compulsivity, problematic sexual behavior and “sex addiction”—has referred to a grab bag of various symptoms, including excessive masturbation and porn viewing, cheating constantly and frequent visits to sex workers and strip clubs. But what is hypersexuality, truly? Despite the fact that we hear so much about hypersexual behavior in the news (I’m looking at you, Scott Disick, Anthony Weiner and Ozzy Osbourne), sex researchers are still in the process of fully understanding what drives these behaviors.
Now, a new study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior aims to help explain why people are hypersexual, from the psychological, personality and sexuality perspectives. The online study recruited 510 self-identified hypersexual people (267 of whom were male) through Facebook, web-based self-help forums, sexual health clinics in Australia and research participation web sites for universities in the United States, Australia, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Participants were asked about demographic variables, like age and sexual orientation, and completed questionnaires about their personality, hypersexual behavior and psychiatric history (since hypersexuality is known to be a symptom of bipolar and borderline personality disorders).
What was particularly interesting was that the researchers asked about sexual excitation and sexual inhibition. Sexual excitation refers to how easily a person becomes sexually aroused, like after flirting or seeing a good-looking person on the street. Sexual inhibition refers to the tendency to become less aroused due to fears of performance failure (say, losing your erection during sex) or unwanted future consequences (like getting someone pregnant).
The study found that roughly 18 percent of the total sample showed signs of hypersexual behavior that was significant enough to warrant clinical concern. That’s one in five people (broken down into 63 men and 31 women). This was more commonly seen in men and those who were younger in age.
Regarding personality, hypersexuality was associated with higher levels in extraversion, neuroticism and impulsivity and lower levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. As for psychological and sexuality traits, depressed mood and anxiety were correlated with being hypersexual, as were being more easily sexually excited, and more sexually inhibited in some situations, but not others.
That is, hypersexual behavior was associated with both being turned on more easily and being turned off by thoughts of not performing well, but it was not associated with a fear that something bad could happen during or after sex. This last point may explain why people tend to be consumed by their hypersexual habits until serious consequences kick in. It will often take a health scare involving STIs, the end of an important relationship or being fired at work for someone to admit there is a problem.
If you or someone you know struggles with hypersexuality and wants to get help, the key thing to know is that therapy should involve looking at the root cause of behavior, instead of simply focusing on the sexual aspect of the problem. As I’ve said before, although out-of-control sexual behavior can interfere with a person’s life in real and meaningful ways, “sex addiction” isn’t a medically recognized disorder and treatment programs that revolve around this model have yet to produce any scientific research showing that they work.
Going back to the study’s findings, if you suffer from clinical depression or generalized anxiety, treating those underlying conditions will be your best bet. Anxiety can take the form of procrastination in order to avoid doing things we don’t enjoy, and sex and masturbation are ways in which such procrastination can manifest.
Of course, if the personality description above sounds like you, this isn’t necessarily a reason to be concerned. Based on what I’ve seen in my research studies on this subject, it’s not uncommon for men to use orgasms as a way to self-soothe and manage stress. The true sign that sex has veered from being healthy to problematic is when it begins to cause you harm or affects your day-to-day functioning.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.