Compulsive sexual behavior is sometimes called hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, nymphomania or sexual addiction. It’s an obsession with sexual thoughts, urges or behaviors that may cause you distress or that negatively affects your health, job, relationships or other parts of your life.
Compulsive sexual behavior may involve a commonly enjoyable sexual experience (for example, self-stimulation) that becomes an obsession and becomes disruptive or harmful to you or others.
Other compulsive sexual behaviors are outside the bounds of commonly accepted conduct (for example, paying for sex or having extramarital affairs) and cause distress. And these behaviors could have negative consequences.
No matter what it’s called or the exact nature of the behavior, untreated compulsive sexual behavior can damage your self-esteem, relationships, career and other people. But with treatment and self-help, you can manage compulsive sexual behavior and learn to manage your urges.
Compulsive sexual behavior symptoms vary in type and severity. Some indications that you may be struggling with compulsive sexual behavior include:
- Your sexual impulses are intense and feel as if they’re beyond your control
- Even though you feel driven to do certain sexual behaviors, you may or may not find the activity a source of pleasure or satisfaction
- You use compulsive sexual behavior as an escape from other problems, such as loneliness, depression, anxiety or stress
- You continue to engage in sexual behaviors that have serious consequences, such as the potential for getting or giving someone else a sexually transmitted infection, the loss of important relationships, trouble at work, or legal problems
- You have trouble establishing and maintaining emotional closeness, even if you’re married or in a committed relationship
When to see a doctor:
Seek help if you feel like you’ve lost control of your sexual behavior, especially if your behavior causes problems for you or other people. Compulsive sexual behavior may escalate over time, so get help when you first recognize there may be a problem.
As you decide whether to seek professional help, ask yourself:
- Can I manage my sexual impulses?
- Am I distressed by my sexual behaviors?
- Is my sexual behavior hurting my relationships, affecting my work or resulting in negative consequences, such as getting arrested?
- Do I try to hide my sexual behavior?
Seeking help for a sexual behavior can be difficult because it’s such a deeply personal matter. Try to:
- Set aside any shame or embarrassment and focus on the benefits of getting treatment.
- Remember that you’re not alone — many people struggle with compulsive sexual behavior. Mental health providers are trained to be understanding and discreet. But not all mental health providers are experienced in treating compulsive sexual behavior, so make sure you find a therapist who is competent in this area.
- Keep in mind what you say to a doctor or mental health counselor is kept confidential, except in cases where you report that you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, you report sexual abuse of a child, or you report abuse or neglect of someone in a vulnerable population.
Seek immediate treatment if:
- You think you may cause harm with uncontrolled sexual behavior
- You have bipolar disorder or other problems with impulse control, and you feel like your sexual behavior is slipping out of control
- You are suicidal — if you’re thinking of attempting suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number
Causes, although the causes of compulsive sexual behavior are unclear, they may include:
- An imbalance of natural brain chemicals. Certain chemicals in your brain (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine help regulate your mood. High levels may be related to compulsive sexual behavior.
- Conditions that affect the brain. Certain diseases or health problems may cause damage to parts of the brain that affect sexual behavior. Epilepsy, Huntington’s disease and dementia have all been associated with compulsive sexual behavior. In addition, treatment of Parkinson’s disease with some dopamine agonist medications may cause compulsive sexual behavior.
- Changes in brain pathways. Compulsive sexual behavior may be an addiction that, over time, might cause changes in the brain’s neural circuits — the network of nerves that allows brain cells to communicate with one another. These changes may cause pleasant reactions by engaging in sexual behavior and unpleasant reactions when the behavior is stopped.
Compulsive sexual behavior can occur in both men and women, though it’s more common in men. It can also affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation — whether heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
Compulsive sexual behavior may occur in people who have:
- Alcohol or drug abuse problems
- Another mental health condition, such as a mood disorder (depression or bipolar disorder), or a gambling addiction
- A history of physical or sexual abuse