Substance abuse and risky sexual behavior are often looked at as two sides of the same coin. People may combine alcohol or drug use with sex-focused activities like going to a strip club or hooking up with someone they meet at a bar or party. The brain’s reward center then reinforces the desire to continue engaging in these behaviors—the substance use and sex—linking them as actions that feel good and should be repeated. Substance use and sex addiction can quickly become a cycle.
For some, substance abuse can be linked to something beyond just risky sexual behavior—sex addiction. Sex addiction, or compulsive sexual disorder, is when a person is so fixated on seeking out sexual pleasure that it interferes with their relationships, health, work, and quality of life. But what exactly is the link between substance abuse and sex addiction?
What is a Sex Addict?
A sex addict is a person with a compulsive sexual disorder, also called hypersexual disorder. While sex addiction is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, compulsive sexual disorder is when a person develops problematic sexual behavior that could manifest as excessive masturbation, porn addiction, frequent sexual encounters with consenting adults, cybersex, phone sex, or other activities that revolve around sex.
Sex addicts may feel a compulsive need for sexual arousal and stimulation, despite negative consequences like contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) and damaged personal or professional relationships. The person may feel guilty or depressed after they give into their sexual urges, and it can feel impossible for them to control their behavior. Often, they hide their sexual compulsions from loved ones and try to keep their sexual habits a secret.
A sex addict may seem obsessed with sex because in a way they are obsessed. However, as with other addictions, it is probable that the release of the feel-good hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins linked to orgasm and sexual encounters no longer have the same impact for a person with a sex addiction. In other words, for a sex addict, having sex has lost the excitement and pleasure it once had and has become a compulsive urge that they have to deal with—not a fun activity they engage in to relax or connect with a romantic partner.
How Substance and Sex Addiction are Linked
Getting drunk and hooking up with strangers is a common enough scenario for many people and is something you see in movies and on TV. The link between substance abuse and sex addiction can begin that, simply, you drink alcohol or use drugs and find someone to hook up with or feel aroused and seek sexual satisfaction. But as the substance abuse gets worse, the sexual behavior may also get worse. You might begin to drink every night of the week, and that could also mean you have sex with a different person every night of the week. The behaviors could become an unhealthy cycle, each addiction making the other worse and more ingrained.
In terms of a more direct link between substance abuse and sex addiction, there may be an overlap and a cyclical pattern happening as substance abuse can lead to more risky or more frequent behavior, which could then lead to addiction. Drinking alcohol or using drugs could coincide with having sex, and then the feelings of guilt or remorse after sex could lead the person to use alcohol or drugs to numb the painful emotions. This could certainly become a messy cycle of one compulsive, addictive behavior fueling the other. From another angle, a person in the depths of drug addiction might start having sex or using sex as a way to support their drug use, exchanging sex for money or the substance of abuse.
Substance use disorders are related to behavioral addictions like sex addiction because they both affect the reward center of the brain and can be a form of “self-medication.” For many people who struggle with substance abuse, there are underlying mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder that lead them to use drugs and alcohol to manage difficult emotions. Likewise, people with a sex addiction are often using sex to deal with depression, stress, anxiety, or past traumas that they are struggling to heal from or manage on their own. The secrecy surrounding the undesirable behavior—whether its drug or alcohol use or sexual activities—is the same for both addictions, and the inability to control the behavior despite negative consequences is another factor that makes both addictions similar.
Treating Both Addictions
Whatever way sex and substance addiction begin, specialized treatment can help. When an individual struggles with both, they are considered co-occurring disorders, meaning that treating sex addiction could cause substance use to flare up and vice versa. In these cases, both disorders should be treated together.
A dual diagnosis program can treat co-occurring sex and substance addiction for a person struggling with two addictive disorders when they enter treatment. In some cases, the secondary disorder may not be apparent until treatment begins, as the treatment providers begin to uncover the layers of addiction and corresponding unhealthy behaviors. In a dual diagnosis program, the therapists and other behavioral health staff will have experience in treating a range of addictive disorders simultaneously to offer the individual the greatest chance at recovery.
Addressing the underlying issues that caused the addiction to develop is key to treatment for substance abuse and sex addiction. Establishing healthier coping mechanisms for stress and offering tools to draw on when facing triggers in recovery are also critical to a successful treatment program.
Most of all, finding a treatment program that will cater to your individual needs with one-on-one counseling sessions and a range of modalities is the ideal setting to begin recovering from addiction. Just as no two people have the same experience with substance abuse or sex addiction, no two people will have the same needs in recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with sex addiction, substance abuse or both, reach out to us at DreamLife Recovery to see how we can help you!