How much sex is too much sex?
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I am fairly open about the fact that I am in recovery from sexual addiction, not only writing about it but talking about it in my other 12-step recovery programs when appropriate. (I have more than a decade of sobriety from both my chemical and sexual addictions.) As such, I am approached relatively often by people who are worried about their sexual behaviors, and whether they too might be sexually addicted. Usually they have two primary questions:
- How much sex do I have to have before I qualify as a sex addict?
- Does being sexually sober mean that you are celibate?
The latter question is relatively easy to answer. No, sexual sobriety does not mean perpetual celibacy; instead, sexual sobriety (similar to recovery from an eating disorder) is about learning to be sexual in healthy and life-affirming ways while eliminating compulsive, problematic and shame-inducing sexuality. (I will write an article on this topic in the near future.)
Answering the first question — how much sex is “too much”? — is more complicated, because there is not really an answer. In other words, there is no set amount or category of sexual activity that qualifies a person as being sexually addicted. Sexual addiction is not an issue of quantity or type. Rather, it’s determined by quality of life. To be blunt, asking how much sex or what sort of sex makes a person sexually addicted is a little bit like asking how many drinks or what kind of drinks makes a person alcoholic.
In reality, addiction (of all types) is determined by the following three factors:
- Preoccupation to the point of obsession with the substance or behavior. With sexual addiction, sexual fantasies and/or behaviors have taken over the person’s life, becoming the most important thing to that person, pushing other thoughts and activities to the side.
- Loss of control over use of the substance and/or behavior. With sexual addiction, this is typically evidenced by failed attempts to curtail or quit the sexual fantasies and/or behaviors. Often, sex addicts are able to stay away for a few days or even a few weeks, but then they feel stress or some other form of emotional discomfort and they return to sexual fantasy and activity as a way to “numb out” and not feel.
- Directly related negative life consequences. With sexual addiction, this typically involves some combination of the following: disintegrating relationships (romances, friendships, family ties); trouble at work or in school; declining physical health; issues with depression and/or anxiety; diminished self-esteem; sexualized shame; isolation; loneliness; financial issues; legal issues; loss of interest in other activities, etc.
If a person’s preoccupation/obsession, loss of control and negative consequences are present related to his or her sexual life (including fantasies), then he or she may be sexually addicted — regardless of how much sex he or she is (or is not) having, and regardless of the type(s) of sex that he or she is (or is not) having. In other words, if obsessive/compulsive sex is ruining a person’s life, then he or she is probably a sex addict. It doesn’t matter if that sex is solo or with other people, online or in-person, or whatever. In fact, for many sex addicts their “sexual activity” is purely fantasy — taking place entirely online and/or in the mind, with very little or no real-world sexual activity.
It is important to understand that addiction (sexual or otherwise) is not about partying and having a good time; it’s about escaping from life. Addicts drink, use, gamble, act out sexually, etc. not because they want to feel great, but because they want to feel less. In other words, the purpose of addiction is to not feel stress and emotional discomfort. Sometimes addicts start out seeking a good time, but by the time addiction sets in, the landscape has shifted and escape is the goal. Sex addicts call this state of disconnection either “the bubble” or “the trance,” fully recognizing that the purpose of their addiction is not to have an orgasm, it’s to avoid the experience of life on life’s terms.
In truth, orgasm often ends the dissociative high of sexual addiction. As such, actual sex (with self or others) is generally put off by sex addicts for as long as possible – sometimes for days on end. Knowing this, we can clearly see that SEXUAL ADDICTION IS NOT ABOUT THE SEX. Instead, as with other addictions, it’s about emotional and psychological escape – the preoccupation and fantasy that keeps the addict from feeling and experiencing his or her emotions. As such, sex addicts can have a lot of sex or very little sex and neither is definitive in terms of diagnosing the addiction.