How do you know if you or your loved one is addicted to sex or if they just have a high sex drive? This is one of the most common dilemmas facing people who fear their sexual behaviours are out of control. On the surface, there may seem to be little difference, but the processes underneath are very different.
A high sex drive is driven by testosterone and is experienced as a desire for sexual release whereas addiction is driven by dopamine and is experienced as a desire for escape and excitement. Addiction is also likely to escalate, needing greater and greater stimuli to reach the same level of intensity, whereas libido is more consistent and easily satisfied. Consider the average person who regularly views pornography. If your desire to view porn comes from your sex drive, then you’re unlikely to need to spend long online to reach satiation. Whereas if your desire arises from addiction, then you may find yourself spending many hours using porn and delaying satiation for as long as possible.
Another key difference is the psychological reward and function of the behaviour. For example, someone with a high sex drive who visits a massage parlour or sex worker is doing so primarily for the sexual reward. It will most likely be a positive experience that has met a sexual need. Whereas someone who has become addicted to these activities is likely to spend many hours researching the right place to go and many more hours afterwards either in regret or fantasy of the experience. And the sexual act itself may not have been particularly enjoyable. For someone with an addiction, the function of their behaviour is to avoid something difficult or painful in their every day life. It is not about sex at all, but about finding a way to escape. What’s more, someone who has become addicted, whether to porn or any other sexual activity, will frequently experience a strong desire to stop, or at least limit, their behaviours. But in spite of the consequences it’s having on their life, they can’t.
If you’re unsure if you’re addicted, or just have a high sex drive, the easiest way to find out is to stop for a while and see what happens. A period of abstinence can be very helpful for identifying your own natural libido, in a similar way that going on a diet can be helpful to recognise your appetite and get back in touch with what hunger feels like. If your sexual behaviours are driven by libido then you’ll probably experience spontaneous genital arousal and unwanted erections. But if you’re addicted, then you’re more likely to find yourself preoccupied with craving.
Ultimately it is craving that defines addiction. Craving is not the same as libido. Our libido tells us we’re in the mood for sex – we ‘want’ sex. Whereas addiction tells us we are desperate for sex – we ‘need’ it. Unfulfilled sexual desire is uncomfortable, but as any addict will tell you, unfulfilled craving is psychological hell.