Perhaps to begin this definition, it’s best to provide a definition of addiction in general, according to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is the standardized text and clinical reference used by psychologists and therapists across North America to diagnose their clients. The latest version of the DSM explains that the activation of the brain’s reward system is the key to drug abuse problems. Furthermore, although drugs and alcohol can have a physical and psychological addiction, it is possible to develop an addiction to other behaviors and any activity that become the sole focus of one’s life to the exclusion and detriment of other life-activities – such as sexual activity. According to the American Psychological Association, there is evidence that points to behaviors, such as gambling, having the same high, or rush in the brain, which is similar to the use of drugs. In that way, addictions can resemble the physiological symptoms that the use of drugs and alcohol might create.
According to Steve Sussman of the University of Southern California at Alhambra, an addiction to sex is a pattern of sexual behavior that is initially pleasurable but becomes unfulfilling, self-destructive, and that a person is unable to stop. Along with this is the experience of sexual compulsivity, which is the repetitive sexual behavior attempted to achieve a desired psychological state that results in negative consequences for the sexually addicted teen.
An addiction is often developing when sex is regarded as shameful, secretive, or abusive in the home. A teen sex addiction includes compulsive behavior, as described above, and an adolescent spends large amounts of time engaging in sexual-related activity to the point where he or she is neglecting social, academic, or familial responsibilities. As with the case of all addictions, there is a loss of control over one’s behavior. As a caregiver, you might find that an addiction is present for your teen if you see the following behavior:
- Obsessive thoughts about sex that disrupt functioning at school, home or at the work place.
- Inability to refrain from viewing pornography or engaging in sexual behavior
- Avoiding time with friends or other typical teen activities to instead spend time on the computer or have sexual encounters.
It’s important to note that teen sex addiction is not normally associated with a manic episode, which is a distinct period of elevated mood. Although mania can sometimes include hypersexuality, an addiction is considered to be an ongoing obsession with sex that needs its own specific treatment.
Sussman is the author of Sexual Addiction Among Teens: A Review, in which he points out that there are very few mental health services available for teens that suffer from sexual addiction. It’s common that those with teen sex addiction are seen in mental health treatment for other addiction-related problems. Sadly, according to the Sussman, there are no sexual addiction treatment service providers who focus on this disorder alone.
According to the Sexual Recovery Institute, 40 percent of adults who are now in recovery for sexual addiction began in their adolescence. However, Sussman also notes in his book several ways in which sexual addiction is different for teens than it is for adults. Some adults admit that a problem with sex actually began earlier in life. In some cases, this is due to child sexual abuse where sexual fantasy and obsession is a symptom of unresolved trauma. As a child moves into adolescence often any unresolved trauma becomes exacerbated and an obsession with sexuality might grow. Research indicates that individuals addicted to sex often come from families in which there was abuse. Specifically, one study indicated that 82% of sexually addicted adults were sexually abused as children.
If you see that your teen is experimenting with sex and showing the signs of an obsession, getting treatment is important! Excessive sexual activity can lead to unexpected pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the intensifying of any unresolved emotions. Seeking professional mental health treatment is important if the above signs are evident.
Sussman, S. (2007). Sexual Addiction among Teens: A Review. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 14(4), 257-278. doi:10.1080/10720160701480758
By Robert Hunt
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