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Sex Addicts More Impulsive, Study Finds

People affected by sex addiction have a form of non-substance-based behavioral addiction that centers on compulsive and harmful involvement in sex-related conduct, thinking or fantasy. Alternative terms used to describe the same condition include hypersexuality and compulsive sexual behavior. In a study published in August 2014 in the journal Dual Diagnosis, researchers from two U.S. universities sought to determine if men with sex addiction have an unusual tendency toward impulsive behavior. The researchers also sought to determine if men with sex addiction experience impairment of a group of critical mental skills known collectively as executive function.

Sex Addiction

As a rule, behavioral addiction occurs when an affected individual repeatedly engages in a normally harmless, non-substance-related pleasurable activity and subsequently undergoes lasting chemical changes in a part of the brain called the pleasure center. In addition to having sex, activities identified as potential factors in the development of such an addiction include eating high-fat or high-sugar foods, shopping, using the Internet and gambling at physical locations or online. Common symptoms of a behavioral addiction include an inability to control participation in the activity in question, preoccupation with the activity while doing other things, use of the activity as a means of escaping unpleasant feelings or situations, exposure to clearly negative consequences as a result of activity participation and continued participation in the aftermath of strongly negative outcomes. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), a group responsible for producing widely accepted definitions for addiction and mental health issues in the U.S., has not set criteria for the diagnosis of sex addiction. In fact, as of 2014, the APA has only set criteria for a single behavioral addiction, known officially as gambling disorder. However, doctors and researchers have known for some time that a small but significant minority of people clearly establish dysfunctional patterns of sex-related thought and behavior. Some of these dysfunctional patterns are based on common and widespread sexual practices, while others are based on less accepted and/or illegal sexual practices.


Impulsive behavior is quite common in children and adolescents. As adulthood approaches and the final stages of brain development begin, most people experience an age-appropriate decline in their level of impulsivity. However, for a number of reasons, some adults retain an unusual amount of impulsivity and have an increased tendency to act without thinking or considering the consequences of their behavior. Mental health issues associated with a high impulsivity level in adulthood include personality disorders, bipolar disorders and diagnosable problems with drugs or alcohol.

Executive Function

Psychologists use the term executive function to describe a set of higher-level mental skills that originate in childhood but only reach their fully developed form in the early stages of adulthood. Examples of these skills include the ability to think logically, the ability to consider past experiences when making decisions about the future, the ability to exercise situation-appropriate behavioral control and the ability to readjust behavior in response to negative outcomes.

Link to Sex Addiction

In the study published in Dual Diagnosis, researchers from Wheaton College, the University of North Texas and a private counseling practice used a project involving a group of hypersexual men to explore the connection between sex addiction, high levels of impulsivity and impaired executive function. All of the men involved in the project were seeking treatment for their sex-related problems and had results on a screening tool called the Hypersexual Behavior Inventory that indicated the presence of sex addiction. The researchers gave the participants a test called the Iowa Gambling Tool, normally used to identify decision-making impairments and impulsive behaviors in the context of gambling disorder. Each participant also took a second well-known test called the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale. A second group of men unaffected by sex addiction took these same tests. After comparing the testing results of the two groups, the researchers concluded that the men affected by sex addiction had Iowa Gambling Tool results that indicated an unusual inability to modify behavior to fit changing circumstances. They also concluded that the men affected by sex addiction had Barratt Impulsiveness Scale scores that indicated the presence of an unusually high amount of adult impulsivity. In light of these findings, the study’s authors concluded that men with symptoms of sex addiction have executive function problems that substantially increase their likelihood of acting in impulsive ways.

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