What Role Does Impulsivity Play in Sex Addiction?


Unusually impulsive sexual behavior is a common but not universal feature of sex addiction in men, according to new research findings from a group of American and Canadian scientists.

Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term impulsivity to refer to the human tendency to act without taking the time to consider the consequences of action. Some adults have relatively low levels of involvement in this tendency, while others often act in impulsive ways. In a study review published in March 2015 in the journal Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, researchers from three U.S. institutions and two Canadian institutions assessed the role that sex-related impulsive behavior plays in cases of sex addiction found in men. These researchers concluded that some men affected by sex addiction display sexually impulsive behavior, while others do not.

Sex Addiction

Sex addiction is one of the most common terms for a form of non-substance-related behavioral addiction that centers on a dysfunctional use of sexual fantasy, sexual thought and/or sexual activity. Essentially equivalent terms for the same life-disrupting problem include sexual addiction, hypersexuality, compulsive sexual behavior and hypersexual disorder. One of the underlying reasons for the use of so many terms is a lack of a single definition for sex addiction in the U.S. The American Psychiatric Association (popularizers of the term hypersexual disorder) came close to creating a standard definition in 2013, but ultimately failed to do so.

Whatever the name used to describe it, sex addiction has features that include the use of sexual activity, thought or fantasy as an inappropriate coping mechanism for unwanted feelings or problems; an inability to limit the amount of time spent on sexual activity, thought or fantasy; a preoccupation with sex in non-sexual situations; exposure to clearly negative personal or social outcomes associated with sexual activity, thought or fantasy; and continued inappropriate or excessive involvement in sexual activity, thought or fantasy after exposure to clearly negative outcomes. Some affected individuals have problems related to one form or avenue of sexual expression, while others have problems related to multiple forms or avenues of expression.

Sexually Impulsive Behavior

Some mental health professionals believe that sex addiction and other forms of behavioral addiction have their roots in an unusual ability to control impulsive behavior, as well as a corresponding inability to control compulsive behavior. Broadly speaking, impulsive behavior is behavior marked by a lack of adequate forethought, while compulsive behavior stems from rigid, repetitive adherence to a conscious or unconscious set of rules or beliefs. People who act impulsively commonly have pleasure-seeking as a goal, while people who act compulsively commonly seek to avoid some sort of harm. A sexually impulsive person would put sex-related pleasure before other considerations in a range of circumstances, and thereby repeatedly experience exposure to unwanted or undesirable sex-related consequences.

Impulsivity and Sex Addiction

In the study review published in Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, researchers from the University of California Los Angeles, Harvard Medical School, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Canada’s Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and University of Ottawa used data from a large number of previously conducted studies to explore the role that sexually impulsive behavior plays in cases of sex addiction affecting men. (Women also develop the condition, although it often has gender-specific symptoms and social manifestations.) The researchers undertook their work, in part, in response to the current lack of an official definition for the disorder in the U.S. and Canada.

After completing their review, the researchers preliminarily concluded that studies of sexual impulsivity have largely focused on specific manifestations of impulsive behavior, not impulsive behavior as a whole. They also concluded that, for any affected person, impulsive tendencies may interact with compulsive tendencies to produce a “push-pull” situation that leads to unusual involvement in pleasure- or sensation-seeking behavior. In addition, the researchers concluded that some affected individuals may have a general involvement in unusually impulsive behavior, while others may have a more specific or limited involvement in sex-related impulsivity. Overall, the researchers concluded that some men who seek help for sex addiction appear to act in unusually impulsive ways, while other men who seek help for the condition do not typically act impulsively.

The review’s authors emphasize the lack of a single working definition for sexual impulsivity or an understanding of how such impulsivity impacts the behavior of people involved in dysfunctional patterns of sexual thought, behavior or fantasy. They point toward a need for further research to resolve these issues.

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