Can Women Be Addicted to Sex?
Unfortunately, there is not yet a formalized process for identifying, diagnosing, and treating women who struggle with sexual addiction. Furthermore, there is precious little research on women who sexually act out. This deficiency is in part related to many addiction and mental health professionals failing to recognize the subtleties of addictive and impulsive behavior patterns in women. Basically, a male sex addict’s acting out typically takes easily recognizable, overtly sexual forms such as compulsive viewing of and masturbation to pornography, extramarital affairs, casual and/or anonymous sexual hookups, sensual massage, strip clubs, and use of prostitutes, whereas women sex addicts tend to report relationship-oriented issues. Nevertheless, female addicts do act out sexually, usually with the same frequency and many of the same consequences as male sex addicts.
Sexual addiction treatment specialists report that approximately 10 to 15 percent of people currently seeking assistance are women. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how many female sex addicts have sought treatment but not been properly diagnosed. This under-diagnosis stems not only from the aforementioned lack of diagnostic clarity regarding women sex addicts, but from our cultural bias toward sexual behavior. Essentially, in our society men who have a lot of sex are seen as “studs,” “ladies men,” and “players.” Hypersexual women, on the other hand, are oftentimes denigrated as “sluts,” “nymphos,” and “whores.” As such, women face greater humiliation and embarrassment related to their dysfunctional sexual behavior patterns, making them much less likely to admit to such a problem and seek help.
Complicating matters is the fact that women sex addicts are three times as likely as men to have a history of childhood/teen sexual abuse. Consequently, therapists often focus on resolving a woman’s past sexual trauma while not keeping an eye on the other end of the spectrum – her adult sexual conduct. Clinicians tend to be so trauma-focused that they forget (or are not trained) to look at adult behavior. Sometimes women opt to leave treatment altogether because they are continuing to act out sexually – and they are continuing to act out because the adult manifestations of their issues aren’t being addressed. Yes, childhood trauma must eventually be dealt with, but only after the current pattern of compulsive sexual fantasy and behavior is halted.
In essence, a man who has casual or anonymous sex multiple times per week who also uses masturbation as a way to dissociate and emotionally self-soothe is much more likely than a woman to self-identify as a sex addict if/when his behaviors begin to have serious consequences. Furthermore, he is likely to be identified as such in a therapeutic setting. Women that consistently seek love and affection in chat rooms, on Facebook, on dating sites, and on hookup aps, even though they may be having anonymous sex and masturbating as frequently as their male counterparts, are much less likely than men to self-identify as having a “sexual” problem. They also are far less likely than males to be identified and diagnosed as sexually addicted in treatment.
Typically, women sex addicts present with relationship-oriented complaints such as:
- A history of short, failed relationships where sex is the primary bond
- A pattern of inappropriate sexual relationships (i.e., with a boss or a married man)
- Consistently returning to or remaining with partners who are abusive, neglectful, and/or emotionally unavailable
- Consistently having sex as a means of feeling loved
- Engaging in multiple extramarital affairs
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Happily, both the lay public and the therapeutic community are gradually becoming more aware and accepting of sexual addiction in general and female sex addiction in particular. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of educational programs and trainings for therapists, gender separate sex and relationship 12-step meetings and therapy groups, and even gender-separate residential and outpatient treatment programs.