NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, February 19, 2023

What Causes Out of Control Sexual Behavior?

Is Compulsive Sexual Behavior a "Sexual Addiction" or "Out of Control Sexual Behavior"?
The topic of compulsive sexual behavior (also known as hypersexuality) is a controversial topic in the mental health field because there are opposing views as to how to define it, what causes it and how to treat it. 

Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior in Individual Sex Therapy

Some mental health experts believe compulsive sexual behavior is a sexual addiction and others see it as out of control sexual behavior (see my article: Treating Sexual Compulsivity: Is It a Sexual Addiction or Out of Control Behavior?).

As I mentioned in my previous article, language matters, especially in the mental health field.  

In the interest of being transparent about my professional views as a sex therapist who is sex positive, I want to emphasize that I do not see compulsive sexual behavior as an addiction, and I believe psychotherapists and other healthcare practitioners do clients a disservice by labeling it as an addiction.  

In my professional opinion (and the opinion of many contemporary sexual therapists in the field), not only is labeling sexual compulsivity as an addiction harsh and shame-inducing, it's also counterproductive in terms of treating it.  

Unlike alcohol and drug misuse, people who engage in compulsive sexuality can't be expected to give up sex.  Rather than pathologizing compulsive sexual behavior, a sexual health approach is more effective when a sex therapist looks for the underlying issues for each individual rather than taking a one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter approach that is often found in sexual addiction treatment.

The main proponents of the Out of Control Sexual Behavior (OCSB) perspective are Doug Braun-Harvey, LMFT and Michael A.  Vigorito, LMFT who wrote Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction.  

Instead of viewing this behavior as an addiction, they see it as sexual behavior that is out of control.  In their view it's a sexual problem but not a sexual disorder or an illness.  This is an important distinction between the OCSB and the sexual addiction approaches.

Other proponents of the OCSB view, like Dr. Neil Cannon, see sexual compulsivity as being related to unresolved trauma, unresolved mental health issues, relationship issues and problematic habits.

Out of Control Sexual Behavior (OCSB) and Problems With Self Regulation
The Out of Control Sexual Behavior perspective is a newer concept as compared to the sexual addiction model.  

The term OCSB, as defined by Braun-Harvey and Vigorito, refers to problems with self regulation of consensual sexual thoughts, urges and behavior despite negative consequences where the thoughts, urges and behavior feel out of control to the individual (the emphasis on "consensual" means that the OCSB model isn't meant for nonconsensual urges which lead to criminal behavior, like sexual assault or rape, which is treated by specialists in the mental health field who work with offenders).

OCSB focuses on hard to control sexual thoughts, urges and behavior rather than seeing the problem as a diagnosis or clinical disorder.  When someone engages in OCSB, they find it difficult to stop when they try to stop.  

Assuming that the sexual behavior is consensual, feeling out of control doesn't necessarily mean that an individual is out of control.  It's a subjective experience, so what feels out of control can mean different things to different clients.  This means that clinicians need to explore how each client experiences their sexuality.

What's the Difference Between Enjoying Sex and Out of Control Sexual Behavior (OCSB)?
Sex between consenting adults is a normal part of adult life among people who enjoy sex. Consensual sex is meant to be an enjoyable and pleasurable part of life.  

Out of Control Sexual Behavior, on the other hand, isn't about pleasurable sex. It's also not determined solely by sexual frequency because many people have pleasurable and frequent consensual sex which isn't problematic.  

OCSB involves repetitive thoughts, urges or behavior that create negative consequences including (but not limited to):

Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior in Sex Therapy For Couples

  • An excessive preoccupation with sex that interferes with daily activities, including work, studying and other activities
  • Sexually inappropriate behavior on the job or in other areas of life, including sexual harassment or predatory behavior
What Causes Out of Control Sexual Behavior?
The causes of OCSB are not well understood and the sex therapy field could benefit from more research in this area.

Here are some of the current day hypotheses about what causes OCSB:

    OCSB and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Many mental health experts believe there is a correlation between OCSB and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  

However, this doesn't apply across the board to everyone with ADHD. 

Some people with ADHD experience hypersexuality, which is a very high sex drive and others experience hyposexuality, which is a very low sex drive or lack of interest in sex.  

Both hypersexuality and hyposexuality can cause problems in a relationship.  

Hypersexuality related to ADHD can also cause problems with 
  • Impulsive and compulsive sex 
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Unprotected sex
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Cheating on partners in both monogamous and consensually nonmonogamous relationships
  • Other related problems
It has been hypnothesized that the connection between OCSB and ADHD can be linked to:
  • A Need For Stimulation: Some people with ADHD have a strong need for stimulation which can lead to excessive urges for new and exciting sexual activities that lead to higher stimulation.
  • A Propensity For Risky Behavior: ADHD can involve an increased risk of sexually compulsive behavior as well as substance abuse.
  • Escapism: People with ADHD often use sex as a form of self-regulating behavior to escape or self-medicate for stress and anxiety.
A comprehensive psychological assessment by a psychologist or a knowledgeable psychiatrist is necessary to either diagnosis ADHD or rule it out.

Currently, children who exhibit ADHD symptoms can be evaluated through their school psychologist and treated accordingly.

However, many adults with ADHD were not diagnosed when they were children because ADHD was either unrecognized or not understood, so many individuals with adult ADHD need to seek out their own assessment, diagnosis and treatment by ADHD mental health professionals.

    OCSB and Mood Disorders: Anxiety and Depression
Although many people with ADHD suffer with OCSB, not all OCSB involves ADHD.

Many people with anxiety or depression have problems managing their emotions, and they engage in hypersexuality as an attempt to regulate their emotions (see my article: Developing Skills to Manage Your Emotions).

They engage in hypersexuality as a way to seek temporary relief from their depressive or anxiety-related symptoms.  In those cases, what appears to be a sexual craving is often a maladaptive way of coping.

Hypersexuality can relieve symptoms related to the mood disorder, but since it only provides temporary relief, individuals with mood disorders will feel the urge to  be hypersexual again when their symptoms of anxiety or depression re-emerge.

    OCSB and Existential Anxiety
Existential anxiety is a dread or panic when an individual confronts the limitations of their existence.

Out of Control Sexual Behavior and Fear of Aging and Death

Dr. Daniel N. Watter, an existential psychologist and sex therapist, writes eloquently about the connection between men with existential anxiety and Out of Control Sexual Behavior in his book, The Existential Importance of the Penis.

Among other topics, Dr. Watter discusses how a fear of aging and death can precipitate uncharacteristic out of control sexual behavior among men.

Existential anxiety and Out of Control Sexual Behavior will be the topic of my next article.

Getting Help in Sex Therapy
Out to Control Sexual Behavior is treated in sex therapy because most other mental health professionals have no training or expertise in OCSB (see my article:  What is Sex Therapy?).

Sex Therapy is talk therapy. There is no physical exam, nudity or sex during sex therapy sessions (see my article: What Are the Most Common Misconceptions About Sex Therapy?).

Fear, shame and guilt often prevent people from getting help in sex therapy.  This is one reason why it's important to choose a sex therapist who has a sexual health perspective instead of an addiction or illness perspective.  

Understanding the unconscious underlying reasons for OCSB is key to achieving sexual health.

Whether the underlying issues involve anxiety, depression, ADHD, trauma, existential dread or other issues, once the underlying issues are discovered, a skilled sex therapist can help you to resolve these issues so you can have a pleasurable sex life without feeling out of control.

If you believe you're suffering with OCSB, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who is a sex therapist.

Taking the first step of contacting a sex therapist is often the most challenging, but it can also bring you a step closer to feeling in control and having a pleasurable sex life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.