An estimated three to six percent of people in Ireland experience sexual addiction. It affects both men and women and typical behaviors include compulsive masturbation, persistent use of pornography, exhibitionism, voyeurism, extreme acts of lewd sex, and the failure to resist sexual impulses but women in particular are thought to be under-represented in seeking help for sex addiction because of the stigma and shame they may feel about it. In fact, a third of all sex addicts are women.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine describes addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory, and related circuitry.” A person with sexual addiction is obsessed with sex or has an abnormally intense sex drive. Their thoughts are dominated by sexual activity, to the point where this affects other activities and interactions. If these urges become uncontrollable, the person can have difficulty functioning in social situations.
In some cases, a person with a healthy and enjoyable sex life may develop an obsession. They may find themselves stimulated by acts and fantasies that most people do not consider acceptable.
Women probably have an extra layer of shame if they are addicted to sex, or even in relation to sex in general. It’s still something of a taboo to be a woman who needs, or even just likes, sex. Fictional sex addicts, like those seen on the show Desperate Housewives, and in the recent films Shame and Thanks for Sharing, are almost always men. So it is perhaps not surprising that research about sex addiction among women is scarce.
One of the only studies focusing specifically on female sex addicts was published just last year, and it has some surprising findings: For one, exposure to pornography as a child was a stronger predictor of hypersexual behavior than sexual abuse as a child. Prior to that, the one study that did include women (from 2003, which compared rates of sex addiction among males and females on a college campus) actually found that nearly twice as many women as men fell into the “needing further evaluation” and “at-risk” categories. But you won’t have any trouble finding research on female hypoactive sexual desire, also known as “low sex drive,” which is neatly consistent with societal norms about sex: that men want it all the time and women never do.
It seems as if the sexual double standard and stigma around female sexuality are spilling over onto science. This has created an enormous blind spot in the research on sex addiction, so almost all of the research has been conducted with men, while female sex addicts have largely been ignored—except by the clinicians who’ve been treating them for decades.
When women do seek help, they’re often too ashamed to identify their problem as sex addiction, or may not even realize that’s what the problem is, usually calling it “love addiction” or “relationship addiction” instead. While these other types of process addictions often co-occur with sex addiction, those labels are sometimes inaccurate to describe a woman’s actual experience.