Sex addiction recognised as mental health condition by World Health Organisation

Amie Sparrow
By Amie Sparrow,
updated on Jan 20, 2023

Sex addiction recognised as mental health condition by World Health Organisation

The formal recognition could help millions of people get NHS treatment for compulsive sexual behaviour disorder

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has formally recognised sex addiction as a mental health condition, which may pave the way for people with compulsive sexual behaviour disorder to get treated under the NHS.

Sexual addiction, or compulsive sexual behaviour disorder, is not currently recognised as an illness, and until recently, some argued that the addiction wasn’t even real.

“The WHO classification will mean that now, having guidelines and having a name will begin to help take away the shame of coming forward,” Counselling Directory member and Vice Chair of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity ATSAC Ian Baker said. “It’s saying it’s something that is serious and not to be laughed at. It’s evolving into a healthy debate.”

“What they have done with the latest review is to start defining how we should start working with assessment, which is all the stuff we already do. You don’t just say you’re a sex addict because you watch an hour of porn a day. I’m not here to say masterbation is wrong, or fetishes are wrong, because someone’s sexual identity is important. It’s the way you assess someone to help them overcome, what for them, is a problem.”

Ian explains that assessing sex addiction isn’t as simple as a person saying they watch a certain amount of porn or masterbate frequently. “It’s how it is affecting other parts of your life. Are you dropping your friends? Are you not picking up your kids because of this? Are you using it to manage low mood or anxiety? It isn’t walking in and saying ‘you’re sleeping with sex workers - you’re a sex addict.’”

A person can get in trouble with their partner for watching porn, Ian explained. They may be addicted to porn, but then after discussing it with a professional, sometimes they find that it was just a bad habit in the eyes of the other. “When they stop - and they can stop - you listen and you hear there’s nothing here that’s out of control and there's nothing identifiable in the cycle of addiction. They realise the values conflict with their partner’s and they stop.”

What is compulsive sexual behaviour disorder?

The WHO defines sex addiction as “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges resulting in repetitive sexual behaviour.”

What are the symptoms of compulsive sexual behaviour disorder?

“Symptoms may include repetitive sexual activities becoming a central focus of the person’s life to the point of neglecting health and personal care or other interests, activities and responsibilities; numerous unsuccessful efforts to significantly reduce repetitive sexual behaviour; and continued repetitive sexual behaviour despite adverse consequences or deriving little or no satisfaction from it,” according to the WHO.

How do I know if I have compulsive sexual behaviour disorder?

“The pattern of failure to control intense, sexual impulses or urges and resulting repetitive sexual behaviour is manifested over an extended period of time (e.g., six months or more), and causes marked distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Distress that is entirely related to moral judgments and disapproval about sexual impulses, urges, or behaviours is not sufficient to meet this requirement,” the WHO report stated.

Counselling Directory member Ally Robertson, who specialises in sex addiction, explains that the relationship with sex is similar to that of alcohol and drugs addictions. “Just as people have pathological relationship with alcohol … people who have an addiction have a need. Research shows it increases dopamine levels in the brain in the same way alcohol and drugs do.”

Ally said that typically people will just assume a claim to have sex addiction is just an excuse to behave that way, but that assumption only makes the impact on people coming for help much more difficult. She said that most people coming to her for help with sex addiction often come in to talk about alcohol or drug problems before mentioning they have ‘other’ addictions, such as sex addiction, because of the difficulty talking about it. “To me it is an addiction like any other. And it’s a way for people to emotionally regulate themselves, to self-soothe. It’s actually not about the sex a lot of the time. It’s a lot more complex than that. It’s a bit of a secret addiction, which makes the shame for people a lot more.”

If you are concerned about your relationship with sex or the health and wellbeing or a loved one, visit Counselling Directory to find out more about the key symptoms of sex addiction.


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