Sexual addiction is typically not a standalone issue. In fact, most sex addicts also deal with a secondary addiction. Sometimes these individuals are cross-addicted, other times they have a co-occurring addiction.
- Sex addicts who are cross-addicted switch from one addiction to another. For instance, an addict might alternate between acting out sexually and binge drinking. The addict uses porn, hookup apps, and the like until he or she feels so ashamed of those behaviors that he or she decides to stop. But then the addict starts drinking. And the drinking continues until the addict feels enough shame about that to put the bottle down. But then the compulsive sexual activity resumes. If the addict is not being sexual, he or she is probably drinking, and vice versa.
- Co-occurring addictions are when an addict engages in multiple addictions simultaneously. For instance, a sex addict might co-abuse drugs and addictive sex. For this addict, getting high is part of being sexual, and being sexual is part of getting high. One behavior quickly and almost inevitably leads to the other. If the addict is being sexual, he or she is probably also using, and vice versa.
As stated above, most sex addicts have a secondary addiction. In one large-scale study of sex addicts, 69% of heterosexual men, 80% of gay men, and 79% of women self-reported a cross or co-occurring addiction. Another similarly large study found that 58% of sex addicts reported issues with drug addiction and 31% reported issues with alcoholism. Struggles with compulsive spending (49%), eating disorders (47%), compulsive video gaming (37%), and compulsive gambling (29%) were also commonly reported.
Sex addicts aren’t the only addicts prone to secondary addictions. This is because all addicts, regardless of their primary addiction, be it drugs, alcohol, food, spending, gambling, gaming, sex, or anything else, share the same basic motivation. They want to numb out and not feel. In short, addicts of all types are trying to escape an uncomfortable emotional state—stress, depression, anxiety, shame, fear, loneliness, boredom, etc. And both addictive substances and behaviors oblige by altering brain chemistry in ways that temporarily distract them from whatever they are trying to avoid. As such, any addiction will do, as long as it provides sufficient emotional distraction and escape.
Admittedly, some addicts are purists. They stick with booze, or drugs, or sex, or whatever their addiction of choice happens to be, and they don’t mess with other potential addictions. But in today’s world, an addict’s primary addiction is usually just one piece of a larger addictive pattern. Sometimes multi-addicted people are described as “garbage cans users,” indicating they’ll ingest any substance or engage in any behavior that will temporarily take them away from their life and their problems.
Unfortunately, whatever the addiction(s), the results are always the same. Addicts experience compelling cravings for a substance or behavior, becoming preoccupied to the point of obsession with obtaining and using that substance or behavior. They lose control over their ability to not use and/or their ability to stop using that substance or behavior. And their use of that substance or behavior negatively impacts their relationships, families, careers, education, finances, psychological wellbeing, physical health, self-care, community standing, and more.
The fact that so many addicts are cross or co-addicted complicates the process of treatment and recovery. For instance, a cross or co-addicted sex and drug addict typically needs to recover from both addictions simultaneously. If this individual chooses to only address his or her sexual addiction, the continuing substance abuse will impair the addict’s sexual decisions, greatly increasing the chance of relapse. And if the addictions are heavily linked (co-occurring), using in one addiction will immediately and automatically trigger an overwhelming desire to use in the other.
For these reasons, sex addicts with a secondary addiction generally need to address the entirety of their addictive pattern instead of only looking at their sexual compulsivity (or only looking at the secondary addiction). Without addressing all of their addictions simultaneously, they may not establish recovery with any of those addictions.
For more information about sexual addiction and its interaction with other addictions, check out my recently published book, Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction. If you feel you need clinical assistance with sex addiction, therapist and treatment referrals can be found here and here. I also conduct an open-ended discussion about sex addiction at InTheRooms.com, Friday nights at 6 p.m. PST. For other addictions, treatment referrals can be found here.