Causes and Risk Factors for Sex Addiction

The exact cause for sex addiction is unknown. Possible causes include the following:

  • Abnormal levels of sex hormones (androgens) and chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters; e.g., dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin)
  • Brain abnormalities (caused by neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis [MS], dementia, and epilepsy/seizures, and medications, such as dopamine agonists used to treat Parkinson's disease)
  • Changes in nerve circuits in the brain (may result in abnormal physical reactions to sexual activity)

Childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, and mental abuse, increases the risk for sex addiction in adulthood. Severe neglect during childhood and emotional trauma (e.g., assault, rape) also can lead to an increased risk for developing addictions, including sex addiction.

Risk factors for sexual addiction are not well understood and somewhat controversial. Some studies have shown that victims of trauma, neglect, or abuse may have low levels of certain chemicals in the brain that affect how they experience pleasure. People with low levels of these chemicals (e.g., the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin) may have a higher risk for developing addictions than people with normal levels.

According to some mental health professionals, sex addiction may be related to other psychological disorders (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD]), other addictions (e.g., alcoholism, drug abuse), or other impulse control disorders (e.g., compulsive stealing [kleptomania], fire setting [pyromania], pathological lying or gambling). Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, also may be associated with sex addictions, especially in women.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 06 Jan 2009

Last Modified: 05 Oct 2015