Impulsive Sexual Behavior Linked to Separate Mental Health Disorders

People who act in sexually impulsive ways often have potentially diagnosable problems with at least one separate mental health issue, according to recent findings from a team of American and Israeli researchers. Frequent involvement in unusually impulsive sexual behavior is a potential indicator of the form of behavioral addiction known as sex addiction. In a study presented in March 2015 to the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine and Israel’s Tel Aviv University sought to determine how often sexually impulsive people have potentially diagnosable symptoms of one or more of a broad range of separately diagnosable mental health problems. These researchers concluded that separate mental health issues are quite common in individuals affected by impulsive sexual behavior.

Impulsive Sexual Behavior and Sex Addiction

A sexually impulsive person has a pronounced tendency to engage in sexual activity without stopping to consider the possible negative ramifications of that activity. Public health officials pay attention to sexual impulsivity because its potential consequences include the transmission of serious or life-threatening blood-borne illnesses, as well as unwanted pregnancies and systemic or localized sexually transmitted disease. Among other reasons, addiction specialists pay attention to sexual impulsivity because it may indicate the presence of sex addiction, a condition characterized by a pattern of damaging participation in sexual fantasy, sexual thought or real-world sexual behavior. Some sexually impulsive people engage in sexual behaviors that are broadly accepted in their communities. However, others engage in behaviors that violate specific laws or otherwise go beyond the limits of generally accepted behavior. If a sexually impulsive person repeatedly participates in illegal or unacceptable sexual behaviors, he or she may have a separately diagnosable condition known as a paraphilic disorder. Paraphilic disorders officially designated by the American Psychiatric Association include exhibitionistic disorder, voyeuristic disorder, pedophilic disorder, sexual masochism disorder and sexual sadism disorder. Whether an individual’s sexual behaviors are generally acceptable or not generally acceptable, he or she may have indications of sex addiction such as an inability to set and/or maintain firm limits on the time devoted to sexual behavior or sexual thought/fantasy, the use of sexual behavior or sexual thought/fantasy as a method of avoiding facing personal problems, engagement in sexual behavior or sexual thought/fantasy in clearly inappropriate circumstances and the incurring of serious social, work-related or personal harm as a consequence of sexual thought/fantasy or sexual behavior.

Diagnosable Mental Illness

Apart from behavioral addictions, the American Psychiatric Association maintains and distributes guidelines for the diagnosis of a vast range of mental health problems. Widely known examples of these problems include mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia-related disorders and substance use disorders (e.g., opioid use disorder, alcohol use disorder and stimulant use disorder). Certain numbers of symptoms must be present in an individual before a doctor officially identifies any of these conditions and recommends a course of treatment.

Overlap With Impulsive Sexual Behavior

In the study presented to the 2nd International Conference on Behavioral Addictions, the Yale University researchers and the Tel Aviv University researchers used data gathered from a large-scale project called the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) to help determine how often people who act in unusually sexually impulsive ways have diagnosable symptoms of separate mental health issues. All told, 34,653 men and women were included in the survey group. The researchers found that roughly 14.7 percent of the NESARC participants had indications of unusual sexual impulsivity. Men involved in the survey had substantially higher chances of acting in sexually impulsive ways than women. The researchers concluded that sexually impulsive people of both genders commonly have problems with some sort of separately diagnosable mental health issue, including various forms of depression and bipolar disorder, forms of anxiety disorder including social phobia (social anxiety disorder) and panic disorder, various forms of substance use disorder and all 10 forms of personality disorder (including antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, avoidant personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder). The study’s authors found that the risks for separately diagnosable mental illness in sexually impulsive women differ from the risks found in sexually impulsive men. Illnesses more typically associated with sexual impulsivity in women include alcohol use disorder, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and social anxiety disorder.

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