Sexual Addiction vs. Sexual Offending: Understanding the Differences

One of the primary issues that self-identified sex addicts must deal with is confusion about what sexual addiction really is (and is not). For starters, many people – not just the general public but clinicians – hear the phrase sexual addiction, and they immediately picture sexual offending. This misperception is compounded by the fact that sex offenders do sometimes try to use sexual addiction as an excuse for their bad behavior. Usually they do so not because they really are sexually addicted, but because they are hoping to lessen the consequences that they might eventually have to deal with. In an attempt to provide some clarity, basic definitions of sexual addiction and both legal and clinical sexual offending are:

  • Sexual addiction is preoccupation to the point of obsession with sexual fantasy and/or activity. The obsession persists for six months or more despite attempts to quit or curtail the sexual fantasies and behaviors, and despite directly related negative life consequences – disintegrating relationships, trouble at work or in school, declining physical and/or emotional health, financial woes, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, legal problems, etc. Common sex addict behavior patterns involve compulsive porn use, masturbation, casual sex, anonymous sex, webcam sex, sexting, affairs, prostitution (hiring and/or providing), etc. It is important to understand that sexual addiction is not about the pleasure of orgasm. Instead, sex addicts use the neurochemical intensity wrought by their addictive fantasies and behaviors as a means of escaping and dissociating from life stressors and other forms of emotional discomfort, including the pain of psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, unresolved childhood trauma, etc. (This is also why alcoholics drink and drug addicts use. Essentially, addicts of all types are not trying to feel better, they’re trying to feel less.)
  • The clinical definition of sexual offending is unrelated to sexual addiction. From a clinical standpoint, sexual offending occurs when a person engages in nonconsensual sexual activity. In other words, if the other person doesn’t consent or can’t consent to a particular sexual act (too young, extremely drunk/high, mentally handicapped, etc.), then a sexual offense has taken place.
  • The legal definition of sexual offending is also unrelated to sexual addiction, and at times it is unrelated to the clinical definition of sexual offending. Furthermore, the legal definition of sexual offending varies from one jurisdiction to the next. For instance, in US states the “age of consent” for sexual activity generally ranges from 16 to 18, with some states varying that age based on the age of the other person. And even in states with the same age of consent, the way in which violations of the statutes are viewed may differ significantly. The same exact behavior might be a serious felony in one state and a misdemeanor in another.

Are you confused yet? If so, you’re not alone. Think about this example: In California, where the age of consent is 18, a 20-year-old male has consensual sexual intercourse with his 17-year-old girlfriend after they’ve been dating for more than two years. From a clinical standpoint, this behavior probably does not qualify as sexual offending. From a legal standpoint, it does. But to what degree? In California, it depends on when exactly the young man and his girlfriend were born. If the young man is less than three years older than his girlfriend, it’s a misdemeanor; if he is even one day past three years older, it may or may not be a felony (at the discretion of legal authorities). Further muddying the waters is the fact that it is possible to be both sexually addicted and a sexual offender (clinically and/or legally). In fact, many sex addicts find that their behavior escalates over time, eventually entering the arena of sexual offending. Typically, these sexually addicted sex offenders start out with perfectly legal activities (masturbation to conventional porn, casual sex facilitated by hookup apps, mutual masturbation with consenting adults via webcam, etc.) Then, over time, as they “up the intensity” of their sexual fantasies and activities, they suddenly find that they’ve crossed the line into offending – having sex in public, engaging in exhibitionism or voyeurism, looking at illegal imagery, etc. We see the same type of escalation with other addictions. For example, heroin addicts rarely “shoot smack” right out of the gate. Instead, they start with alcohol or marijuana, escalating over time to larger quantities and/or harder drugs, until suddenly they find themselves with a needle in their arm and no idea how they got there. Sometimes sexually addicted sex offenders think/hope that they should get a break in terms of the consequences they face because they’re addicted and therefore can’t help themselves. This is misguided thinking. Sexual addiction is NEVER an excuse for bad behavior of any kind (regardless of whether that behavior has escalated into sexual offending). In fact, a primary facet of sexual addiction recovery is admitting what you’ve done and accepting the consequences, whatever they may be.

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