It is normal to feel uncertain about this question. Addictions are partly self-defined; especially “process” addictions like gambling, food and sex addiction. Doctors and therapists don’t go out of their way to look for sex addicts. If someone comes to me for sex addiction help it is because they suspect that they are having a problem with some sexual behavior that is out of control or is causing serious problems. A sex addiction therapist may help them decide if that is true and can evaluate other possible causes or co-occurring condition. The official criteria and categories of sex addiction may help in the beginning.
But even after a person has sought help or support groups for sex addiction, they may continue to wonder if they really are a bona fide sex addict. This is so common as to be a predictable occurrence at some point in recovery.
Someone who has serial affairs or who has a habit of watching a lot of internet pornography may find him or herself sitting in an SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) meeting next to a person who did jail time for viewing child porn or who compulsively visits prostitutes or who exposes himself on buses. The behaviors of addicts are so varied that it invites comparison. “Am I really the same as him? Surely my problem is qualitatively different and less serious!”
Doubt is not the same as denial or minimization (although these can be involved as well.) Other things can cause a person to wonder whether they should define themselves as a sex addict.
Sex addiction may not be the “primary” addiction
Many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts have a tendency to use sex as a substitute drug. Even if they recognize they are doing this they may discount it as secondary to or a product of their chemical dependency. See also my post on alcoholics and sex addiction
This tendency to discount sexual issues is especially common when there is an “addiction interaction”. This is the situation where addicts have more than one addiction (and a great many do) and where the two interact in various possible ways. A sex addict may use drugs as a part of a ritual prior to sexual acting out or as a way to numb the shame afterward.
Addictions may be fused with other addictions
When two or more addictions are only engaged in at the same time (drinking always goes with seeing prostitutes, drugs are always involved with gambling and sexual acting out) they are said to be “fused”. This makes it very hard to identify one addiction as the primary one and so the addict may go from one program to another or feel confused as to why they cannot see any change. When different addictions lead back to one another then the addict must quit all of them at the same time if at all possible.
Sexual acting out may not be continuous
When we think of a compulsive behavior we think of the person as seeking it constantly. Sometimes this is the case and sometimes not. There are many sex addicts who have a pattern of intermittent acting out with “down time” between their episodes of sexual acting out. The period between acting out may be caused by remorse, or it may just be that the cravings for that behavior do not return as powerfully right away.
This episodic pattern can be of any length. And during the periods between acting out, the addict may think they are in good recovery. Therapists look for a situation in which the addict can go a week, a month or even several months without acting out and then relapse, almost like clockwork. This is like the smoker who claims he can quit because he’s done it hundreds of times. They seem to have some control and can quit for a particular period of time—just not for good.
Also it is not unusual for sex addicts in the first year or two of recovery to get totally turned off to sex. This is a swing to the opposite extreme of sexual anorexia but does not represent real sexual sobriety.
The person who can sexually “act out” in moderation
There are probably some people who engage in secret, illicit or even risky sexual behaviors but who really are using the behavior as an occasional escape, and one over which they have a lot of control. It is hard to say how many such people there are but I suspect there are a lot given the current prevalence of porn use, cyber sex, and sexual hook-ups (not to mention infidelity). These people would probably not show up in a sex addiction clinic. But the dividing line is such that those behaviors engaged in by someone who really is an addict will eventually lead to more frequent, more destructive or more serious sexual acting out behavior.