Women with Sex Addiction: Observations in Recovery

Standing woman looks out windowIt has been more than 30 years since Dr. Patrick Carnes published his book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, which introduced the concept of sexual addiction. One working definition of sexual addiction is a pathological attachment to a mood-altering experience of sex.

At that time, the focus was almost entirely on males who were addicted to sex. But new ground was already being broken. When I first met Jennifer Schneider—an Arizona psychiatrist—in the early 90s, she and a colleague had recently completed a book about couples recovering from sexual addiction.

Schneider and her colleague obtained detailed information about married females who were addicted to sex. Twenty-four women and 17 husbands were interviewed by telephone; 7 of the male spouses declined to take part in the survey. The findings were provocative back then, but they are confirmed by my own clinical observations over the years.

Gender Differences in Sex Addiction

Unlike the majority of men with sex addiction, most women are aware of their codependency when they initially begin therapy with me—either alone or with a partner. Codependency can be briefly described as looking outside oneself to other people in order to define self-worth.

This makes the early stages of recovery particularly difficult for women who are sexually compulsive. Initially, a period of abstinence is important in order to learn to maintain sexual boundaries. But that requires being able to say no without it affecting self-worth. As one woman in therapy put it, “I don’t want to deprive him or drive him to look elsewhere for sex!”

I find that is rarely a problem for a man choosing a period of abstinence. Unfortunately, this culturally learned gender difference makes it much more difficult to rebuild marriages in which the wife is sexually compulsive. Females with sex addiction often feel alone and unsupported as they work toward recovery.

Steps for Women in Recovery

In order to appreciate the complicated nature of sex addiction for women, it’s important to recognize how terrifying psychological isolation can be. One woman told me, “I feel ashamed that I feel lonely even in my marriage, like something in me is broken and defective.”

Consequently, women in recovery benefit most from a combination of supportive individual therapy and group experience, both 12-step and therapist-led. In 12-step meetings such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), participants share experiences, strength, and hope. In her book, Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction, author Kelly McDaniel lists some of the numerous benefits:

  • A sense of belonging
  • Seeing and being seen
  • Having a voice
  • Supporting others when they have a turn to speak
  • Giving and receiving comfort when life is painful

You may not be able to heal your brain alone, and the brain usually doesn’t function at its best capacity when you are isolated. Therapy can provide a trusting relationship and a healthy context for healing.Healing relationships requires healing the mind and the lifelong patterns that have shaped responses to the people closest to you. When your mind is fearful, you may have problems trusting or acting outside of your truest morals and values. Women with sex addiction may have difficulty being their best selves, and many of their sexual behaviors may have fallen outside their value system.

Healing your life also means healing your brain, and this may require professional support. Sexual addiction thrives in isolation. You may not be able to heal your brain alone, and the brain usually doesn’t function at its best capacity when you are isolated. Therapy can provide a trusting relationship and a healthy context for healing. McDaniel makes these suggestions for being a careful consumer when you’re ready to find a therapist:

  • Consider finding a professional who understands brain chemistry, the effects of trauma, and the subsequent need for an addiction.
  • Look for a therapist who understands sex addiction and can guide you through the process of designing a treatment plan that will best address your particular situation.
  • Most important, your therapist must be able to facilitate a relationship with you that is collaborative and respectful. If you feel awkward in your first session, listen to your intuition. Trust your heart to be your guide in finding the right professional.

Women experiencing sex addiction today have a much greater chance of finding a caring and well-trained professional than their mothers may have had. You owe it to yourself to find the best help possible.


  1. Carnes, P. (2001). Out of the shadows: Understanding sexual addiction (3rd ed.). Center City, MN: Hazelden.
  2. McDaniel, K. (2008). Ready to heal: Women facing love, sex, and relationship addiction (2nd ed.). Carefree AZ: Gentle Path Press.
  3. Schneider, J., & Schneider, B. (1989). Rebuilding trust: For couples committed to recovery. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jill Denton, LMFT, CSAT, CSE, CCS, Sexuality / Sex Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • patsy

    December 10th, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    Like so many other people obviously I thought that this was solely a male issue. I have not evr given that much thought to how it can be a part of the female experience as well.

  • Marette

    December 11th, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    I think that women, when they engage in behavior like this, are looking for something deep and profound in their lives that they have come to feel like is missing.
    I think that they are searching for love when they have never felt it or a way to fill a void in their lives if there is something missing.’I just think that the Reasoner behind the behavior is probably very different than that of men.

  • Verona

    December 11th, 2015 at 1:00 PM

    I would love to know how willing a man would be to stick with his partner after a revelation like this.

  • Steven A

    December 13th, 2015 at 7:15 AM

    I am pretty sure that this must not be the most common thing to occur because frankly, I have never heard of any woman needing to have sex as much as a man does. Nor do I think that I have ever known one who even thinks about it as much as most men do.

  • Rafael

    December 14th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    another issue that I just thought about with this issue is that while many women know that it is wrong and that this is unhealthy behavior, most men with this addiction just think that this is what it means to be an average male with healthy needs

  • Shelley

    December 16th, 2015 at 11:27 AM

    Can I just say here that I am so glad that this subject is being brought up? I think that there has always been this misconception that no woman would care enough about sex to ever be an addict but that is simply not true. This is something that I have struggled with myself for some years now, from online porn usage to hooking up with men that I barely even knew. It has torn me apart, totally wrecked anything good that I veer thought about myself or that anyone else did either. I still struggle with these urges and desires, and attending meetings helps, but I know that I still have quite a lot of work ahead of me if I ever choose to be free from this.

  • Frances

    December 17th, 2015 at 11:29 AM

    I can imagine that this could be a very lonely recovery for women

  • Ian

    January 18th, 2017 at 11:40 AM

    Forgive late comment. But I have a friend who has suffered with this addiction. She was sexually abused as a teen, which planted the seeds of fear and self hate. Her behaviors matched the list above, destroying marriages, losing children in divorce, and leaving her homeless. She is now beginning to find herself, her voice, and her confidence. I’m just glad I can be there to support and love her through it.
    Men especially can miss the nature of this addiction, since it fits a fantasy of a sexualized woman who is always available. But that’s not how our mind and spirit works. We need real, honest and permanent connections with others to survive. Keep loving her, in truth and compassion.

  • Jill Denton

    January 18th, 2017 at 1:27 PM

    Well said, Ian. Male allies like you are real treasures. Thanks for your compassionate wisdom!

  • diem

    April 17th, 2021 at 8:33 AM

    i just realized my wife of 14yrs is a sex addict, quite a devastating discovery i must say. I’m thinking of dumping her as she sorts our her mess. I feel sick of the decption and lies through the years.

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