Hypersexuality: A Symptom of Mental Illness No One Talks About

July 26th 2017

“Am I having sex with strangers? Yes. Constantly masturbating? Yes. Can I get myself to a place where I’m fully satisfied sexually? No. As much as I want to shop, buy, and make money, that’s as much as I want to have sex.”

This is what it's like to be bipolar and experience the symptom of hypersexuality.

At least, that's how Andy Behrman, author of the 2003 memoir, "Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania" described the condition to BP Hope, a online publication dedicated to bipolar disorder issues.  

Clinically, hypersexuality has been defined as a dysfunctional preoccupation with sexual fantasy, often in combination with the obsessive pursuit of casual or non-intimate sex; pornography, compulsive masturbation, romantic intensity, and objectified partner sex for a period of at least six months.

But the numerous ways in which hypersexuality can manifest in a person makes it very difficult for mental health experts to classify it, which contributes to the false belief that hypersexuality is not a condition or symptom at all, but simply a lack of morality or self-control in the afflicted person. This stigma not only results in a lack of compassion, but also in a lack of treatment specifically tailored to the condition. 

Although hypersexuality can be considered a disorder all on its own, otherwise known as nymphomania or sexual addiction, it can also be a symptom of other mental illnesses. Most notably, hypersexuality can emerge during a manic periods of someone suffering from bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder, which affects approximately 5.7 million Americans, is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) as a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. There have been few studies on the link between the disorder and hypersexuality, but it's currently estimated that anywhere from 25 to 80 percent of individuals with bipolar disorder will experience symptoms of hypersexuality during manic periods.

A manic period is a portion of time during which a person with bipolar disorder experiences extreme highs, such as inflated energy, racing thoughts, and feelings of invincibility. One of the criteria for mania is “excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.” For some, hypersexuality is one of those activities. Mental health experts believe that some individuals become hypersexual as a means of adaptation to help them regulate mood and tolerate extreme stressors, like those that accompany bipolar disorder. For others, the condition functions as a separate—but potentially co-occurring—disorder, spurned by biochemical imbalances that result in compulsive behavior.

Regardless of the documented research that hypersexuality is an actual condition and not just immoral behavior, those who suffer from it continue to be highly stigmatized. One well-known example is former Olympic runner Suzy Favor Hamilton, who went on to become a Las Vegas call girl and escort after her athletic career ended. Favor Hamiltion described the experience to BP Hope: “In my case, my bipolar was driving me toward sex. It could have just as easily have been driving me toward drugs and alcohol or gambling, the way it does many people."  

But when the story first broke, her name was dragged through the mud, with one media outlet labeling her as a "hooker" with "a lot of excuses" rather than a person experiencing the symptoms of a disabling disorder.

This lack of awareness often results in individuals not wanting to seek treatment for their symptoms, often waiting until their condition has caused serious damage to their career, relationship, finances, or health. "Since shame is a huge factor, particularly with sex addicts, many never seek treatment," reports Hypersexual Disorders, an online behavioral health resource. "Many sex addicts end up receiving court mandated treatment." But of course, such measures tend to reinforce the association between hypersexuality and deviancy, causing a vicious cycle.

As with all things, education is essential. As Favor Hamilton noted, "“There are still people out there who don’t regard this as an illness, or don’t understand how, if left untreated, it can lead to some really serious things."

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