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Sexual Impulsivity Disorders: Psychiatric "Orphans"

Sexual Impulsivity Disorders: Psychiatric "Orphans"

Paraphilias (PAs) and paraphilia-related disorders (PRDs) (nonparaphilic sexual compulsivity or sexual addiction) are sexual disorders that predominantly afflict men. Psychiatry in the United States, in particular, has neglected to pay significant clinical or research attention to these commonly overlooked but very serious conditions. Although many clinicians might think that these conditions are merely uncommon, exotic, or of questionable diagnostic validity, the lack of systematic clinical and research attention paid to these conditions is more related to severe sociocultural and moral stigmatization, clinician discomfort to assertively inquire about these conditions, and severe shame and guilt among persons with these disorders.

Frequently, these conditions are acknowledged by men and women under the duress of a clinical emergency, such as an impending marital separation or divorce, or arrest and legal charges associated with inappropriate sexual behaviors. In addition, even when PAs or PRDs have been identified, the specific psychiatric Axis I disorders associated with sexual impulsivity can still elude astute, forensically trained clinicians, thus diminishing the perceived value of psychiatric consultation and treatment.

PAs are intense, recurring expressions of socially deviant or anomalous sexual arousal that cause individual distress and/or clinically significant adverse consequences (typically related to repetitive enactment). The most common paraphilic disorders described in DSM-IV are exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism and transvestic fetishism, frotteurism, sexual sadism and sexual masochism, and pedophilia.

Because several PAs are associated with sexual offenses, persons with these serious disorders are not likely to discuss their sexual impulses with intimate partners, friends, or clinicians. Currently, the social consequences that are associated with being a sexual offender can include incarceration, limitations and restrictions on personal liberty (eg, lengthy probation or parole, residency restrictions, global positioning surveillance, or employment limitations), and personal endangerment and bodily harm by vigilantes.


Treatments that empirically have been shown to reduce sexual offender recidivism include medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy that is typically performed in a group-therapy paradigm.1 Typical medications prescribed for men with PAs might include antiandrogens (eg, injection and oral medroxyprogesterone acetate), gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists (eg, leuprolide), or SSRIs.2

Based on published data, PRDs such as compulsive masturbation, pornography dependence or addiction (including print, computer, and telephone), protracted promiscuity, and severe sexual desire incompatibility are more common than PAs but have no specific diagnostic designation in current DSM nosology. Fortunately, these latter conditions are being considered for DSM-V classification, pending further research and field trials that include diagnostic questionnaires.

PRDs may be common in persons with current PAs, but they can occur as stand-alone conditions. PRDs are time-consuming, are associated with medical comorbidities, such as venereal disease and unplanned pregnancy, and place severe strain on the basic trust necessary for a functional intimate partnership.

Currently, PRDs are most commonly considered compulsive disorders or behavioral addictions. As such, 12-step, self-help groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model are widely recommended, as is concurrent individual psychotherapy. Unfortunately, consistent empirical validation of any specific psychotherapeutic treatment modality is lacking.3

A recent, small, placebo-controlled study suggested partial support for the prescription of citalopram in men with protracted promiscuity.4 Other proserotonergic antidepressants have been reported to ameliorate both PAs and PRDs in open prospective (but not controlled) trials and retrospective reports.5-7 As is the case with psychotherapy for PRDs, a robust empirical validation of the role of pharmacotherapy is suggestive but requires additional clinical trials.


The reticence of persons seeking help from clinicians to recognize and acknowledge sexual impulsivity and clinician hesitance to inquire or raise an adequate index of suspicion with new patients is analogous to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the US military toward homosexuality. For example, while clinicians routinely inquire about changes (either notable increases or decreases) in sleep, psychomotor behavior, and eating during an initial clinical evaluation, most clinicians do not ask questions related to a person's sexual behavior (such as those listed in the Table).

Screening questions for sexual impulsivity disorders

Have you ever felt your sexual behavior was compulsive, excessive, or that you were addicted to sex?

Has your sexual behavior ever caused you persistent personal distress, medical problems (such as sexually transmitted disease or unwanted pregnancy), and/or legal difficulties?

Has your sexual behavior been associated with the loss of a job or has it caused significant problems in an important romantic relationship?

Have you ever engaged in repetitive sexual behaviors that you felt needed to be kept a secret (including affairs)?

Have you ever thought of yourself as someone who was either blessed or cursed with a high sex drive?3

Diagnosis and comorbidities

Clinicians are well acquainted with diminished sexual interest in mood disorders, especially in major depression. What is still novel to the clinical and forensic community, however, is that increased sexual behavior, including persistent hypersexual behavior, may also be associated with anxious and depressive affect8,9 as well as anxiety and mood disorders.10

Studies of nonsexual impulsivity disorders frequently reveal that such conditions rarely occur as solitary disorders and, in fact, tend to cluster with each other (eg, pathological gambling with substance abuse) or with certain Axis I psychiatric disorders that are associated with behavioral disinhibition.

Regarding sexual impulsivity disorders, PAs and PRDs have been reported as comorbid with mood disorders10-14; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)10,15-17; substance use disorders10,12,16,17; fetal alcohol-spectrum disorders18,19; schizophrenic disorders; degenerative neurological disorders or head injuries20,21; and other, less common Axis I neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism-spectrum disorders22 and Tourette disorder.23


In my clinical experience, the aforementioned Axis I disorders, particularly chronic mood disorders, substance use disorders, adult ADHD, and fetal alcohol-spectrum disorders, understandably are overlooked by mental health professionals who assess adults. It is not that clinicians do not assess for symptoms of major depression or a clearly defined hypomanic episode (as in bipolar II disorder), but rather that dysthymic disorder (arguably a more common unipolar comorbid condition with sexual impulsivity than major depression) and bipolar-spectrum disorders (during which hypomanic phase symptoms may manifest for only 1 to 2 days) are more difficult to differentiate in patients than complex, repetitive, behavioral sexual impulsivity and its psychosocial consequences.

Dysthymic disorder can be characterized by an early age of onset (eg, before 21 years); a waxing and waning clinical course; and a comorbid association with other, more florid clinical syndromes, such as anxiety, substance abuse, and personality disorders. The common vegetative features associated with a major depressive episode are less likely to be associated with chronic or low-grade depressive conditions. Externalizing behavior disorders, including sexual impulsivity and eating disorders, can mislead clinicians to overlook this chronic mood disorder that has been reported to have a lifetime prevalence of 6% in the United States and can be addressed effectively with antidepressant pharmacotherapy and specific psychotherapies.24


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