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May 24

When is Flirting a Sign of Sexual Addiction?



young man and wemen at the barFlirting is a normal part of life. Not only is it enjoyable, it is a healthy part of courtship. And yet flirting is problem for a large proportion of the sex addict patients I see, I’m guessing maybe a third or more of them. For some it is the only sexually compulsive behavior that is out in the open. And if they are in a relationship, compulsive flirting often drives their partners up the wall and across the ceiling.

When should you or your partner be concerned that excessive flirtatiousness is the tip of the iceberg? When is excessive flirtatiousness a sign of a secret sexual addiction?

Part of a larger pattern of sexually addictive behavior

When I say that excessive flirting may be part of a larger addictive picture, I do not mean that it necessarily indicates that the person is engaging in affairs, although this could be the case. But if a person has a problem with sexual addiction and compulsive sexual behavior they will usually (although not always) have more than one type of sexual behavior. In other words a person who flirts a lot may also be engaging in cybersex, or frequenting sexual massage parlors or any of a number of other hidden activities.

So what should you look for if you don’t know how big the problem is?

Sexual preoccupation

For one thing, sex addicts are excessively focused on sex. One of the accepted core beliefs of the addict is: “Sex is my most important need”. So the flirting is one area among several in which you may see the addict as viewing the world through sex colored glasses. The addict may exhibit their sexualized world view by:

making off color remarks more than other people
frequently telling sexual jokes even with people he or she doesn’t know that well
frequent scanning for and ogling of sexually attractive people, often combined with
giving a running commentary on people’s looks, their age, their bodies and their sexiness or lack of it.
The extreme focus on sex goes hand in hand with the sexual objectification of people. If the person has a sexual addiction they will very likely see people in terms of sex to the exclusion of other factors. People are then not really people in the fullest sense (are they happy? Sad? Studious? Kindly? Struggling? Instead they are seen as objects of sexual utility. If the sex addict attributes any inner life to the person they are looking at it will usually be some fantasy or projection about that person’s sexuality.

This doesn’t mean that addicts want to have sex with every attractive person they see, but it does imply that they can go off into a sexual fantasy or store an image into a database in their mind for later use in fantasy.


Sex addicts by definition cannot control their problematic sexual behavior. A person who is not an addict may just be an outgoing, charming, playful person. But if their partner feels threatened and asks them to tone it down they will be able to do so. Addicts, on the other hand, will be more likely to guilt trip their partner and defend their right to flirt, or try to re-frame it as something that is not really sexual.

If the person agrees to rein in their flirting and doesn’t seem able to do so they could have a problem. Or if the person does stop flirting an addictive person may find other ways to subtly put out sexual signals, such as pointedly staring or making ambiguous remarks that could be taken as suggestive. See also my post on predatory flirting and ogling.

Self-objectification and negative self-concept

Sex addicts who flirt a lot are often indiscriminately seductive. Although this can be a sign of problematic sexual behavior, it does not necessarily mean that the addict has any intention of trying to have sex with the person toward whom they are being seductive.

Many sex addict patients are flirtatious and seductive across the board with almost anyone; a colleague, the checker in the market, the nurse, even their therapist. This can mean that the addict is scanning his/her environment for sexual possibility, but it can also mean that the addict tends to objectify him/herself.

Somewhere along the line most addicts have acquired the belief that they are unworthy, and some have come to feel that the only reason anyone could possibly want to associate with them is sexual attraction. Therefore these addicts express their insecurity by needing to be sexually interesting to everyone they associate with.

Excessive flirting, ogling and seductiveness can be signs that there are other sexually addictive behaviors or they can be sexual addictions/compulsions of a sort in their own right. It will not always be possible to get to the bottom of the issue without a full assessment by a professional. This only underscores the fact that what is an addiction or a problem is very often self-identified in terms of the amount of distress or destructiveness experienced by addicts and those around them.

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