People with sexual OCD may experience distressing or disturbing intrusive sexual thoughts that cause stress in day-to-day life. Therapy and other treatments can help manage symptoms.

When someone has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), they may experience obsessions related to specific themes, also known as subtypes. Common OCD themes include contamination, checking, and harm.

Another common subtype is sexual OCD. This involves intrusive thoughts, images, and other impulses of a sexual nature. People with sexual OCD engage in compulsions as a way to avoid or stop these obsessions and the feelings they cause.

This article shares more about sexual OCD, including what its symptoms and treatment might involve.

Sexual OCD is a subtype of OCD in which someone experiences obsessions related to sexual themes.

These subtypes, or themes, aren’t part of an official OCD diagnosis. But they are a common method that experts use to categorize OCD symptoms.

Sexual OCD can take many forms. If you have sexual OCD, you might experience obsessions related to:

  • cheating
  • incest
  • sexual violence
  • pedophilia
  • necrophilia
  • bestiality
  • sexual orientation
  • other sexual “taboos”

Because these obsessions cause extreme distress and anxiety, people with sexual OCD engage in compulsions to cope. Over time, this cycle of obsessions and compulsions can severely affect someone’s quality of life and make it hard to function.

How common is sexual OCD?

Approximately 2.5 million American adults live with OCD, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). And for the majority of people with OCD, obsessions tend to revolve around specific themes.

Research from 1996 suggests that checking OCD and contamination OCD are two of the most common themes, affecting roughly 75% of people with the condition. A 2020 research review suggests that roughly 20–30% of people with OCD experience sexual obsessions.

Because this research is older, additional studies need to be done on this topic to reflect more current rates and trends.

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Sexual OCD symptoms are typically grouped into two main categories: obsessions and compulsions.

Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts, urges, images, or sensations that cause someone to feel discomfort, anxiety, and fear. Compulsions are irresistible behaviors or urges that someone engages in to counteract or neutralize their obsessions.

When someone has sexual OCD, their obsessions revolve around sexual themes that they find distressing.

For example, a person with sexual obsessions might have a persistent intrusive thought that their sexual orientation will suddenly change. Or they may experience frequent intrusive images of disturbing sexual acts with animals or inanimate objects.

Because these obsessions cause a significant amount of anxiety, distress, and even shame, people with OCD engage in behaviors called compulsions to cope.

Examples of these compulsions in sexual OCD might include seeking reassurance from others about their sexual orientation, avoiding being around people or things that might trigger intrusive sexual images, or refusing sex with their partner out of fear of becoming sexually violent.

Experts are still exploring what causes someone to develop OCD, but several factors appear to play a role. Research suggests that one of those factors appears to include experiencing a major life event.

One study from 2020 explored the effects of stressful or traumatic life events on the development of OCD in over 280 participants. More than 61% of the participants reported experiencing a stressful event before the onset of their OCD and 34% reported experiencing a traumatic life event before OCD onset.

While there’s no one specific life event that can cause OCD, some of the most common events include:

  • becoming seriously ill or being hospitalized
  • experiencing the illness or death of a loved one
  • experiencing difficulties at home, school, or work
  • entering a new relationship or marriage
  • going through a difficult breakup or divorce
  • experiencing pregnancy, childbirth, or pregnancy loss
  • experiencing abuse, neglect, or assault

If you have sexual OCD, treatment options are the same as any other subtype of OCD. They include therapy, medication, or a combination of different options.

Therapy

One of the most widely used therapy approaches for sexual OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). And there’s one specific CBT approach that experts consider the gold-standard treatment for OCD: exposure and response/ritual prevention (ERP).

ERP is a technique in which you are gradually exposed to your OCD triggers, often with the assistance of a therapist. As you begin to experience obsessive thoughts, urges, and sensations, your goal is to practice coping with the anxiety you may feel without engaging in compulsions.

ERP can be a challenging treatment approach for people with OCD, but research from 2012 suggests that it’s even more effective for treating OCD than medication alone.

Medication

Medication can also be helpful for managing OCD symptoms, especially when used alongside exposure therapy. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed class of medication for OCD, and options may include:

One tricyclic antidepressant called clomipramine has also been shown to be effective for treating OCD ― but healthcare professionals do not prescribe it as commonly because of the increased risk of side effects.

Other

Other treatment options can also help manage OCD symptoms, especially in people whose OCD hasn’t responded to other treatments. Two of these options ― transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and deep brain stimulation ― have been shown to be effective at reducing OCD symptoms.

Does sexual OCD ever go away?

At this time, there’s no cure for OCD. However, treatment is the most effective way for people with OCD to learn how to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

If you’ve been finding it difficult to function because of severe OCD symptoms, you’re not alone ― and there is help. Here are a few resources that can help you find the treatment you need to start on the path to recovery:

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Sexual OCD is one of the most common subtypes of OCD, and research suggests that up to 30% of people with OCD experience sexual obsessions. While these obsessions can be a significant source of anxiety and shame for people with the condition, treatment can help people with sexual OCD learn how to manage their symptoms.