What is “sexually objectifying” someone, and how is it harmful? In pornography addiction, it’s easier to see that the image on the screen is a sexual object rather than a real person. But when are you making a real person into an object? And when are you objectifying yourself?
The term “objectification” has a specific meaning in the psychological study of sexuality and in sex addiction treatment. It means:
“A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics” (American Psychological Association).
It means defining someone’s entire value only in terms of sexual attractiveness. So if we’re looking at the value of Ruth Bader Ginsburg vs. Kim Kardashian I guess we’d know who “wins.”
Sexual objectification has significant and far reaching effects, not only to the sex addict, but also to the person being objectified.
Many recovering sex addicts find it almost impossible to quit internet pornography once and for all. Internet porn is different from other sexual acting out behaviors; it hooks people faster and can have a powerful hold that leads to frequent relapses even if other, more “serious” behaviors have been relinquished.
If you are addicted to sexual massage parlors or to serial affairs then you need to do at least some minimal planning. This allows for mindfulness strategies and other tools to help abort the behavior.
Sexual imagery is everywhere, sometimes flashing on the computer screen unexpectedly. I had a patient who stumbled on a friend’s sexy valentine video on Facebook and went into a relapse. “Blocking” software is unreliable, and getting rid of your computers is not the ideal solution in the long run.
The major risk factors for chronic internet porn relapse
Sex addicts and their partners are sometimes in limbo. Sometimes they feel “Do I even want to be with this person?” Others have trouble visualizing what their relationship will look like post recovery.
Obviously what you had before wasn’t what you thought it was. This leaves a kind of void. “What will a healthy relationship look like?” “How will we behave differently?” “What will sex be like?” An old fantasy is gone and there is nothing to replace it with.
I have received many comments from addicts and their partners who want to stick it out, but want some glimpse into the future. (See also “Will Sex Addiction Treatment Cure Intimacy Issues?”)
“I am a recovering sex addict” is something you may or may not feel comfortable saying to people. On one hand, you may feel guarded about telling people anything, partly because you know that sexually compulsive behavior carries so much stigma and shame. On the other hand, you may decide you want to be open about your recovery. This openness may be received in a variety of ways, and you may find that people’s response is unpredictable; some may feel sex addiction is a joke, while others may react with extreme fear.
I had a client who came from Ohio for an intensive workshop in California. He was worried about what to tell others regarding his addiction. I naively suggested he could tell his collueagues that he’d been to “rehab.” After all, I said, “everybody goes to rehab nowadays.” His answer: “Not in Toledo they don’t.” Attitudes vary, but in general it’s still the case that talking about alcoholism is a piece of cake compared to the embarrassment and anxiety surrounding sex addiction.
Everyone’s situation is different but I’d like to offer some basic ideas about who should know what and when they should know it.
Old girlfriends and old boyfriends, ex-wives, ex-husbands, old lovers; all can come back to haunt you whether you are a sex addict or not. But if you are a sex addict or the partner of a sex addict in recovery the drama of an ex can end up being anything from a raunchy summer flick to a horror movie.
The ex-lover can present different kinds of challenges at different stages of recovery. Here are some of the movie scenarios you need to avoid and why it is important to do so.
Membership in Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) is currently growing at a rapid pace in the U.S. and abroad, with about a 20% increase in the number of weekly group meetings every year. SAA and other sex addiction support groups like it follow the AA model of self help support groups where the last names of the members are never mentioned and the members protect each other’s confidentiality. Some people in the addiction recovery community are questioning what they see as a harmful tradition of secrecy. I see very strong arguments on either side of this issue.
Let’s be clear—being in a relationship with a sex addict is the last thing you would ever want. Regardless of the behavior he or she is engaging in, including pornography addiction, phone sex, or online affairs or the more overt behaviors like exhibitionism, prostitutes, strip clubs or massage parlors, there is no way you are going to see yourself as “enabling” such behavior.
You are probably going to feel justifiably shocked and victimized. There is no way you would want to make it easier for the addict to act out sexually. Who would want their partner to betray their trust, waste time and money and maybe bring home a disease?
After coming in contact with a number of sex addicts who had at some point belonged to cults, I began to suspect that there were things about sex addicts’ makeup that predisposed them to cult membership. Of course not all sex addicts were cult members or vice versa, and this is all purely anecdotal. Still, I was intrigued.
Sex and religious extremism
I first came across this idea in another context. A 2008 article in The Times told of terrorist groups who were found by police to possess large amounts of hard core child pornography.
The article stated: “Anti-terror officers could also use child protection searches to enhance their ability to identify people planning attacks.”