As with any addiction, the denial of sex addiction is a powerful obstacle to recovery. Sex addiction recovery has been described as a grief process. When we let go of an addictive drug or behavior we are letting go of a coping skill that has served us well in the past. This is a major loss. The addiction is like an old friend, often one we have relied on our whole life to deal with stress and escape negative feelings.
In treatment programs addicts are often asked to write a “Dear John” letter to their addiction. This is like a formal commitment to break-up, a recognition of a major loss and often a fond good-bye. “I will miss you… we had a lot of good times together…” etc.
In the first stage of confronting an addiction the addict is shocked into thinking about quitting their addictive behavior. This may happen multiple times since the mere thought of the loss can be unimaginable. I have heard addicts say their initial thought was “Give up porn? You’ve gotta be kidding!” But if the process proceeds past this initial shock, then the response to the potential loss is denial, the process of rationalizing, minimizing and excusing the problem away. This is only human; it is something we all do every day. No wonder the first task of addiction treatment is that of breaking down the denial, confronting the Byzantine twists and turns of distorted thinking that all serve to dodge an unpleasant reality.
The predictable progression of denial
As you look at these stages and the rationalizations that go along with each stage, you may have in mind a particular person, yourself or someone else, but you might also look at the denial process from the larger social context. Where are we as a society in our willingness or unwillingness to accept the ideas of sex addiction, porn addiction, internet addiction and the like?
1. There is no such thing as sex addiction
“Only things like drugs and alcohol can be addictive because only drugs and alcohol cause physical addiction, withdrawal etc.”
This of course is not true. Behavioral addictions are real addictions. Gambling has been recognized as an addiction in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and Internet gaming is under consideration.
“Sex is a natural process and it is good for you so how can porn and sexual acting out be a problem or an addiction?”
This just doesn’t follow. The fact that some people don’t have a problem with alcohol or gambling or porn doesn’t mean that it can’t be addictive and have dire consequences for others.
2. Sex addicts exist but I am not one of them
“OK so I was secretly going to hookers all the time (or having multiple secret extramarital affairs or watching porn at work for hours) but I just have a high sex drive and now that I’ve learned my lesson it won’t happen again”.
Addicts who have been found out are often deeply ashamed and may honestly think that they feel so bad about their behavior that they could never do it again. But they do.
“I can control it so it’s not addiction. I only did it because my spouse doesn’t want enough sex (or I don’t have a partner right now) so it’s not really my problem anyway”.
When someone is in the grip of an addiction they can engage in major thought distortion. These rationalizations and projections can be very persistent even in the face of repeated relapses, different partners etc.
3. I may be a sex addict but it’s not that bad
“I do have a compulsive behavior but everything is OK anyway; my wife/husband knows about it; I love my spouse/partner; I can live with it; all those other sex addicts do really bad things, much worse than me.”
This kind of minimizing represents only a partial acknowledgement of the problem of addiction. The addict has not admitted how much the addiction controls and influences their life.
4. I have a serious problem but it’s incurable
“There is no proven cure for this problem. Treatment programs are just brainwashing people into thinking they need rehab so they can make money. 12-step self help groups have a poor success rate, why bother?”
This sounds like a logical argument but it’s just another dodge. (see also my post Sex Addiction is Real, Just ask a Sex Addict)
“Even though all those programs work for some people they won’t work for me because I’m different. I can’t go to SAA meetings because I’m so famous and someone might recognize me. Anyway, I’m an atheist and you have to believe in God.”
Building up the barriers to getting help and seeing it as hopeless is a common way to continue avoiding reality.
The breakdown of denial
The breaking down of denial means coming to some level of acceptance and willingness to get help, even though doubts still linger. This allows the person to establish an initial period of abstinence from the addictive behavior which in turn allows their head to begin to clear.
On a societal level, the reality of sex addiction, as with other behavioral addictions, has come up against denial. Hundreds of neuropsychological and neurobiological studies in recent years have shown that behaviors such as Internet use, Internet gaming, gambling, pornography use can be physically addictive through the same brain mechanisms as drugs of abuse. (See for example this review)
Despite mounting evidence, a few highly vocal sex addiction “deniers” have published studies which they loudly claim to “prove” that sex addiction and porn addiction do not exist. Regardless of the motives for their activism, it feeds on a fear: the perceived threat of a loss of sexual freedom. The fear of repression, intolerance and regulation of sex is a powerful one but it is irrelevant in this case. Getting help for an addiction doesn’t infringe on sexual freedom which is and should continue to be part of normal life.
There is a deep mistrust of anything which could change or restrict one’s behavior. People want to be free to do what they want without guilt, even if what they want to do is damaging to them. It took a long time for the U.S. population to break through the denial regarding the dangers of cigarettes, denial fed by biased research put out by special interests. You are still free to smoke, but now you have a right to know the truth about what smoking can do to you. Today powerful industries line up behind the sex addiction deniers, industries like porn production, extramarital hook-up websites, webcam sites (including illicit trafficking) not to mention the pharmaceutical interests built on the exploding demand for drugs to treat erectile dysfunction. Perhaps those who are activists in sex addiction denial will eventually need to come face to face with the impact of a problem that is not going away. They will need to hit bottom.