For most adults, healthy sexuality is an integrated life experience. Sex with partners, with self, or as a part of exploring new relationships is usually a pleasurable act of choice. For sexual addicts, however, sexual behavior can be most often defined by words such as driven, compulsive and hidden.
Unlike healthy sex that is integrated into relationships, sexual addicts use sex as a means to cope, to handle boredom, anxiety and other powerful feelings or as a way to feel important, wanted or powerful.
Addiction is addiction, whether substance-based (alcohol or other drugs) or process based (gambling, overeating or sex). Here are several areas in which an addiction to sex mirrors the problems experienced when one suffers from alcoholism and drug addiction:
- A change in the brain chemistry of addicts is similar whether they are abusing substances or engaging in addictive behavior.
- Sex addicts, like drug addicts and alcoholics, lose control over their ability to say, “I’m not going to go to that adult theatre” or “see that prostitute.” In essence, like all addicted people, they lose choice.
- Drug addicts, alcoholics, gambling and sex addicts all utilize elaborate systems of denial that allows them to act out on their addition and work to hide it from others.
- Addicted individuals often experience a lack of nurturing and other forms of emotional, physical or sexual trauma in childhood.
- Multiple addictions often exist simultaneously – both behaviors and substances.
- The process and focus of all addiction treatment is the same, involving a combination of individual and group therapy and treatment, participation in 12-Step or other spiritual recovery programs, individual, group and couple’s therapy.
Sexual addiction, involves a complex psychological compulsion in which afflicted individuals use sex and the pursuit of sex to distract themselves from typical life stresses and pressures that they are unable to deal with in healthy ways.
SIGNS OF ADDICTION
Sex addiction shows up both in terms of cause (why a person pursues sexual contact) and effect (the ways in which this behavior affects both the addict and those who care about or depend upon him or her). The following are the three most definitive indicators that a person has developed an addiction to sex.
- Loss of control – Sex addicts don’t act out because they want to, but because they feel impulsive and driven. Their behavior can take many forms, including losing hours devoted to Internet pornography, sitting in strip clubs or repeatedly driving through deserted streets looking for prostitutes. But at its core, the behavior is the result of a “consistent and persistent loss of control.”
- Consequences – The manner in which an individual responds to negative consequences that result from their behavior gives a strong indication of whether or not he or she is addicted. A healthy individual will cease activities that threaten to destroy a personal relationship or have serious professional repercussions, but the addict says: “I’m going to find a way to keep doing this without getting caught again.”
- Obsession/Preoccupation – When sex addicts aren’t acting on their sexual or romantic impulses, they’re most often thinking about when they will. Clients will say to me: “It’s on my mind all the time.” The constant fantasizing, and the excitement that accompanies thinking about sex, lead to neurochemical changes in their bodies. For many sex addicts, it’s not about actually having sex – it’s the pursuit of sex that gives them their high.
It’s important to understand the difference between what is and what isn’t sex addiction– namely, that sex addiction is not a matter of morality, deviant behavior, or criminal activity. Sex addiction isn’t about who you have sex with or what kind of sex you have – no more than gambling addiction is defined by whether you play blackjack or craps. It is the manner in which the person acts out their sexual interests, they’re lying to themselves and others about their actions and the way those behaviors become a secret life – that helps define this problem.
Sex addiction isn’t about being a “bad person,” and it’s not about who you have sex with or what kind of sex you have. It’s also not about being a sociopath or being unredeemable. Most sex addicts aren’t criminal offenders or even amoral people – they’re simply caught up in a pattern of troubling dependency that on their own, they can’t escape.
Sex addiction can lead an individual down a decidedly dark and isolated path – but with the guidance of an experienced mental health, addiction focused professional, it is possible to overcome this disorder.
Treatment involves stopping the negative behavior, confronting the patient’s denial about their actions, and challenging the person to get his emotional needs met through healthy interactions with other people.
Treatment also involves one of the most significant differences between substance addiction and sex addiction – the concept of sobriety. For sex addicts, sobriety doesn’t mean abstinence – or not having sex, it means having healthy sex – as defined by that person’s life and beliefs. In treatment, we help sex addicts define the kind of sexual boundaries that lead to them integrating a healthy romantic and sexual life. Depending upon the nature of one’s addiction, treatment may involve intensive outpatient therapy, 12-step recovery, residential treatment, or a combination of these and other approaches.
Follow Robert on Twitter @RobWeissMSW