For most adults, healthy sexuality is an integrated life experience. Being sexual with mates, with oneself or as a part of relationship exploration is for most of us enjoyed as a pleasurable act of choice. However, unlike the passion and interests that draw healthy people toward sexuality, sexual addicts misuse the sex act as well as the search for sex as a means of coping with intolerable feelings, stressors and to fill an often unacknowledged need for consistent validation.
Sexual Addiction is defined as an excessive preoccupation with the idea of, pursuit and acting-out of sexual behavior (with self or others), most often accompanied over time by related negative life, relationship, career and health consequences. In truth, most sex addicts spend more time and energy on the hunt, chase and pursuit of their sexual or romantic highs then in the sexual act itself. Much as drug addicts initially abuse drugs to recreate and avoid reality-sex addicts repeatedly seek to lose themselves in the emotions generated by sexual fantasy, ultimately coming to depend on these emotions as a reliable form of comfort and distraction. As sex addiction does not involve the direct ingestion of substances to get high – but rather the use of fantasy and behavior to achieve a high, sexual addiction itself can be categorized as a process addiction, similar to binge eating, gambling, spending, workaholism and related emotional disorders.
The healthy pleasures of sex and romance enjoyed by most of us are for sex addicts sadly hijacked by their underlying emotional vulnerabilities and disowned need for intimacy. Over time their desperate search for sex and love becomes increasingly driven, compulsive, shameful and secretive, often isolating them from the very friends and loved ones who could ultimately bring them the deeper affections they truly crave.
The more familiar we become with the brain, it’s functions, dysfunctions and responses to emotional trauma – the more understandable it is to view the use of potentially addictive, pleasurable behaviors as adaptive forms of emotional survival. In the absence of healthier and more integrated means of self-stability and emotional control, sex addicts use intense fantasy and behavior to temporarily bandage over deep feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Addiction to sexual behavior over time, mirrors the problems experienced by those who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction in that there is:
- Preoccupation and obsession with the desired experience
- A loss of control over the ability to turn away from the desired fantasy or experience
- Repeated negative consequences related to acting out the behaviors, which unfortunately do not result in the cessation of those same patterns
The treatment of sex and relationship addictions, whether outpatient or residential is in many ways quite similar to the therapies employed when working with all addictions-both substance and behavioral in that they involve a combination of individual and group counseling, participation in 12-Step recovery work, family therapy and for some, medications such as SSRI’, that have also proven useful for treating anxiety and depression.
Photo by Frank Kovalchek, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.