Manny is a 43-year-old cybersex addicted construction worker. Fifteen months ago he started going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. For the next year, his behaviors did not change and his life actually got worse rather than better. Finally, in desperation, he asked another member of the program for help, and he was assigned the task of creating a personalized definition of sexual sobriety and then a boundary plan for future sexual behaviors. Almost immediately, the program began to work for him. He says, “In my head, I knew what I needed to change and how I needed to change it. But somehow I always ended up fooling myself and relapsing. I would just find a way to rationalize that going back online for sex was OK, just this once, even though I knew it wasn’t. After I finally wrote down what my problems were, and clearly stated which online behaviors were not acceptable, I had some ‘official’ clarity and my life started to get a lot better.
In my previous posting to this site I discussed the initial steps that are recommended for cybersex addicts new to the process of healing. For starters, they need to ask for assistance from a psychotherapist specializing in sexual addiction and/or the people in a 12-step sexual recovery program. After that, they need to find someone to whom they can be accountable for their present and future behaviors, they need to throw away and/or delete all material related to their addiction, they need to cancel online memberships and apps that support their addiction, they need to avoid sexual gray areas (like NC-17 movies), they should agree to use digital devices only when and where others can see what they are doing, they should create visual and perhaps auditory reminders of what their addiction might cost them, and they absolutely should install filtering and monitoring software on their digital devices.
The next steps for cybersex addicts new to recovery are defining what cybersex sobriety will look like for them, and developing a plan for establishing and maintaining that sobriety. These steps are discussed below.
Defining Cybersex Sobriety
As discussed in my just released book, Always Turned On: Understanding Sex Addiction in the Digital Age, coauthored with Dr. Jennifer Schneider, newly recovering cybersex addicts often have little to no idea what sexual sobriety entails. This is in sharp contrast to addicts entering treatment for help with substance abuse, who nearly always understand that for them sobriety requires total abstinence from alcohol and illicit drugs. Knowing this, many cybersex addicts want to know, early in the process: “Will I ever be able to have sex again?” And usually their question is followed by a statement like: “If not, then you can forget about me staying in treatment.” Happily, unlike sobriety for alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual sobriety is not defined by ongoing abstinence. Instead, sexual addiction treatment addresses sobriety much as it is handled with eating disorders – another area where long-term abstinence is simply not feasible. Instead of permanently abstaining from all sexual activity, recovering sex addicts learn to be sexual in non-compulsive, non-problematic, life-affirming ways.
For cybersex addicts to define what sexual sobriety means to them, they must first delineate the sexual behaviors that do and do not compromise and/or destroy their values (sexual fidelity), life circumstances (keeping a job), and relationships. Ideally this occurs with input from a sexual addiction treatment specialist and/or the addict’s 12-step sexual recovery sponsor. The cybersex addict then commits in a written sexual sobriety contract to only engage in sexual behaviors that are non-problematic, and to do so only moderately and appropriately. As long as the addict’s cybersexual behavior does not violate these concretely defined boundaries, he or she is sober.
It is vital that these plans be put in writing, and that addicts clearly define their bottom line problem behaviors. Murky plans lead to murky recovery. It is also important to understand that the definition of sexual sobriety differs from person to person because it takes into account each cybersex addict’s unique values, beliefs, goals and life circumstance. For instance, cybersex sobriety for 28-year-old single gay man will probably look very different than cybersex sobriety for a 48-year-old heterosexual married father of three. The goal is not conformity. Instead, the goal is defining a non-compulsive, non-secretive, non-shaming sexual life.
Creating a Cybersex Boundary Plan
The first step in creating a plan for cybersex sobriety is crafting a list of goals – a list of concrete reasons for this attempt at significant and lasting behavior change. As with the definition of cybersex sobriety, each addict’s list of goals for recovery will be different depending on his or her cybersexual history and current life circumstances. A few of the more commonly stated goals are as follows:
- I want to be present in the real world, instead of living my life online.
- I don’t want to use pornography ever again.
- I don’t want to cheat on or keep secrets from my spouse or anyone else.
- I want to have a healthy and enjoyable intimate relationship with a real human being.
Once a cybersex addict’s goals for recovery are clearly stated, he or she can move forward with the creation of a Cybersex Boundary Plan, utilizing his or her pre-established goals as an overall guide. Sometimes these plans are simple, straightforward statements like, “I will not view pornography of any kind,” or, “I will not go online for any sexual purpose no matter what.” More often, however, cybersex addicts require a more elaborate set of guidelines, typically a three-tiered plan constructed as follows:
The Inner Boundary: This is addict’s bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety. Here the addict lists the specific sexual behaviors (not thoughts or fantasies) that are causing problems and the need to stop. In other words, this boundary lists the damaging and troublesome acts that have created negative life consequences and incomprehensible demoralization for the addict. If the addict engages in these behaviors, he or she has “slipped” and will need to reset his or her sobriety clock (while also doing a thorough examination of what lead to the slip). A few common inner boundary behaviors are as follows:
- Looking at pornography
- Being sexual via webcam
- Playing virtual reality sex games
- Cruising social media and other sites for erotic pictures, content, and potential webcam sex partners
The Middle Boundary: This boundary lists warning signs and slippery situations that might lead the cybersex addict back to inner boundary activities. Here the addict lists the people, places, thoughts/fantasies, events and experiences that might trigger a desire to act out sexually. In addition to obvious potential triggers (logging onto the Internet when alone, looking at strangers’ profiles on dating sites or social media, etc.), this list should include things that might indirectly trigger a desire to act out (working long hours, arguing with a spouse or boss, keeping secrets, worrying about finances, etc.) A few common middle boundary items are as follows:
- Lying (about anything)
- Poor self-care (lack of sleep, eating poorly, forgoing exercise, skipping therapy or a 12-step meeting, etc.)
- Unstructured time alone
- Going online when alone
The Outer Boundary: This boundary lists healthy behaviors and activities that lead cybersex addicts toward their life goals – including having a healthy, non-compulsive sex life. These healthy pleasures are what cybersex addicts can turn to as a replacement for sexual acting out. Outer boundary activities may be immediate and concrete, such as “working on my house” or long-term and less tangible, such as “redefining my career goals.” In all cases, the list should reflect a healthy combination of work, recovery and play. If going to a support group three or more times per week, exercising daily and seeing a therapist regularly are on the list, then spending time with friends, enjoying a hobby and just plain relaxing should also be on the list. A few common outer boundary activities are as follows:
- Spend more time with my spouse and kids
- Get in shape
- Rejoin and become active in my church
- Develop a new hobby
Once again, and I can’t stress this enough, every cybersex addict is different. Each addict has a unique life history, singular goals and specific problematic cybersexual behaviors. Therefore, every cybersex boundary plan is different. Behaviors that are deeply troubling for one addict may be perfectly OK for another, and vice versa. As such, there is no set formula for defining and living cybersex sobriety. The real key is for each addict to be totally, completely and brutally honest when formulating his or her definition of sobriety and his or her boundary plan.
In my next posting in this series on healing from cybersex addiction, I will provide a few tips on how cybersex boundary plans can best be implemented, on where masturbation might fall in a particular cybersex addict’s plan, and when/how/why plans might need to change over time.