There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about sexual addiction, much of which centers around the way in which “sexual sobriety” is (and is not) defined. For starters, a lot of people, including some underinformed therapists, think that clinicians who treat sex addiction dictate to their clients what is and is not healthy, which would leave the definition of sexual sobriety open to the clinician’s personal, moral, and/or religious views about what sex should look like, with whom you should have it, and how often you should have it. This could include possible interpretations like, “If you’re not legally married to an opposite sex spouse, you should not be having sex with anyone, including yourself.”
Happily, after nearly three decades treating sex addicts and their families, and training other therapists to do the same, I can assure you that this is not the way in which sexual sobriety is defined. Certified sex addiction therapists are not the sex police, nor do we wish to be. In fact, as a rule we are incredibly sex positive, encouraging any and all forms of sexual expression, as long as they’re not obsessive, compulsive, and out of control in ways that harm self or others. Same-sex behaviors, fetishes, kinks, and all other forms of legal and consensual sexual activity are perfectly acceptable as far as we are concerned—even for recovering sex addicts. Anyone who says differently is either misinformed or lying.
A similar concern, generally expressed by sex addicts themselves, is that sexual sobriety requires long-term abstinence (as we typically see with recovery from substance and gambling addictions), or at least long-term abstinence from the types of behaviors that turn them on the most. In fact, one of the first questions I am likely to hear when starting work with a newly recovering sex addict is, “Will I ever have a healthy and enjoyable sex life, or do I have to give up hot sex forever?” Often, that is followed by a statement like, “If I have to give up sex permanently, or my favorite flavor of sex permanently, you can forget about me staying in recovery.”
I do not in any way fault my clients for this attitude. Instead, I tell them that unlike certain other forms of addiction sobriety, sexual sobriety is not defined by long-term deprivation. With sex addiction, we define sobriety as we do with eating disorders—another area where long-term abstinence is neither desired nor feasible. So, instead of permanently abstaining from all sexual activity or even certain types of sexual activity, recovering sex addicts define sexual sobriety in ways that help them be sexual in non-compulsive, non-problematic, life-affirming ways.
Individually Defining Sexual Sobriety
On the heels of the conversation described above, newly recovering sex addicts tend to ask, “If sexual sobriety doesn’t require lasting sexual abstinence, what does it require?” The good news (and maybe also the bad news, for those who like rigid rules) is there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this question. Each sex addict enters the process of recovery with a unique life history, a unique set of compulsive sexual behaviors that are causing problems, and a unique set of goals for the future. Based on this information, each sex addict is encouraged to craft a personalized definition of sobriety. This means each addict’s definition of sexual sobriety will be his or hers alone. Moreover, sexual behaviors that are highly problematic for one recovering sex addict might be perfectly fine for another. For example, sexual sobriety for 28-year-old single gay man could (and probably will) only loosely resemble sexual sobriety for a 48-year-old married father of three. The goal of sexual sobriety is not conformity; the goal is a non-compulsive, non-shaming, consequence-free sexual life.
Sexual Boundary Plans
Recovering sex addicts, after defining what sexual sobriety means to them, typically put this into effect through use of a sexual boundary plan. These plans define and set limits on which sexual behaviors are and are not acceptable for that addict.
Typically, the process of creating a sexual boundary plan begins with a statement of goals, where recovering sex addicts list the primary reasons they want to change their sexual behavior. A few commonly stated goals are as follows:
- I don’t want to cheat on or keep secrets from my significant other.
- I want to be present in the real world instead of living my life online.
- I don’t want to “lose myself” in pornography ever again.
- I don’t want to put my health and my self-esteem at risk through sexual behaviors.
- I want to feel like a whole, integrated, healthy person, like I’m living my life with integrity.
Once a sex addict’s goals for recovery are clearly stated, he or she can move forward with the creation of a personalized plan for sobriety, using his or her pre-established goals as an overall guide. Sometimes sexual sobriety plans are simple, straightforward statements like, “I will not engage in sexual infidelity no matter what,” or, “I will not view pornography of any kind.” More often, sex addicts implement a more detailed, three-tiered set of guidelines constructed as follows:
The Inner Boundary: This boundary lists the specific sexual actions that lead to 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:
- Paying for sex.
- Calling an ex for sex.
- Going online for porn.
- Masturbating to porn.
- Engaging in webcam sex.
- Getting sensual massages.
- Hiring prostitutes.
- Hooking up for casual and/or anonymous sex.
- Having affairs.
- Exhibiting oneself (online and/or real world).
The Middle Boundary: This boundary lists warning signs and slippery situations that might lead a sex addict back to inner boundary activities. Here, the addict lists the people, places, thoughts/fantasies, events, and experiences that might trigger his or her desire to engage in problematic (non-sober) sexual behaviors. In addition to obvious potential triggers (logging onto the Internet, driving through a neighborhood where prostitutes hang out, downloading a hookup app, etc.), this list includes 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:
- Skipping therapy and/or a support group meeting.
- Lying (about anything), especially to a loved one.
- Poor self-care—lack of sleep, eating poorly, forgoing exercise, etc.
- Working more hours than usual.
- Spending time with family of origin—holidays, reunions, etc.
- Fighting and/or arguing with anyone, especially with loved ones.
- Unstructured time alone.
- Traveling alone (for any reason).
- Feeling lonely.
- Feeling bored.
The Outer Boundary: This boundary lists healthy behaviors and activities that can and hopefully will lead a sex addict toward his or her life goals—including but not even remotely limited to having a healthy, non-destructive sex life. These healthy pleasures are what addicts 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. A few common outer boundary behaviors are as follows:
- Spend more time with family, especially the kids.
- Reconnect with old friends.
- Rekindle an old hobby or develop a new one.
- Get in shape.
- Get regular sleep.
- Work no more than eight hours per day.
- Rejoin and become active in church.
- Go back to school.
- Work on the house and yard.
- Do volunteer work.
Once again, and I can’t stress this enough, every sex addict is different. Each addict has a unique life history, singular goals, and specific problematic sexual behaviors. Therefore, every definition of sexual sobriety and every sexual boundary plan is different. Behaviors that are deeply troubling for one sex addict could be perfectly acceptable for another, and vice versa. As such, there is no set formula for defining and living sexual sobriety. Conformity is not the goal. Living a healthy and fulfilling life is what matters.