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Sex Addicts and “Sexual Sobriety”

What is Sexual Sobriety?

Having spent two decades working with relationship and sexual addicts—male and female, straight and gay, younger and older—I have come to accept that people entering sex addiction recovery typically have little to no idea of what achieving “sexual sobriety” really means or entails. This confusion is in sharp contrast to nearly any alcoholic or drug addict entering treatment, who more or less already knows that he or she will have to abstain completely from alcohol and/or illicit drugs to be sober.

Unsurprisingly, the most frequently asked question by newcomers to sexual addiction treatment is: “Am I ever going to be able to have a healthy, regular sex life, or will I have to give up sex forever?” And this question is usually followed by a statement along the lines of, “If I have to give up sex permanently, then you can forget my staying in treatment.”

Fortunately, unlike sobriety for alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual sobriety is not defined by ongoing abstinence—though a short period away from sex is often recommended as a brief, early part of the healing process. Ultimately, sexual addiction treatment addresses sobriety in much the same way it is handled in the treatment of eating disorders, another area where sobriety does not mean permanently abstaining. (You can’t very well abstain from eating!)

6 Comments to
Sex Addicts and “Sexual Sobriety”

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  1. Interesting. But I thought you said in another blog post that sobriety and sex addiction didn’t have to do with any particular activity, but with dishonesty?

    By that measure, the only definition of sobriety that would count across the board is being honest about your sexuality with your significant other if you’ve got one. And I guess, with the Almighty or your best friend if you don’t, no?

    • Let me clarify, because on rereading the above I see it could be interpreted as flip. I don’t intend that. What I intend to underscore is that when one is engaged in what might be seen as sexually addictive behavior in set of circumstances #1, that exact same behavior, when shared with an okayed by a partner in situation #2, would not be seen as addictive behavior.

      Sex addiction is thusly NOT defined by behavior. It’s defined by secrecy. So shouldn’t the criteria of sobriety have not to do with behavior, but with honesty?

      • I appreciate your comment. However, I think you’ve confused my definition of sex addiction with my definition of infidelity. These are very clearly two different issues. Infidelity involves the betrayal of trust, whereas sexual addiction is a compulsive behavior. Sexual addiction sometimes involves infidelity, but not always, and infidelity sometimes involves sex addiction, but not always

      • Quite right, and your point is well taken. I had confused your definition of infidelity with addiction.

        That said, the notion of sex addiction being situationally dependent is a bit hard to square. If activity #1 (say, daily masturbation) is addictive in situation #1, but not at all in situation #2, that’s tough to compute.

        And could you please give some empirical backup to those wide-ranging assessments re the number of sex addicts in America? Those huge numbers you posited are still floating out there, without any reliable empirical underpinning.

        Thank you for pointing out my conflation of your definitions. Mea culpa.

  2. Perhaps I need a clearer definition of sexual addiction. From what I’ve seen, every young man I’ve known was a sex addict at some point in his life.

    And his goal in life was to find a female to transform into a sex addict as well.

    Are the following symptoms of sex addiction in the average teen or twenty something:

    They craved sex on a daily basis.

    They craved sex with multiple partners over monogamy.

    They viewed pornography.

    They needed a sexual release–either through masturbation or with a partner–on a daily basis.

    Are these sex addicts or is this normal, healthy sexual interest in the pre-thirty age group?

    • Good point.

    • Adam, this is a very good question, and I’m happy to answer. The basic answer is the typical teenaged boy is NOT a sex addict. Working off the proposed DSM-5 criteria for hypersexual disorder, which seems to be as good a definition of sexual addiction as any, the individual in question would need to be engaging in fantasies and behaviors to an extent that it interferes with normal life, and in response to stress or other dysphoric mood states (anxiety, depression, boredom, irritability). The teen would also need to have unsuccessfully tried to control the fantasies/behavior, and to be suffering from significant personal distress or impairment in social areas or school as a result of the fantasies/behavior. Thus, typical raging hormones and changing brain chemistry may result in a high sex drive and what appears to be sexual obsession—but that is not sexual addiction. In fact, to avoid confusion (and because it’s incredibly difficult to quantify “normal” versus “abnormal” when it comes to adolescents), the proposed DSM-5 definition specifically excludes those under the age of 18.

      • Very helpful. It’s wise to factor out those under 18. Perhaps one should go further and factor out those under 25!

        I wonder, though, how helpful the DSM criteria are, really, as you discuss them. Let’s take a very famous golfer, for example. Though we’re veering into the very, very dangerous territory of assessing someone not met in person, he was playing hellified golf just before everything blew up. It clearly wasn’t affecting his work life. It didn’t seem to be affecting has family life, either…until it all blew up! Of course, this was a guy whose work life meant 45 weeks a year away from home…but his wife knew that when she married him.

        Was this golfer using sex to help allay anxiety, irritability, or boredom? I don’t know a soul who doesn’t, sometimes, and who also does the same thing with television, the Internet, and prayer. Was there impairment? If there was, no one knew about it. Did he try to control it? We don’t know. And if he did the same behavior and was NOT married (a la Wilt Chamberlain or some rock stars), no one would have blinked.

        Same behavior, different context? No addiction. And that’s hard for a lot of us to wrap our heads around.

  3. Who teaches these folks how to be authentic and vulnerable in relationships? It’s not just about being able to have sex again. Often they are so disconnected from themselves or others with such a stong facade that they fake their way through relationships (even if they are committed to recovery). Who teaches them how to be in a relationship?
    This is a GAPING HOLE in the treatment of sexual addiction.

    • Excellent question, Caro. Contrary to popular belief, the heavy lifting of sex and love addiction recovery is not the elimination of problematic romantic and sexual behavior. It is instead the gradual (re)introduction of healthy romantic relationships and sexuality into the addict’s life. Sex and relationship addicts learn how to be authentic and vulnerable through individual and group therapy, through 12-step support groups, and by working and communicating with understanding spouses and partners. The improvement takes place over time; it doesn’t happen overnight. I can’t emphasize enough how effective group therapy and working the 12 steps can be in terms of developing empathy, which is essential if the addict is to find a new way of living.

  4. Dr. Linda Hatch, on a blog response, noted that a lot of people seem to “mature out” of addictions without needing in-patient or out-patient treatment, 12-steps, therapy, etc.

    I did some research. This is a documented phenomenon. See this paper from the United Nations that cites research by Charles Winick.

    Question: Have you seen the same thing with sex addiction?


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