The first thing I want to say to you is that in my way of thinking, sex addiction
is an addiction like any other. What I mean to say is that the specific agent of
addiction that people choose is not reflective of one’s character but rather a
function of what one is exposed to. People who grow up in families who
misuse alcohol have a greater propensity to abuse alcohol themselves.
People who are workaholics often come from backgrounds where hard work
is valued very highly.
So, we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that the sex addict has been
exposed to sex in an impactful way during a key period of childhood
development. Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 15 or so there’s
usually been a jolting exposure to sex – the discovery of a porn video or
magazine, or walking in on parents having sex as examples. Believe it or not
sometimes even being taken to a sex worker to initiate one’s entry into
manhood at around 13 or 14 years of age. Of course, physical and sexual
trauma should not be forgotten either as they are common components of the
profiles of sex addicts but not always present.
This question of the social origins of sex as an addictive agent is important
because one of the huge issues that follow sex addiction is the role of
morality. Sex addicts are often viewed as lecherous libertines who choose to
act out to excess.
My experience is quite the opposite. Lecherous libertines exist in the world.
There’s no doubt about it. But, sex addicts are moral people. In fact it’s their
morality, the fact that they’re behaving in ways that offend who they wish to
be, that locks them into the feelings of shame that are the lynchpin of the
addictive cycle. The lech never makes into my consulting room because he
sees nothing wrong with his behavior. There is no internal emotional conflict
to propel the cycle.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here discussing how to determine whether
or not you have a problem with sex addiction. If you want to find out more
about that check the, ‘Sex Addiction Criteria’ video in the phocuslife.com
Resource Center where I go into this in detail. The video is part of a 3 video
series that provides a good introduction into 1.) sex addiction criteria, 2.) the
importance of structuring your life if you’re going to improve it, and 3.) the
addictive cycle and how it works. I will simply say that I believe that the bulk
of the people that have concerns probably don’t have sex addiction per se but
rather a lower level condition called problematic sexual behavior.
With sex addiction there’s a lack of control and significant impairment of one’s
life and relationships. With problematic sexual behavior, there is still a
measure of control over the behavior yet the beginnings of the impact on
work, family, and friendships have begun to show. Also, as with sex
addiction, within problematic sexual behavior sex is used quite consciously to
neutralize negative feelings like stress, depression, boredom and anxiety.
Have some time to kill and feel like you’re climbing the wall a bit? Well, your
favorite porn site is as close as your phone or nearest computer. It’s just for a
few minutes you tell yourself in the beginning.
So, you see for the person with problematic sexual behavior, the porn is an
easy answer. It comes with few consequences save, let’s say, a few
disappointed friends and family when you’re occasionally late for
My message is two-fold: first, the misuse of porn and sex to manage emotions
is more common than many of us care to admit since porn and sex can
impact our lives before the full-blown development of addiction. Second,
problematic sexual behavior might be a precursor stage to sex addiction itself
so it pays to notice if your sexual behavior is causing difficulties in your
relationships and responsibilities or beginning to be less predictable.
Problematic sexual behavior doesn’t always develop into sex addiction. But,
sex addiction almost always begins with problematic sexual behavior.
But, hang on a minute. Some of you might be thinking, ‘didn’t I read
somewhere that sex is not really addictive?’ Well, there has been a great deal
of confusion amongst addictions researchers and clinicians about whether sex
can be truly addictive. Some research studies conclude yes. Others
conclude no. Well, in my opinion the evidence is slowly accumulating to
establish that sex is capable of being addictive just like other behaviors like
gambling and eating disorders.
As important, I can tell you that the experience of addiction that sex addicts
relay during clinical sessions is largely consistent with the experience reported
by other addicts addicted to substances like alcohol, cocaine, and heroin.
They speak of the growing centrality of fantasy and sex in their lives to the
exclusion of other former interests that helped them to stay balanced. They
might speak of noticing that they sometimes get anxious, suffer from insomnia
or feel out of sorts if too much time has elapsed since their last session of
acting out sexually. They mention that despite these negative effects they
continue to act out sexually to their harm.
I won’t go through the entire list of criteria, but again you should check out the
sex addiction criteria video in the Resource Center.
There’s something about sex that makes it different from other addictive
agents, however. Sex is a natural part of life, so complete abstinence
indefinitely is not a good idea for most people. Sometimes people who begin
treatment choose to avoid sexual activity of any kind or masturbation alone as
a means of resetting their sexual clocks. But, at some point it’s important to
re-establish a more positive sexual repertoire in order to satisfy your sexual
drive. To that end, when we’re discussing sex addiction it’s very important to
know which sexual behaviors that are part of your repertoire are addictive and
which are not.
Another thing that comes to mind is that in order to overcome sex addiction
it’s very important to have a sense of the historical factors that led to the
condition that might still be operative, as well as factors that have developed
more recently. If you suffered childhood trauma that you’ve ignored until now,
but find yourself acting out sexually, perhaps now is the time to enter therapy
to deal with the trauma. Likewise, if you’re within the current trauma of a
difficult relationship therapy might be a helpful option.
Sex addiction is not one definable thing but a condition that can be expressed
in many ways. Learn what you can about the condition. Seek help if
appropriate and begin the turn.