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By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS
For most adults, healthy sexuality is an integrated life experience. Sex with partners, with self, or as a part of exploring new relationships is usually a pleasurable act of choice. For sexual addicts however, sexual behavior can be most often defined by words such as driven, compulsive and hidden. Unlike healthy sex that is integrated into relationships, sexual addicts use sex as a means to cope, to handle boredom, anxiety and other powerful feelings or as a way to feel important, wanted or powerful. While sexual addiction is not defined by any particular sexual act, sexual addiction is defined by the feelings and activities surrounding sex. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. in his groundbreaking 1978 book on sexual addiction, Out of the Shadows, helps to define sexually addictive behavior as sexual activity that often falls into one of three categories: Shameful, Secretive or Abusive.
Shame can be defined as a feeling of inner worthlessness or despair about ever being good enough. For the sexual addict spending precious time, money and energy seeing prostitutes for sexual massage, maintaining multiple affairs or masturbating night after night to pornography, shame about these acts becomes the hidden inner core of feelings which ends up sabotaging relationships, careers and self-esteem.
John is a 35 year old married man with two young children. Unknown to his wife, he has a pornography collection of hundreds of GIFs stored in his computer which he uses for nightly masturbation. John has been making sexual contacts with women through the Internet over the past few years and lately has begun to meet some of them for daytime sexual affairs and sexual liaisons when traveling on business. John justifies his behaviors by saying that it “doesn’t hurt anybody” and “I don’t love these women, so what difference does it make.” However, each time he lies to his wife about his behaviors, puts his kids to bed without spending time with them to get back to the computer, or comes into work exhausted from having been up masturbating the night before, he feels a little bit worse about himself and becomes more detached and emotionally distant from everyone around him.
Secrecy is a hallmark of sexual addiction. Compartmentalizing a life of hidden sexual behaviors, the sex addict finds him/herself wrapped in a web of lies and manipulations, consistently hiding from those close to them, while using justifications, rationalizations and outright denial to lie to themselves.
Jeff, a 45 year old homosexual male in a long term “monogamous” relationship continues to seek anonymous sex in the same public park restroom where he has been arrested for lewd conduct just 2 years before. Though promising himself he would never return there, that he was done with having sex with strangers, he continues to engage in sexual behaviors which put him in danger of arrest and disease. He has convinced himself that since he was arrested before, he would now definitely recognize the signs of a vice officer being present and would be able to get out before being arrested again. Each time he goes out for sex it is “the last time”, and upon leaving each sexual encounter he says to himself, “never again.” When not in the park, Jeff frequents adult bookstores and porn shops to meet others for sex. Jeff consistently lies to his partner about where he goes after work, having a never-ending stream of excuses about his invariable lateness in coming home. When questioned about these issues he quickly becomes irritable, angry and defensive, pushing his partner away time and time again.
Abusive sex can run the gamut from manipulations or lying in order to be sexual, to experiences like exhibitionism, sexual harassment and rape. Potential sexual partners are being abused when invited into situations they do not fully understand, when there is a clear inequity of power in a relationship or when the right of sexual choice is taken away.
Al was a supervisor in a large corporation. Because he was known as “always being on the make” the women at Al’s company learned to be careful how they engaged with him. Al didn’t see anything wrong with simple pats on the butt, commenting on a co-workers legs or breast size or making out with secretaries in the elevator at the company holiday party, though being careful that the women he approached didn’t work directly for him. Married for 11 years, Al maintained several sexual affairs both at work and with various baby-sitters and housekeepers hired to work in his home. When he was younger, Al had been kicked out of a school fraternity when he was accused of having sex with a woman when she was passed out from drinking. At the time he felt like too much was made of the incident, “after all, we were drinking together.”
As the examples above indicate, sexually addictive behavior is not based on a single incident or experience. When reviewing their past, most sexual addicts will uncover long histories of various types and levels of sexual acting-out behaviors, often going back to adolescence. Recovery from sexual addiction is a long and challenging process, a task best undertaken with the support of other recovering sexual addicts, 12 step recovery involvement and treatment by specialists trained in working with addiction. Overall the primary key to recovery from years of hidden sexual acts, betrayal and lies is a strong motivation and willingness to take the necessary risks of honesty facing these painful issues and reaching out for help.