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By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CAS
Q: How do I know if I am a sex addict?
The primary way to identify any addictive behavior is to consider whether it is causing negative or unwelcome problems and yet you return to it anyway. If your sexual behaviors have caused consequences to your legal status, relationships, career, health (emotional or physical), yet you continue to engage in those sexual behaviors anyway then there is likely a problem. You know that you are a sex addict if your sexual behaviors take up more time, energy and focus than you would like or if they cause you to act in ways that go against your underlying values and beliefs. Men and women who are sexual addicts will frequently say to themselves, “This is the last time that I am going to…” yet they will find themselves ultimately feeling driven to return to the same sexual situations, despite previous commitments to change.
Sexual addicts are most often unable to make and keep commitments to themselves and others about stopping or changing particular sexual behaviors over the long term and most have problems with real intimacy. They will describe having feelings of overwhelming intensity while approaching the possibility of engaging in their particular sexual behavior and describe this intensity state as “being in the bubble” or “like being in a trance.” This intensity/arousal state is typical and helps sexual addicts block out the potential consequences of what they are about to do. Typical sexual addict behaviors include: compulsive use of the Internet, phone lines or personals ads for sex, consistent use of prostitutes, sexual massage or escorts, multiple affairs, frequent sex outside of primary relationships, anonymous sex and compulsive masturbation.
Q: If I turn out to be a sex addict, why can’t I just take prescription medications to reduce my sex drive?
Certain anti-depressant and hormonal drugs do reduce sexual drive, but medications alone cannot solve the problems underlying sexual addiction. It can be helpful to some people to consider medication as an option (through a consultation with a Psychiatrist familiar with addictive disorders) but rarely do those medications eradicate or evolve long-term changes to compulsive sexual behaviors. For sexual addicts, long term, addiction-based counseling, 12 step support group attendance and a commitment to making adjustments in life circumstances are the best start toward creating long term change. Sexual addiction is not just a problem of being too horny or wanting sex too often. Sexual addiction is a disorder where a person uses cruising, flirting, fantasy, intrigue and sex itself as a way of managing and tolerating feelings and underlying emotional conflicts. Sex addicts seek sexual highs to substitute for the support and intimacy they really need but do not allow themselves. Even though they may be surrounded by friends, family or supportive spouses; sex addicts will turn to the isolating intensity of their sexual behaviors or comfort rather than using the real human support that they have available. Sexual addiction is more than a physical problem that can be solved by taking a pill; it involves complex and often confusing emotional concerns.
Q: Can masturbation and pornography be a part of sex addiction?
Compulsive masturbation with or without the use of pornography and the compulsive viewing of porn with or without masturbation both present longstanding problems for many sex addicts. Whether it is through cybersex, phone sex lines, videos, and porn magazines or simply through fantasy; sexual addicts can lose hours daily to the isolating activities of fantasy and masturbation. Sexual addiction is not necessarily defined by having sex with another partner, some sexual addicts are too afraid of getting caught, getting a disease or being rejected to seek out partners for their acting-out. Instead, those involved in compulsive masturbation or compulsive viewing of pornography may lead lonely, disconnected lives, never really understanding what it is that keeps them from real intimacy and connection with those around them. Many sexual addicts who utilize compulsive masturbation as their primary way of sexual acting-out are in complete denial that their patterns of sexual release are any different than most people. Caught in compulsive patterns — often begun in childhood or adolescence — the sex addict who is masturbating compulsively may masturbate every night to get to sleep or every morning in the shower. Thus these behaviors become as much a part of their daily routine as eating or sleep.
Q: If Alcoholics and drug addicts define “being sober” by not drinking or using mind altering chemicals, how does a sexual addict define sobriety without having to abstain from sex altogether?
Unlike sobriety from the use of substances, sexual sobriety is not usually defined as abstinence from sex, although some recovering persons may take a short period of celibacy to help gain personal perspective or address a particular issue. Sexual sobriety is most often defined through the use of a “sex plan” or “contract” between the sexual addict and their 12-Step recovery support sponsor, therapist or clergy. These plans are ideally written down, and involve clearly defined, concrete behaviors from which the addict has committed to abstain in order to define sobriety. Some relationship or sexual recovery plans have very strictly defined boundaries, No sexual activity of any kind outside of a committed marital relationship could be one such defined boundary, No sex before being in a committed relationship, another. Sobriety is defined as abstinence from the sexual activities which cause the addict to feel shameful, hold secrets or which are illegal or abusive. Personal definitions may change over time as the recovering person evolves in their understanding of the disease. One recovering mans’ early contract started out as, “I am sober as long as I do not have sex in a public place, use pornography, see prostitutes or old girlfriends (whom I am just seeing for the sexual contact).” This same man’s “sex plan” evolved over the period of a few months to be all of the above plus… “I am sober as long as I do not engage in flirtation, intrigue or sexual seduction with strangers or have sexual or romantic liaisons with anyone I have dated for at least 90 days prior to sex.” Sexual contracts such as these are always created in discussion with at least one other recovering person, therapist or clergy, and are not changed without the prior agreement of those trusted people.
Q: My wife caught me several months ago in online cybersex/romantic chats and porn viewing. At the time I admitted I had a problem and joined a 12 step program for help. I have not acted out sexually since that time, however my wife continues to be distant, critical, angry and mistrustful. What can I do to make our relationship improve?
The situation you describe is one that is frequently encountered by newly recovering sex addicts. Here you are, finally addressing your problem, being truthful with your partner and not acting-out. Yet she is angry, devaluing and distant. What is wrong here? Why isn’t she cheering on the good progress you are making and being more understanding that you have a problem you are addressing? Let’s look at the reality of the situation here. Although you are doing well and dealing with the issues and deserve lots of support and validation, it seems wrong to ask that your partner be the one to offer you that validation right now. As with many recovering sex addicts, you are missing the partner’s side of the issue. Should she cheer for the fact that you are no longer betraying your wedding vows and the sanctity of your relationship, that you have now decided to respect the commitments you made to each other? Put in that context it can be easier to understand that your partner is deeply hurt, angry and suspicious and probably will remain that way for some time. Just as she stood by as you emotionally abandoned the relationship through your sexual acting-out, you will have to be just as patient with her anger, disappointment and suspicion. It is vital that she express those feelings, even if they are hurtful, difficult and sometimes intolerable to you.
For a while, things are not going to feel so great for you as a couple which really is the inevitable outcome of your own actions. You do need to get the support for your hard recovery work which you can from friends in the 12 step programs, sponsors, therapists and others who can be on your side without their own issues coming up. Give your partner the space and understanding to express their hurt and anger without your trying to avoid it, dismiss it or make it different. In time things will improve. It is always helpful to consider couples counseling, attending RCA (Recovering Couples Anonymous) or other couples support groups to help work through the rough times.
Q: For many years I have found outlets to satisfy what I have always perceived as a large sexual appetite. My wife doesn’t seem to want to have a lot of sex so I have been involved in affairs, porn use and regularly receive sensual massages. Is this really a problem? Lots of guys I know brag about their conquests and what they are doing sexually and they don’t seem to have a problem — why should I worry?
One of the first questions to ask yourself in determining whether or not you have a sexual addiction problem is, “Why am even I asking myself about the appropriateness of my sexual behavior?” Most people don’t, for the most part, consistently question whether what they are doing sexually is right for them, nor do most people use the comments of “locker room conversations” to justify or compare their own sexual activities to others. It is worth noting that to even ask these kinds of questions may indicate that down deep you feel like there is some kind of problem. Secondly, part of what determines whether someone is a sex addict is not just looking at his or her sexual behaviors, but also at how they are living their lives. Many sex addicts are constantly lying to partners, keeping sexual secrets and finding ways to justify their sexual behaviors. How does your current sex life affect your sense of integrity and your own personal values or belief systems? How does it make you look at yourself? Forget what other guys say they do, how do you feel about your sexual behavior? It is one thing if you and your wife have a mutual and consensual understanding that some of your sexual activity will take place outside of the marriage, but are you keeping secrets and sneaking around, using lies or omissions to get away with your activities?
As to the sex itself, a sex addict is defined as: A man or woman who engages in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behaviors acted out despite harmful consequences or potential consequences to self or others. This means that for the sex addict, the sexual behaviors in question either have caused serious consequences to your life (legal, relationship, career, emotional, physical etc.) or that they have the potential to do so and yet those risks are being ignored. Before making a decision as to whether or not you are a sex addict it would be helpful to ask yourself if you are ignoring life consequences or the potential for those consequences in order to maintain access to your sexual activities. One thing that can help determine if there is a sex addiction problem present is to simply take a time out from all sexual behavior. Try not having sex at all for 30 days or so and see: 1) Can you keep the commitment? 2) How difficult was keeping it? 3) What feelings and experiences did you have of yourself while taking this “time out”? If you cannot maintain the commitment to yourself or find it extremely difficult, you may have a problem worth looking into. Also it is extremely helpful to attend some sex addiction 12 step programs to get a clearer idea of what those who have the problem are dealing with and how they are managing it.
Q: I am a gay man and am having trouble with calling myself a sex addict. I have gone through a lifetime of feeling stigmatized for my sexual orientation, and now it seems that by considering myself to be a sex addict I am just adding to that stigma. Although I do struggle with the nature and degree of my sexual behaviors, I wonder if taking on the label of sexual addiction is just another way of making me wrong for my sexuality.
It is very understandable that you would not want to be the subject of a cultural prejudice any more than you have already been so, but there are some important points that you should keep in mind. Being a sex addict is not something that anyone wants, it just is. And there is no difference between a straight sex addict and a gay sex addict except the sex of the person that they are pursuing. Straight men have strip bars, prostitutes, adult movie theatres, porn, cybersex, etc. Gay men have sex clubs, bathhouses, prostitutes, adult movies porn, cybersex, etc. The choices are slightly different, but the behavior is exactly the same. If you sit and listen to both straight and gay sex addicts speak about their problems, you quickly find that they have more in common in terms of the intensity, drive and compulsive nature of their behaviors than they have differences. The best sex addiction recovery work is done when sex addicts are able to reach below superficial differences to see those commonalities.
It is helpful to remember that acknowledging to yourself that you may be a sex addict does not attach a negative label to your morality, value system or humanity, no more than does calling someone who drinks to excess an alcoholic. The “label” of sex addiction is simply the most convenient and accurate term to use to describe certain sets of compulsive sexual behaviors, which need to be attended to with a particular kind of treatment. There is no clinical judgment placed on the diagnosis or the treatment of sex addiction, though feelings of shame, fear and embarrassment about being a sex addict are perfectly normal and predictable.
Q: As a woman who acts out compulsively in her sexual behavior, I have a great deal of fear and embarrassment in addressing these issues and getting help. Most everything I read and see about sex addicts refers to men and their behaviors. This makes me feel like a woman can’t have this problem or she has to be even sicker to have it. Yet I think I am a sex addict and I really struggle with this.
First of all, there are many women sex addicts. No, the problem is not as common or obvious for women as it is seen to be in men, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many women who suffer from compulsive sexual and romantic behaviors, there are. In your comment you do hit on a major reason why so few women feel comfortable coming forth and admitting to having a sexual addiction problem. After all, what do we call a man who frequently acts out with sexual conquests and sexualized behavior? Terms like stud, macho dude or just plain lucky are the kinds of references that are most often culturally made to men in this category. But what of the woman who frequently engages in sexual activity? There our terms are quite different. Women in this category the culture calls sluts, whores, loose, etc. Not exactly the kind of validation that anyone would want to acknowledge. So, while our society often rewards men for excessive sexual behavior, it simultaneously punishes and devalues women for the same activities. No wonder it is so difficult for women to come forth and admit they have a problem.
Similarly, in looking back into the history of 12 step recovery programs, you will find that 60 years ago or so when AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) was getting started, most of those meetings were male dominated. Rarely was a woman to be found in an AA meeting, for in those days alcoholics were perceived to be males, usually found drunk in back-alleys and half-way houses. Of course now we know that back then there were many, many women alcoholics, they were just more likely to be at home tipping the cooking sherry than out in a bar getting publicly drunk. The same situation seems to be the case in sexual recovery. Males today dominate most sexual recovery meetings, though this is beginning to change and even that culture has difficulty acknowledging that women do act out sexually.
Increasingly 12 step sexual recovery programs are opening themselves and their membership to more women, some providing women-only sessions, others more mixed meetings. Most local support group lists will state those meetings open to women sex addicts. It is essential for women in sexual recovery to seek out and find the fellowship of other recovering women to share their stories and reduce the stigma of being a woman with this problem.