Pleasure and Pain: Power and the Arousal Neuropathway (Part I)

In the last post, we considered the four addiction neuropathways—arousal, satiation or numbing, fantasy, and deprivation. If you missed it, we talked about how addicts tend to self-select the substance or compulsive behavior of choice (there’s usually a primary addiction, even if there are others present) based on how they want to alter their feelings.


Fantasy is great for escaping or dissociating from reality. Often addicts who prefer to use substances or engage in behaviors in this neuropathway have been traumatized, so that their everyday reality is too painful to bear.


Got anxiety? Satiation is probably your thing. This neuropathway is aptly named because the word “satiation” means “to fill up” or “to satisfy,” and that’s exactly what addicts engaging this pathway are trying to do: to fill up the bottomless hole of their anxiety, keeping it at bay as much as possible.


The goal of deprivation, by contrast, is to ward off terror, which is often the result of trauma. Controlling behaviors—extreme dieting, avoiding sex, hoarding, compulsive exercise—provide a means to avoid the terror that one might feel if something were to happen.


We also discussed the arousal neuropathway, which is all about pleasure and intensity. However, I found that in thinking about it, I wanted to share more with you about this pathway in particular. Because arousal includes a phenomenon that isn’t often discussed or understood when it comes to sex addiction.





I know, I know.


“Power? Wait, what? I don’t understand.”


By power, I simply mean the exertion of control or influence on a another person, or the capacity to do so.


At first glance, it may seem that power has little to do with sexually compulsive behaviors and the arousal neuropathway. But there are plenty of sexual acts and behaviors that have everything to do with power and domination (and submission, or the lack thereof).


After all, when the movie Fifty Shades of Grey came out a couple of years ago now, BDSM was in the spotlight. BDSM, which stands for Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, Sadism & Masochism, is a form of sexual play. Both partners willingly enter into a sexual relationship in which there is an imbalance of power, which heightens the sexual experience for both. Since both partners consent, BDSM respects the boundaries and desires of each.


Let’s take a look at a few examples of sexual activities involving arousal and power that do violate boundaries:

  • Intrusive sex describes sexually compulsive acts in which the addict exerts power over another person. Intrusive sex means that the addict violates boundaries without discovery. Frotteurism, e.g., is the intentional touching of a non-consenting person, usually in erogenous zones like the breasts or buttocks; sometimes these acts are made to seem unintentional, so that “getting away with it” becomes part of the “high.”
  • Voyeurism is visual arousal that is often obtained without the other’s consent.
  • Seductive role sex is the seduction of partners (i.e., persons already in relationships). Arousal here is based on conquest. With seduction role sex, I always think of Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Casino Royale, who says to Vesper (Eva Green) in the midst of a romance with her that she’s usually not his type because she was single when they met.
  • Exploitive sex involves exploitation of the vulnerable, with arousal being based on the targeted “types” of vulnerability. Exploitative sex includes but is not limited to any sex that betrays the trust of the victim and that involves children.


While these and other sexual behaviors are not by definition compulsive, they certainly can be inasmuch as they constitute in whole or in part a sex addict’s acting out behaviors.



The more heinous the sexual behavior is, the egregious the boundary violations, the harder it is for us to hold on to the fact that compulsive arousal behaviors are always an attempt to create intense pleasure as an antidote to intense emotional pain.


But how is pleasure a remedy for emotional pain?


The intensity of arousal behaviors create a sense of power, control, even omnipotence over their emotional pain. We’ll get into more details about this as we continue our discussion in part II.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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