What Is Sex Addiction? How Can Recovery Begin?
Recently, I collaborated with Evo Health and Wellness in Venice Beach to talk about sex and porn addiction and how we might think about addiction. Evo asked me a few questions, which I respond to below, and they answered a few of my questions about addiction.
What is sex addiction or porn addiction?
Whether it’s to a substance or a behavior, addiction generally has two defining characteristics: 1) loss of control over the addictive behavior, 2) continuing to engage in that behavior despite negative consequences.
Loss of control means that the person struggling with their behavior doesn’t have the ability to control their behavior anymore. Often this means that they have tried and failed to stop or cut back, or that they end up engaging in that behavior longer than intended, something like that.
Continuing to engage in that behavior despite negative consequences simply means that their behavior is causing problems but they keep doing it. They can’t stop, even though these behaviors are unwanted, and because they can’t stop, their problems often keep getting bigger.
So sex addiction is a pattern of repeatedly and compulsively engaging in sexual behaviors that causes problems. Often these behaviors include watching and masturbating to pornography, casual sex, hookups, prostitutes and escorts, visiting massage parlors for “happy endings,” that kind of thing.
Porn addiction isn’t just watching a lot of porn, then; it’s a habit of consuming pornography that gets out of control and creates problems.
How does a person know if their relationship to sex or porn is problematic? (Where’s the line?)
Addiction and the problems that addiction creates go hand in hand. There’s been a lot of talk about sex and porn addiction in recent years, with a recent study estimating that as many as 10% of men in the US may be addicted.
But you don’t need to be addicted to sexual behaviors for these behaviors to cause problems. For instance, so many of the clients I see are couples in distress because one partner has discovered the other’s porn habit. Pornography and other sexual behaviors can create real crises in relationships once they’re discovered, and that’s of course problematic.
Other problems are also possible: Financial problems, negative impact on one’s work or academics, mental health problems and illnesses like depression or anxiety, even legal trouble as some sexual behaviors like exhibitionism (flashing) or voyeurism are against the law. We’ve all by now heard stories about cameras in coffeeshop bathrooms.
My general rule of thumb is that if the sexual behavior causes a problem, it is a problem.
What would you say are some of the big misunderstandings about sex or porn addiction? How should we be thinking about these issues?
With all the talk about porn and sex addiction out there, I believe that there are quite a few misunderstandings about sex and porn addiction, but let me speak to four that come to mind.
I’m not out to judge you or your sexual behaviors.
Second, many can wrongly conclude that any sexual behavior or use of pornography is an addiction. I often tell my clients that this is completely understandable. We make sense of our experience with words, categories, and labels. It makes sense that upon discovering your husband’s porn habit or your partner’s flirtatious sexts that you would be afraid that he had a problem with sex or porn addiction.
But I think that just as not everyone who drinks has an addiction to alcohol, and so too not everyone who engages in sexual behaviors is an addict. People can be social drinkers, and many people, for instance, use porn or engage with escorts recreationally in ways that enhance enjoyment and intimacy. Oftentimes, the difference is that problematic sexual behaviors are pursued in secret and without the consent of their partners, and that’s where the problems start and may be a sign of addiction. If you do discover a betrayal of any kind, whether it’s porn, an incriminating text, or a troubling browser history, it’s a good idea to seek help from a sex or porn addiction specialist to sort it out.
Third, people struggling with sexual addiction or porn don’t just have high libidos. They’re not “sex crazy” or oversexed. Those struggling with problematic sexual behaviors are out of control and trapped in a prison, tragically, of their own making. They can’t escape, despite their best efforts. They are profoundly ashamed of their behavior and terrified that anyone will find out about the double life they lead. It’s no surprise, then, that many who are discovered are relieved; they are no longer burdened with secrets and shame. Sex and porn addiction, though they may have started as enjoyable habits that helped them deal with life’s problems, create many more problems and wreak havoc in the person’s life.
Finally, many who struggle can be afraid that they would have to go to meetings for the rest of their lives or call themselves an “addict.” I know this will be controversial, but I believe that recovery look different for everyone. That’s why getting individualized help is so important. Twelve-step meetings and thinking about addiction as a lifelong “disease” makes sense and works for some people but not for everyone. I believe that sex and porn addiction can be overcome and that once you’ve done the work (this is not to say that recovery isn’t a lot of work!), you can get on with living your best life.
What are some tools to begin to address sex or porn addiction? (What are the first steps?)
When someone first comes to me, often they’re in crisis. Their partner has just found out about their secret behaviors and they are confused, desperate, ashamed, and afraid of losing everything. In these cases, the first steps often include crisis management and damage control. I want to help to prevent the chaos from getting worse, and that’s why I often immediately collaborate with clients on solving their most immediate problems.
Once we’ve achieved some stability, I take some time to understand the problematic sexual behaviors in the context of the client’s life. It’s not unusual for the client to be eager to stop the sexual behaviors immediately, and very often we do need to implement some stopgap measures to save their relationship and prevent additional harm.
I want to set the client up for success by carefully considering the role that the problematic sexual behaviors have had in his life.
Understanding how the addictive behavior has fulfilled important emotional needs, however devastating it has been, can help the client feel less shame and more compassionate toward himself. It also helps us figure out how he can start heal from his trauma and to get his dependency needs met elsewhere, giving his recovery a better chance of a strong start.
That’s when we then collaborate on his goals for his recovery, what the client wants his life to look life, and plan how we can help him achieve this vision.
You talk on your site about silencing the inner critic. How does judgment get in the way of healing?
Those who struggle with problematic sexual behaviors have often been told throughout their lives that they are somehow defective, not good enough, inadequate, unlovable, or unworthy. They suffer from longstanding, chronic feelings of shame that feel inescapable. Often, early in their lives, they found out that engaging in sexual behaviors helped them feel a little better, if only for a while.
But then the self-criticism and self-judgment come back with a vengeance. “If anyone knew about this, if anyone knew who you really are,” that voice says, “they wouldn’t love you.” So there’s a part of them that stays hidden in the shadows to avoid the judgment they know will come should they be real about what’s going on. They can’t let themselves be vulnerable because they’re so afraid of being judged and shamed, which means rejection and abandonment.
It’s so important to take a non-judgmental, collaborative approach that meets the client where they are.
The great tragedy is that sometimes the way that we’ve traditionally treated addiction reinforces this shame. Traditional treatment can be shaming for many, because of its focus on the addictive behaviors, powerlessness, and its often confrontational stance. That’s why I think it’s so important to take a non-judgmental, collaborative approach that meets the client where they are and, like Evo says, respects where they want to go.
I think it’s important to paint a picture for people out there of what is possible for those looking to make a change. Could you share any stories/examples of people who have overcome these types of addictions?
If you’re still reading by now, hopefully you have some hope that you can overcome these kinds of addictions. Change is definitely possible; I’ve seen plenty of stories of genuine transformation.
I remember one such story of a man I worked with for some time (I’ve heavily changed any identifying details to protect his confidentiality). When I first began to meet with him, his life was unraveling as a result of his use of pornography, prostitutes, and massage parlors. He was wondering why he could continue to make choices that endangered his family life, his professional practice, and his finances.
But as one of my favorite authors and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate writes, the question is not why the addiction but why the pain. After reevaluating what he wanted for his life, we put together a sexual health plan and a vision for where he wanted to go. He rebuilt his marriage and did the hard work of unpacking the emotional pain that was driving his addictive behavior. He was vulnerable for the first time in his life. He let others in, allowing himself to know and be known by others. He took risks and learned to bear feelings that he couldn’t before. It was a wonderful blessing to me to support him.
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