Why Your Sex Addiction Was Helpful

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? How could sex addiction ever be helpful?


By definition, sex addiction is a pattern of unhealthy sexual behaviors that are out of control and that create chaos in the addict’s life.


As the illness progress, the addict’s pursuit of mood-altering sexual experiences becomes central to his or her existence and life becomes more and more unmanageable.


Helpful? Hardly. But because it’s progressive, sex addiction doesn’t start this way. To understand how sex or porn addiction could be helpful, we have to look at the stories that addicts usually tell.


Trauma: The Roots of Sex Addiction

“I was molested as a child.”


“My dad used to hit us after he’d been drinking.”


“Mom was really narcissistic, I just had to find a way to get out of there.”


Sex addicts frequently tell me that they’ve experienced some form of abuse as children. Indeed,

  • 72% of addicts report a history of physical abuse
  • 81% report sexual abuse, and
  • 97% report that they were emotionally abused.


The stories that addicts tell are replete with abuse and the emotional pain that follows. Often, the pain is so overwhelming that they can’t bear it.


They can’t count on their parents to help them with this pain as parents are often the cause of the emotional injuries. In instances of sexual abuse, the shame can be too great to talk with another trusted adult that might help. Physical abuse, like sexual abuse, can be the “family secret” that prevents the child from getting the emotional support and help they need.


So what’s a child to do?


Sex Addiction Starts

As humans, we naturally strive to become our own persons, to develop as healthy emotional beings. We need the right mix of nurturing from attentive, responsive caregivers to learn how to be in intimate relationships and manage our feelings.


Abusive family environments and relationships, however, have profound consequences for the child. Having emotional needs and being overwhelmed with painful feelings, the child will learn to cope with these feelings as best as they can, often unconsciously dissociating from them.


When he grows into a young adult, the roots of addiction, which does its job of helping the user get rid of feelings very well, begin to take hold.


Addiction, of course, takes many forms. Depending on what’s available, on family history, and genetics, the young adult may become increasingly preoccupied with his growing sexuality. Probably without even knowing it, he finds that his sexual behaviors is the only way available that he can:


  1. Attempt to meet his emotional needs
  2. Numb his overwhelming, unresolved pain from the abuse he experienced


I know what you may be thinking. “Sex addiction as a way to meet emotional needs? That’s crazy.” It may even be hurtful to you if you’re a partner of a sex addict, an excuse that dismisses the addiction and your pain about it. Sex addiction starts as a way to manage feelings and progresses to a conditional mode of being, so that the addict’s brain just wants more and more sex to feel normal.


Sex Addiction as Adaptive

Sex addiction starts, then, as a way to deal with unresolved emotional pain that the addict has never learned to deal with from his caregivers.


Before it progresses and its grip on the brain tightens, before they often become so numb to their feelings that it’s hard to know what their emotions are, addicts often discover that their sexual behaviors were helpful. Depending on the addict’s history and emotional needs, maybe the acting out represents:


  • A way to get emotional distance from smothering relationships (including a spousal relationship)
  • A means to be free of overly needy, narcissistic parents (and loved ones that they currently experience as wanting too much from them
  • A way to feel “alive” compared to the deadness they felt when they were being abused
  • A mechanism to keep the painful feelings associated with the abuse out of awareness


For Addicts in Recovery

If you’re in recovery, I hope this gives you reason to be gentle with yourself. The shame can be crippling. Even though you were fully responsible for your behaviors, realizing that you were dealing with painful feelings using the means available to you can do much to soften your shame and bring you into dialogue with those you love and with others in recovery.


Part of your work in recovery is to ask yourself,


  • “How did my addiction come to be?”
  • “How was my addiction helpful to me?”
  • “What wounds was I dealing with that I turned to sex addiction?”
  • “What unmet needs was I trying to fulfill (but in the wrong way)?”


Healing can begin when we wrestle with these questions by engaging in genuine, connecting dialogue. Participating in open, honest relationships is the antidote to the double lives that so many addicts use to lead. If that sounds hard to do, it is. Be gentle with yourself. You’re still learning to do it.

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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