“I like sex very much,” some of you may say. “Does that make me a sex addict? And is sex addiction even a real thing, or just a pop-psychology invention to make people guilty about something that is supposed to be natural?”
Dr. Patrick Carnes, the pioneer in putting sex-addiction onto the behavior addictions list, and my teacher in the program of certified sex-addiction therapists in the USA, makes it clear: Sexual addiction is one of the many behavioral addictions. A primary way to identify any addictive behavior is not how often or how much a person engages in it, nor the type of behavior and whether it is unconventional or even illegal, but 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), you’re well aware of the problems, you even promise or make efforts to stop the behaviors, and 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. 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.
Wait a minute … sex is a drug?
Sex may be the only experience that profoundly affects all three pleasure planes (arousal, satiation, and fantasy) in our neurochemistry (see Inside the love addict's brain). Because our ideas about sex and love are confused and intertwined, some people may think that sex addicts have a very active love life, when in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Sex addicts pursue excitement and sexual arousal from images, whether of a person, body parts, erotic images, or even their own fantasies.
Remember, the main difference between the various forms of relationship addictions lies in what they focus on. Romance addicts are hooked on the rapture of being in love ( see What's love got to do with love addiction?) “love” addicts look for control to prevent abandonment ( see 16 Typical behaviors of relationship addicts), codependents need to be needed, and sex addicts try to lose themselves in a sexual trance.
Regardless of what they believe, none of these addicts actually display any genuine care for the person on the other side! In practice, different types of addiction can intertwine to such a degree that they are each unable to be separated or distinguished from one another. It is not uncommon for sex addicts to be obsessed with watching impersonal pornographic images on the screen while at the same time being addictively dependent on their partners.
The difference between healthy sexual behavior and sex addiction
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.
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. 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.
Sex addicts engage in sexual behaviors not primarily for the sake of the act or for their partner, but to achieve the sense of oblivion that follows the sexual act. Intimacy or a relationship is not the goal; in fact, the actual relationship can be secondary, nonexistent, or even just a fantasy. The other person can be totally irrelevant or reduced to an “object,” impersonal body, or image. A person’s body can be used for arousal, just like an inanimate thing, like an inflatable doll, and concerns about the person’s well-being become irrelevant. Instead of intimacy, which they sometimes don’t even risk feeling, addicts enjoy the intensity of doing something forbidden.
The image in their fantasy and the stimulation of erogenous zones are enough for the sexual release of tension. Such forms of sex bring about physical release, while the spirit and soul remain hungry, thirsty, and cheated. In such circumstances, it is not love that arouses, but instead a fantasy, danger, risk, the forbidden, or the humiliation of another or oneself.
Remember, addicts engage in certain behaviors to repress negative memories and emotions. Addictions are not about feeling good—they’re about feeling less. Addicts cope with stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, attachment deficits, and unresolved trauma by numbing their pain instead of turning to loved ones and trusting others who might provide emotional support. This is the case for sex addicts as well.
Meet Trevor, a sex addict
Trevor, 42, an entrepreneur, started therapy two years ago because of his marital and work problems. He admitted to heavy alcohol use and occasional smoking marihuana, but attributed the marriage conflicts to his wife being too controlling, and so was supposedly his boss. However, in the course of therapy, it became clear that his abuse of pot and alcohol was quite problematic, and he needed quite some time and help of AA 12-step group to abstain from alcohol. Only then could we delve into his relationship problems, and it turned out that his marriage was sexless since he was put off by his wife’s obesity and critical attitude toward him. At least that’s what he claimed!
His wife’s story, however, was completely opposite. Full of rage and contempt about his emotional abandonment and betrayal, she recounted the discovery of his long-standing abuse of pornography to such an extent that he was no longer aroused by her presence and could be turned on only by very explicit cyber-sex that he had recently upgraded to live chatroom sexual activities, performed in his office during the time he was supposed to work overtime. All these years, he had hidden his pornography abuse from his wife and gaslighted her that his impotence was her fault. She considered his behavior breach of confidence and trust, in fact, an infidelity, and threatened to divorce unless he stopped immediately – which he was unable to do without therapy.
In this case, most characteristics of a behavioral addiction could be recognized (see 11 signs of addiction) engaging in the behavior for longer than he meant to, wanting to cut down or stop the behavior but not managing to, spending a lot of time engaging in or recovering from the behavior, cravings, jeopardizing work and relationships, and especially continuing to behave that way, even when it caused serious problems in his marriage and at work.
What people yearn for, in truth, is love and connection. But sometimes, their “love maps” become so skewed, they don’t allow for intimacy. Repressed childhood sexual trauma, for example, may manifest in adulthood as a compulsion to repeat such acts, whether as a victim, perpetrator, or even both. What addicts are unable to deal with, they often act out; such are the laws of traumatic repetition compulsion. And because nothing except love can satisfy their true needs, an intense craving remains, luring them into even more intensive stimulation. Such abusive sexuality can degenerate into sex addiction.
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.