So, what is sex addiction?
Like any other addiction, sex addiction means that despite efforts to stop the behavior, the addict continues to act out, often feeling shame in the aftermath. People think that if it is an addiction, then it is enjoyable. However, often the acting out stops being pleasurable and instead feels painful and overwhelming. Tolerance develops such that the behaviors escalate. What felt good before no longer achieves the high. For example, internet porn may increase to strip clubs, then to paying for sex, or repeated affairs with many partners, or riskier and riskier behaviors. Addicts become preoccupied with sex, thinking about it rather than focusing on work or family. They can appear withdrawn or distracted. More and more time is spent preparing for sex or acting out, even risking work and relationships to engage in sexual activities. Consequences of acting out are ignored or denied, “it isn’t THAT bad” or “if no one finds out then, I’m not really hurting anyone.” As in drug addiction, sex addicts experience withdrawal; they may feel irritable or agitated when prohibited from engaging in the behavior. At least 3 of these criteria must be met to qualify as an addiction. Finally, the behaviors are not attributed to another disorder such as a manic episode.
Sex addiction cuts across genders and socio-economic status (although for purposes of this post I will use the pronoun he for ease of reading). It can lead to deep depression and suicidal thinking. For many individuals, particularly women, the focus is relationships rather than sex itself. They may idealize partners and romanticize, getting bored when the fantasy wears off. They may not end a relationship without someone waiting in the wings. They have difficulty not being in a relationship and self-esteem becomes dependent upon relationship status. A pattern develops of becoming too vulnerable too soon leading to pain and despair.
Ultimately, sexual compulsivity is an intimacy disorder - a difficulty being vulnerable and fully authentic with others. Sex, while mistakenly viewed as a way to connect, inevitably keeps distance between the addict and those he loves. True intimacy is not boundary-less. Revealing all to feel close too soon is not healthy intimacy.
A sex addict is NOT the same as a sex offender. While addicts may violate boundaries (such as acting outside of a committed relationship), not all addicts engage in offender behavior. Further not all sex offenders are sex addicts addicts. Sex offenders require a different form of treatment than a sex addict.
Family of origin dynamics can predispose someone to an addiction, not just sex addiction. Having a parent who is a sex addict can impacts a child’s view of sexuality and intimacy, especially if left untreated. There can be unclear boundaries in the home and children may be exposed to the addict's behavior. Enmeshment with a parent, or a child being a surrogate spouse to a parent negatively influences the child's ability to develop healthy relationships. Eighty percent of sex addicts come from emotionally disengaged and rigid, authoritarian households. These are households where “it is my way or the highway” with little or no discussion or consideration of the child’s needs and wants. Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse also play a role. Because the child grows up learning that love is painful, as an adult the child can have difficult accepting healthy, respectful, loving relationships. Those with a sexual abuse history can confuse sex with intimacy, and may re-enact the trauma by acting out sexually. Often re-enactment is an unconscious attempt to master or gain power over the abuse. The unconscious belief can take many forms such as, "if I can get this person to love me, then I will be okay/worthy/loveable." Because this rarely, if ever, works the re-enactment continues. That said, not all sex addicts were sexually abused.
Sex addiction impacts the entire family, even if the addict believes he is hiding it. The addict's focus on sex
precludes him from being present to those around him. Family members feel neglected or dismissed. Subtly or overtly, life revolves around the addict while the addict's life revolves around sex. If the partner suspects infidelity and begins to question his behavior, the addict’s vehement denial leaves partners feeling deep self-doubt, like they are "going crazy." Also, this addiction influences the partner's sexuality, such that the partner may engage in unwanted sexual activities (for example, having sex more often than wanted or having multiple partners). Scenes from the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being portray this dynamic, although this is NOT a movie I recommend to addicts or their partners. A common pattern is avoiding sex in the relationship while the the addict is sexual elsewhere. Because those with sex addiction can compartmentalize so well, when discovered, partners may wonder, “Who is my wife? Who is my husband?... I don’t know this person!” The betrayal is deep and often traumatic. Some with sex addiction become jealous of the partner’s sexuality or suspicious of the partner’s behavior, even if trustworthy. What the addict can not own in himself is seen in the outside world, particularly in those close to him.
In order to heal from this addiction, as in any other addiction, acknowledging there is a problem crucial. If in a committed relationship the addict must work to rebuild trust to make the relationship safe. Partners have to learn healthy boundaries as well. Support groups are recommended as is therapy by a professional trained in treating sex addiction. Ideally, both the addict and the partner will have their own therapist and when ready a separate couple's therapist. Finding a support group is very important in the healing process particularly to reduce shame and isolation. If you think you or someone you love may be struggling with this disorder, click here for links to free online assessments. Be honest and compassionate with yourself and others, there is hope.