How to Recover from Sex Addiction
The word ‘sex’ evokes powerful and contradictory emotions - positive emotions like sexual thrill, elation, romantic love but negative emotions too like shame, frustration and guilt. Some people become so caught up in the web of sex that they develop an addiction to it. This article will explore sex addiction in detail and give some guidance in how to recover from it.
Sex addiction (also known as sexual compulsivity or hyper sexuality) is the compulsive need to engage in sexual activities and view pornography to a degree that has a significantly negative impact on one’s life. It is a pattern of behaviour that cannot be stopped despite repeated attempts to do so. It can take many different forms, including compulsive masturbation or fantasy, watching large amounts of pornography, soliciting prostitution, sadistic or masochistic behaviour, having sex with strangers, compulsive heterosexual or homosexual relationships, exhibitionism and voyeurism, sexual urges, obsession and denial. Some studies estimate that about 1 in 25 or 4% of the population are sex addicts.
There are two other compulsions that are closely linked to sexual compulsivity but not identical.
Love Compulsion is the inability to separate from an unhealthy relationship despite repeated attempts to do so. The person feels overcome with fear, anxiety and depression when they think about ending the relationship. The person will stay in the relationship even when it is unsafe to do so.
Some have Romance Compulsion. Many women, and some men, find themselves more interested in the romance they experience than the person they are with. So when the relationship does not live up to their fantasies they become disillusioned and seek out a new partner as a result.
There is some debate among psychologists about the correct term for the condition. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies it an impulse control disorder rather than an addiction. WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) officially terms the condition “Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Disorder”. Nonetheless, there are many similarities between what they term sexual compulsivity and addiction. Sexual compulsion is another form of unhealthy consumption, alongside addictions to alcohol, drugs, gaming, or gambling. The cravings for sexual activity are similar to the cravings felt for alcohol or drugs by those with substance addictions. There is growing evidence that compulsive sexual behaviour, over time, might cause changes in the brain's pathways, especially in areas related to reinforcement, creating new nerve pathways of addictive type behaviour. Over time, more intense sexual content and stimulation are needed for satisfaction or relief. Furthermore in support of the use of the term sex addiction, two Irish support group organisations, Sexalcholics Anonymous (SA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) use the term sex addiction. So for this article I will use both terms – sex addiction and sex compulsion.
Sex Addiction: Characteristics and Root Causes
Addicts with sexual compulsion are obsessed with sex. Their thoughts and feelings are dominated by sexual activity, to the point where this affects other activities and interactions. They often get a sense of euphoria that goes beyond the average person who has a normal or healthy sexual appetite. For addicts, the sexual experience is not about intimacy. On the contrary, they use sexual activity to seek pleasure, avoid unpleasant situations, suppress feelings or respond to external pressures such as work difficulties or interpersonal problems. Similar to those who suffer from alcoholism, the pleasure gained from such brief experiences soon evaporates, and, in a number of cases, feelings of depression and guilt can set in. Unfortunately, like all addiction the cycle repeats itself again and again.
Underlying so much sex addiction are other issues. Various studies have indicated some of these. 66% of clients have a history of mood disorders such as depression. 50% presently have mental health problems, 38% have experienced emotional abuse, 17% have experienced sexual abuse, 16% have experienced physical abuse, 46% have recently lost an important relationship, 27% report sexual dysfunctions and 20% have strong suicidal thoughts.
Unlike healthy sex, compulsive sex or compulsive masturbation can sometimes be used as a means of:
Coping - We act out what we don’t want to feel. If you’re feeling down or low, it makes sense to want to move away from that and instead find something else to do instead. The majority of individuals with hypersexuality have been hypersexual since they were adolescents and the habitual pattern of acting out has continued for most of their lifetime. It becomes their coping mechanism to numb painful feelings and memories. Sex or porn creates a high similar to many drugs and offers at least a temporary relief from their struggles. For someone who acts out sexually with other people, it not only gives them relief from their struggles but also creates a sense of connecting to another person.
Dealing with stressful situations- When you are stressed your brain releases cortisol. Cortisol can make you feel tense, on edge and eager to soothe yourself by ‘acting out’ either by compulsive behaviours or by watching pornography. Unfortunately acting out merely increases the levels of shame you feel, which then leads to more acting out, and the cycle continues.
Tackling anxiety or boredom
Bolster self-esteem – the thrill and energy rush of sex can make the person feel more powerful and in control even if this sensation is very short and often leads to a lessening of self-esteem.
In his book, ‘Out of the shadows’, Dr. Patrick Carnes Ph.D, writes that sexual compulsion is often accompanied by one or more of the following 3 features:
Secretive Behaviour: This is a very common feature. It is when an addict keeps his or her activities completely separate from their everyday lives. The addict will often find themselves completely wrapped up in lies and manipulations. In many cases they feel their behaviour is justified and are lying to those they are close with and to themselves.
Shameful feelings: This is when the addict feels an inner sense of worthlessness and will often spend a huge amount of time and money soliciting sex in order to feel worthy.
Abusive behaviour: This can range from voyeurism to rape. With abusive addicts it is often the case that there is a history of violent behaviour and acting out.
Sex and the Brain
Primitive circuits in the brain manage emotions, drives, impulses, and subconscious decision-making. The desire and motivation to pursue sex arises from dopamine, the neurochemical that drives the primitive part of the brain known as the reward circuitry. It’s where you experience cravings and pleasure and where you get addicted. Sex and porn floods the brain with dopamine and makes us feel good but like most habits, the good wanes and you require more and more to feel the same rush. You may find yourself progressing in your behaviour due to this and getting more and more stuck in this negative cycle, your brain chemistry more wired to repeat the compulsive pattern.
Women and Sex Addiction
While men may be more likely to seek out multiple partners, women can become addicted to sex as well. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, including engaging in frequent casual relationships, surfing the internet for hours looking for new partners, and spending excessive amounts of money on pornography and sex-related services. It’s also important to note that women can experience underlying issues that increase their risk for sex addiction. For instance, women may be more likely to experience a sense of shame or guilt about their sexual behavior, leading them to engage in risky behaviors to cope with those negative feelings. Additionally, some women may have difficulty forming secure, loving relationships with partners, leading them to seek out attention and validation from multiple sources.
Effects on Marriage
Sex addiction can lead to relationship problems, friendship problems, difficulties at work, substance abuse, depression and sometimes suicide. The effects of sex addiction can be particularly destructive for couples. It can lead to infidelity, broken trust, and often times, divorce. When one partner is suffering from sex addiction, it can leave the other feeling betrayed and confused. The partner who is addicted may be secretive and lie about their behavior, which can lead to feelings of betrayal and mistrust.
Society often thinks that the sexual compulsive must have a very high sex drive. This is rarely the case. Many addicts find it difficult or in some cases impossible to feel desire for their partners as they are so confused and ashamed of their behaviour. Naturally, this just reinforces the rejection the partner feels.
It can also be difficult for the partner with the addiction to admit they have a problem and seek help. This can further drive a wedge between the couple and can leave the other partner feeling frustrated and helpless.
An addict may spend large amounts of money on pornography, sex toys, sex workers, and other forms of sexual activity. This can lead to serious financial problems and can cause further strain on the relationship. The addict may also have difficulty forming meaningful connections with other people, and may depend on the relationship for all their emotional needs. This can create a sense of codependency and can make it difficult to break away from the addiction.
In order for couples to heal and move forward from sex addiction, both partners must be willing to work together to rebuild trust and communication. This may include attending therapy sessions together and talking openly and honestly about their feelings. With commitment and dedication, couples can overcome the challenges of sex addiction and move forward together in a healthy and happy relationship.
Porn presents distorted perspectives on gender roles, consent, and the nature of sexual relationships. In particular, pornography generally does not portray the emotional intimacy that forms the cornerstone of healthy human relationships. This often leads the addict to have a skewed understanding of sex, intimacy, love, and relationships and to difficulties with intimacy and relationships.
Treatment for Sex Addiction
Just as the addict’s brain circuits have been re-wired through their porn and sexual compulsions, so too their brain circuits can be re-wired. The brain has a feature called plasticity. This means it is capable of rewiring itself. However, this takes time but it is possible. Developing a personal recovery plan with the help of a therapist is a great way to sexual sobriety.
Activities that might form part of a recovery plan to sexual sobriety include the following:
Avoid people or places that may trigger your urges. A major trigger for many with porn addiction is time spent online. So restricting time spent online could be a good place to start a recovery plan.
What are the root causes of the addiction: feeling inadequate, unworthy, alone, and afraid? Find healthy ways to cope with these deeper often unconscious issues through counselling (talk therapy) and keeping a journal (writing therapy).
Physical Self-care: take plenty of rest, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Emotional and Spiritual Self-Care: mindfulness/meditation/contemplative prayer develop present-moment awareness, reduce impulsive behaviors, manage cravings, and enhance self-regulation. These spiritual practices foster a non-judgmental and compassionate attitude toward oneself, facilitating greater self-acceptance and the ability to cope with challenging emotions and triggers.
Hobbies, Interests and healthy socializing not only distracts from the temptation of engaging in addictive behavior but directs our attention to energizing interesting activities.
Honesty and reparations with those you have harmed as a result of your addiction particularly important for married couples.
Reach out for support to family, friends and support groups of people who are dealing with the same issues - phone calls, talking often with your Sexalcholics Anonymous (SA) or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) sponsor.
Patience and self-compassion. Addiction can be hard to overcome. It’s important to be kind to yourself and accept that this is a process with ups and downs.