Sex Addiction and Recovery
By Dorothy Haden, LCSW
The New York Center for Sex and Love Addiction Treatment
How much sex is too much sex?
Sex addiction is not defined by the amount or type of sexual activity involved, but by the particular relationship the person has to compulsive sexual experiences.
Anyone who has ever experienced an orgasm knows the tremendous power of sex. The incredible rush of sexual pleasure a person feels during orgasm is indeed intoxicating. However, a person who is not addicted to sex, no matter how much or how often he enjoys sex, can also have fun and find pleasure engaging in other relationships and activities.
Those with sexual addiction, however, find little pleasure or gratification in doing anything else. The world is seen through a sexualized lens and the quest to duplicate the “rush” of sexual euphoria, over and over again, becomes an obsession.
Who gets addicted to sex and why?
People with symptoms of sexual addiction are generally afraid of truly intimate relationships. They repeatedly and compulsively try to connect with others through highly impersonal, non-intimate behaviors: masturbation , empty affairs, frequent visits to prostitutes, voyeurism, and the like.
Intoxicated with the euphoria and rush of their own brain chemicals, particularly dopamine, their addiction is not really to sex, but rather to the intense state of sexual arousal (“the erotic haze”) that is an instant mood changer. They achieve entry into the erotic haze through obsessive, highly ritualized sexual behavior.
What does it mean to be addicted?
People with sex addiction use sex just as those addicted to drugs or alcohol use substances: as an anesthetizer that allows them to escape painful realities and as a way to regulate their moods whenever they feel stress or anxiety. As dependence on the behavior progresses, they typically experience emotional states that duplicate those of people addicted to substances.
Words I hear from my patients are: loss of self-regard, despair, loneliness, frustration, guilt, anger, and self-hatred. I also hear my patients frequently rating their sexual behaviors as immoral, weird, disgusting actions that fill them with shame and self-contempt.
The price of their intense preoccupation with sex is often marital strife or loss of a partner, decreased productivity on the job, and emotional abandonment of their children. Jobs, family, friends and personal wellness are sacrificed as the individual ritualistically endeavors to recapture the erotic haze of sexual euphoria again and again.
People with sexual addiction feel compelled by the sexual ritual to inexorably act out, no matter how much it betrays their values and standards of acceptable behavior. Obsession with immediate gratification through intense sexual arousal blinds them to the consequences of their actions and compels them to act in ways that conflict with their essential values.
How do I know if I have a problem and what sort of help do I need?*
*This is in no way intended as a substitute for professional advice!
Only you can decide if a behavior is a problem in your life; it has to come from you, otherwise, change will be superficial and short-lived.
A simple way of self-diagnosing is to ask yourself the three questions that characterize ALL addictions.
- • Do you promise yourself you won't do it again and you do it again...and again?
• Do you have loss of control over your behavior around sex?
- • Do you suffer repeated negative consequences because of your sexual behavior but still continue to engage in it?
There's an “industry standard” test which can be found at www.sexhelp.com. If you respond positively to three or more questions, you may want to explore your options (self-help, peer support, professional help) for changing your problematic relationship with sex.
There is a way out...
The endless cycle of sex addiction can be stopped. A firm commitment is the first requirement for change. Having the willingness to develop and follow through on a recovery plan is also necessary. Your plan may include a curative, nurturing, non-judgmental relationship with a therapist experienced in sex addiction, but one-on-one therapy alone isn't enough. Sex addiction is about hiding and isolation. Coming out of hiding, and getting to know others is crucial to recovery.
The peer support and the skills gained by attending a SMART Recovery group meeting can be a valuable component of your recovery plan.
How can SMART Recovery help me stop?
SMART Recovery provides its members with tools and support that they use to recover from addiction – be it chemical dependency or behavioral addictions. It offers a powerful 4-Point Program® that fits perfectly into a comprehensive sexual recovery Plan. It is designed to help you overcome your behavior problems and quit by:
1. Building & Maintaining Motivation – Identify and keep up with your reasons for positive change. Why do you want to change - what will keep you focused on that goal?
2. Coping with Urges – Dealing with urges and cravings is part of recovery. SMART has tools designed to help our members cope with urges and cravings.
3. Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors – We frequently turn to our addictive behaviors either to escape from or to avoid addressing problems. SMART Recovery participants learn problem-solving skills to help them manage challenges along the way.
4. Living a Balanced Life – Addiction can put your life out of balance – you may find yourself opting to engage in your addiction rather than going to work or to school. You may find that things you once enjoyed aren’t fun anymore. SMART helps participants build skills to balance both short and long-term goals, pleasures and needs that have become out of balance.
Where do I go from here?
Getting started with SMART Recovery is easy! If you would like to get started right away, you can join our online support group where you can read, share and learn from our worldwide community of members at any time of the day or night. Our message board includes a private Sexual Maladaptive Behaviors Forum for people dealing with issues of sexual addiction. No information posted there is available to, or shared with, the rest of the SMART Message Board.
You are not required to discuss details of your addictions at SMART Recovery. You may use general terms like "my addiction, my maladaptive behavior, my challenge, my impulsive activity." You might also say "I had urges to act out last night" without saying what your urges were for. SMART Recovery works with all types of addictions, including eating disorders, self-harm, and maladaptive sexual behavior. You are free not to reveal personal details that might make yourself or other participants uncomfortable. As with many other aspects of SMART Recovery, Discover the Power of Choice!
If you’d like to have printed material, we suggest getting the SMART Recovery Handbook.