Of course with all the news of Jesse James & Tiger Woods and of course Dr. Drew Pinksy’s new Celebrity Sex Rehab show, the question most often asked is, Is there such a thing as sexual addiction? As I have stated in other articles addiction is a complex issue. People find themselves doing behaviors, which they feel great shame and remorse about. The traditional definition of addiction has always been connected with physical addiction and withdrawal. But what kind of withdrawal comes from a process, like sex or food, not drugs or alcohol? If you did watch Dr. Pinksy’s Sexual Addiction treatment you saw many of the behaviors of withdrawal that you would see in a drug and alcohol treatment program. The emotional withdrawal comes with the loss of what was comforting; despair, anxiety, depression, and panic at times. A big part of addiction is the relief from feelings that people don’t know how to manage or regulate. When you are not taught or modeled how to express your emotions or feelings you believe feelings are a weakness and a sign you have failed as a human being. To be human is to feel, to feel is not always comfortable and not a sign of failure but a sign of strength to be able to endure the discomfort that comes with living life. When we don’t allow ourselves to have feelings we usually find ways to disconnect from ourselves. This can be done with drugs, alcohol, sex, or just shutting down withdrawing into ourselves and not letting others in.
In the years that I have worked with people who have sexual problems or addictions I have found the understanding of the emotion beneath the behavior and learning how to be vulnerable and form relationships where you can be present and engaged will reduce the sexual acting out or what other form of emotional medication they are using.
Some Characteristics of Sex Addiction
The sex is shameful. The addict feels shame about what he or she is doing, or more accurately, about what he or she has done, usually immediately after engaging in sex acts that violate some of the person’s standards. Or the shame may be denied by calling it normal for “a real man,” or by focusing on others: “She wanted it,” or by engaging in it again right away so the shame is exchanged for pleasure. Thus a married man may feel remorse after having sex with his best friend’s wife, rationalize that his friend wasn’t sexually satisfying her, and avoid going to bed with his own wife afterward by staying up and masturbating while watching a movie on the sex channel.
The sex is secret. The sex addict more and more comes to live a double life–perhaps well-known, respected and admired in his visible life but secretly engaging regularly in sexual acts that would be shocking to those who know and love him. So a sexually addicted minister could be revered on Sunday morning for preaching on the sinfulness of adultery and fornication and then engage in those behaviors himself at a modeling studio or adult bookstore on Monday afternoon, having told the church staff or his family a lie about his whereabouts. Or a gay man might tell his relationship partner that he is going to visit a friend but goes to a park to cruise for anonymous sex instead.
The sexual behavior is abusive. It violates someone else’s choice or exceeds their understanding. There is the man who manipulates or coerces his date into being sexual with him; the woman in a partially unbuttoned blouse who bends down toward an unsuspecting male coworker and “accidentally” exposes her whole breast; or the man who seeks out crowded shopping malls so he can meander among the throng to “cop a feel.” Or adult men and women who manipulate the trust of children and abuse their power over them by tricking them into performing sexual acts with them. This is exemplified by the teacher who becomes sexual with a student, a scandal we’ve seen recently in the news, or the neighbor who hires a boy to mow the lawn and then invites the child inside and lures him into sex. The sex may also be abusive to the sex addict him or herself, such as masturbating to the point of physical injury or cutting or pinching oneself for sexual arousal.
While at some time in their lives some people who are not sex addicts may engage in one or more of the behaviors listed below, it becomes sexual addiction when you can identify despair, panic, remorse, compulsion, shame and guilt as feelings associated with the behaviors
- Compulsive masturbation — accompanied by mental images or thoughts about sex, or while viewing sexual images on the TV or computer screen or while looking at pornographic publications (or even while looking at non-sexual material, such as underwear or swim wear ads).
- Compulsive sex with prostitutes — this can be with female or male prostitutes or transvestites (transvestites are usually men dressed as sexy women) at their place of business or dispatched to your location or picked up on the street.
- Anonymous sex with multiple partners, “one night stands” picked up at bars, or sex with strangers in parks or restrooms, or sex in any number of anonymous situations, where sex is the object and no relationship is established with the person.
- Multiple affairs outside a committed relationship, or serial relationships (one after the other).
- Frequent patronizing of topless bars, modeling studios, sexually-oriented tanning salons, adult bookstores or sexual massage establishments.
- Habitual exhibitionism — exposing one’s private body parts to unsuspecting onlookers, either directly (by removing or opening clothing) or indirectly through skimpy or revealing clothing. An example is the man who sits in his car with his fly unzipped and begins masturbating when someone appealing to him walks by.
- Habitual voyeurism — the so-called “peeping Tom,” who finds sexual excitement in forbidden secret looks into other people’s privacy. Examples are: looking into a neighbor’s bathroom or bedroom window in hopes of seeing someone disrobed, peering up shorts or skirt, or looking through “glory holes” in restroom walls (strategically located holes in walls separating urinal or toilet stalls).
- Inappropriate sexual touching — touching someone for sexual excitement in a manner that attempts to appear accidental, such as “accidentally” brushing up against another person’s breast or genitals in a crowd.
- Repeated sexual abuse of children — an adult who engages children in sexual activity, or an older child who engages much younger children sexually.
- Episodes of rape — forcing another person to be sexual against his or her will, like the obvious assaultive rape by strangers one hears about in the media, or the more subtle form perpetrated by someone known to the victim (often called “date rape”).
Sex Addiction and The Internet
The Internet has become the newest, most rapidly growing form of sexual acting out for many sex addicts today. A lot of sex addicts have added computer sex to their repertoire, as it fills a need for “more, easier and better.” For the cybersex addict, increasing amounts of time are spent “surfing,” downloading, creating files, masturbating, reading information posted on sexual bulletin boards, exchanging sexual information live with others in sexual chat rooms or via computer cameras, or directing their own live sex shows on interactive sites–in short, looking for what’s new, what’s better than last time. The Internet just happens to provide many of the things sex addict’s seek, all in one palce: isolation, secrecy, fantasy material, endless variety, around-the-clock availability, instant accessibility and a rapid means of returning, low or no cost. (The cost factor can change, however, if the sex addict keeps charging view-for-pay services on the internet, such as live interaction with performers who follow the customer’s instructions for engaging in all kinds of prescribed sex acts that the customer can watch and masturbate to.)
Since one of the characteristics of sexual addiction is that it is progressive–that is, the habitual behaviors progressively become more frequent, varied and extreme, with more frequent and extreme consequences–sex addicts on the Internet often experience a rapid progression of their addiction. The new sexual thrills lead to spending huge amounts of time, moving more quickly into more extreme behaviors, taking greater risks, and getting caught more frequently. Thus, internet sex has been referred to as the “crack cocaine” of sex addiction. Actually, the sped-up progression of the sex addict’s problem via the internet can turn into a blessing, since it can move the addict into the consequences more quickly that can cause him or her to get help.
If You Are a Spouse or Partner of a Sex Addict
If you are in relationship with someone you think is sexually addicted, your efforts to help may be actually adding to the problem rather than achieving the results you desire. Sex addicts usually wind up in relationships with partners who unconsciously fit right into the addictive patterns. For example, typically the sex addict keeps on returning again and again to the sexually addictive behaviors and the partner accepts what is going on, or overlooks clues that would suggest something is wrong, or threatens to leave but doesn’t (or leaves and returns when the addict promises to change, only to learn later the addict did not stop), or takes responsibility for trying to control the addict’s behavior. None of these strategies work and actually add to the problem. What the partner has to realize is that she or he needs help too in order to get out of her or his own addictive habits. The partner will need to learn how to stop enabling the sex addict and how to focus on her/himself, and how to take stands or draw boundaries that actually work.