Recovering Alcoholics Often Have Sex and Intimacy Issues

Sex addiction therapists as well as many in the recovery community believe that a sizable proportion of alcoholics are also sex addicts or move into sexual addiction once they are sober from alcohol.

Intimacy disability is at the heart of all addiction

Alcoholics and drug addicts who are abstinent from drug and alcohol use have most often “worked a program” in which they became aware of their own fears and insecurities.  They have probably learned how to be less self-conscious and more authentic in their every day dealings with people.  They have also been exposed to the idea that recovery means “rigorous honesty.”

However, sobriety from chemical dependency does not necessarily mean delving into the hang-ups that the addict has with regard to intimate relationships.  The recovering addict or alcoholic will have learned to trust a higher power and to accept the help and friendship of other people.  And yet they may still be incapable of being trusting and open in an intimate romantic/sexual relationship.

The alcoholic/addict may have had no experience with “healthy” intimate relationships.  Most if not all addicts have childhoods characterized by problems in their bonding with their parents or caregivers.  These may seem very obvious or more subtle, but these attachment issues produce addiction prone people who have a long-standing mistrust and avoidance of intimate bonding.

Alcoholics and addicts may have worked through their general social avoidance, self-consciousness and discomfort for which alcohol was the medication. But they may not be able to carry those skills over to the more threatening and less familiar area of dating and intimacy.  Often they are aware of the fact that in their alcoholism or drug addiction they did not have healthy relationships.  As they often put it they don’t have relationships, they “take hostages.”

Alcoholics and addicts resist looking at their intimacy issues

A lot of alcoholics/sex addicts will tell you that programs like SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) are “graduate school” compared to AA and the other chemical dependency support groups.

Sex addiction programs look a lot like drug and alcohol programs and they do have a lot in common.  But quitting drinking or drugs is often experienced as a simpler and easier process for many people than confronting sex addiction.  I have heard more than one AA member complain that when it comes to SAA: “the credits don’t transfer.”

Although recovering alcoholics are very well represented in the ranks of recovering sex addicts, there remain a very large number of recovering alcoholics who resist or pooh-pooh the idea of sex addiction recovery.

People recovering from chemical dependency use the same denial mechanisms about sex addiction that they used about drugs or alcohol prior to getting into recovery from chemical dependency.  These denial mechanisms have just changed their content but not their basic form.  They include things like minimizing, rationalizing, intellectualizing, and compartmentalizing.

The role of ego

In all of the above mentioned denial mechanisms, there is an element of ego that has crept back into the alcoholic or addicts thinking.  They can’t imagine what it is to feel safe and contented in an intimate relationship and instead they satisfy themselves with various behaviors such as one night stands, serial seductions, high drama relationships that do not last, or avoidance of intimate relating altogether and so on.

What the recovering addict in denial has failed to see is that other people can and do change and that their sexually addictive tendencies are out of their control.  They have forgotten that step one in 12-step work is admitting powerlessness and admitting that you need help.  The ego has crept in the form of “self-will” about sexuality and relationships.  The addict has forgotten about reaching out and having faith.

Sex Addiction Deniers: What Makes Them So Mad?

The mere idea of “sex addiction” gets a lot of people angry.  I’m talking here about the writers who rail about the “myth” of sexual addiction and who argue that the whole idea of sex addiction is just a cop-out for the addict and a money making scam for the professionals.

The anatomy of a sex addiction denier

I prefer to see these “deniers,” as I call them, as a part of a larger societal pattern and one that is worthy of study in its own right.

Currently the opposition to the concept of sex addiction comes in two main flavors.

1.  Sex addiction is really just normal behavior.

These men and women have a defensive reaction to the whole field of sex addiction treatment as an attempt to restrain normal sexual freedoms.  Sometimes their blogs and online commentary seem to be jokingly, (nervously?) defending behavior around which they have some unacknowledged shame.  The message is “we all do it and you just think it is ‘sick’ because you are so uptight!”  This is an uninformed bias that seems to resist logic.

2.  Sex addiction is really just irresponsible behavior.

This argument comes from all quarters including some in the scientific community.  It minimizes the seriousness of the problem and the suffering it can cause, and the message is often “you so-called addicts are just behaving badly and you need to take responsibility and shape up!”

This second argument sometimes takes the form that “if sex can be an addiction then anything can,” or “if we let people off by calling it a disease then there’s a slippery slope which will lead to nobody ever taking any responsibility for anything.” (OMG!)

Both of these arguments have the net effect of saying that we shouldn’t medicalize the issue of sexually compulsive behavior and therefore that we shouldn’t actually do anything about it.  See the New York Times Op-Ed for an excellent discussion.

We need to understand the deniers, not condemn them

“Deniers” have always existed in relation to almost every unwelcome phenomenon that has emerged throughout history.  Sometimes they have taken a socially acceptable position which conforms to religious or other dogma and have acted accordingly, as in burning heretics or imprisoning the mentally ill.  In other cases they have simply veered off into crazy-sounding conspiracy theories such as that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were really a government plot or that the holocaust never happened.

These are elaborate attempts to explain or deal with something that is experienced as incomprehensible or intolerable.  In this regard they are all defense mechanisms and nowhere more obviously so than in the area of sexual addiction.

Sex addiction deniers are trudging a road well traveled in earlier eras by those who wished to defend themselves against a trend or theory that they found very threatening.  This is especially true in recent history in the evolution of the disease model of mental health. It has been very gradually that the “deadly sins” have been recast as very human psychological afflictions.

Fear and loathing as a developmental phase

Because I believe sex addiction deniers are genuinely reacting to some unconscious fear, I think professionals cannot dismiss them but rather need to understand them.  If we don’t they won’t go away and will keep confusing the public and getting in the way in much the same way that global warming deniers get in the way of protecting the biosphere.

As the superstitions and fears surrounding a social ill begin to dissipate, the issue moves through a predictable sequence in public awareness from demonization to criminalization to medicalization to reintegration.  First the problem, say alcoholism, is a moral failing, then it’s a legal problem, then a medical disease, and finally a larger societal or public health issue.

Leaving aside the issue of illegal sexual behavior, this mans that society’s current approach to sexual addiction is moving beyond demonization and criminalization but has not yet reached medicalization.  This transition to full medicalization will mean the evolution of awareness. This involves dispelling fears, confronting judgmental attitudes, and persuading people to suspend those judgments.  It is up to us to patiently explain.