Is it Possible to Recover from Sexual Addiction?

The concept of “recovery”

I have seen many sex addicts recover from an unhappy, lonely, self-destructive pattern of behavior in their sexual addiction and go on to not only rebuild their lives but to reach greater heights than they ever imagined.

Yet there is a tradition in the addiction field of viewing addictions as in some ways similar to “chronic” mental illness and chronic medical conditions like diabetes; conditions that require ongoing care and can be managed successfully over time.  This implies that there is no “cure,” that there may be periods of relapse and that there is no end point to recovery.

Current thinking about sexual addiction has moved beyond the earlier more limited concepts.  See a recent review of the history of the concept of recovery in mental health and addiction.

Recovery from sex addiction

Recovery from sex addiction is considered today to involve much more than abstinence from the sexually addictive behavior.  It involves a long term process of years rather than weeks or months in which the addict will make many positive changes in his/her life and functioning and in which abstinence is merely a first step along the way.

Sex addiction is viewed in the larger context of a problem with intimacy in general, usually relating back to a relational trauma of some sort during childhood.  Treatment involves resolving the underlying trauma issues and building up the life competencies that have been compromised.

Sex life in sexual addiction

The sex life of the practicing sex addict looks very different from that of the addict in recovery.  The sex life characteristic of sexual addiction is:

  • Compulsive in that it involves preoccupations, cravings and urges that defy control
  • Compartmentalized in that a chunk of the sexual life of the addict is separate from the addict’s intimate life i.e. the addict leads a double life
  • Secret in that the behavior characteristic of the addicts sexual addiction does not square with the rest of the addict’s life and the face he presents to the world, and
  • Used as a drug in that the hyper-arousal characteristic of the addictive behavior serves to distract, numb or otherwise escape from negative feelings
  • Does not usually involve a real relationship although the addict may fantasize a relationship with a stripper, a masseuse etc.

Sex life in recovery

In recovery the sex addict will be able to integrate his sex life and his “regular” life instead of keeping them separate.  This implies that the recovering addict will be:

  • Less narrow and rigid in sexual preferences and fantasy scenarios
  • Less compulsive about sex, meaning less preoccupied with seeking sex and less obsessed with sexual cravings
  • More relational and less isolated in sexual activity (e.g. sex with a person vs. porn only)
  • Less selfish, in that he will be less focused on himself and his gratification and more able to focus on a partner and
  • Able to give up the “hyper-arousal” of addictive sex in which sexual excitation is used as a drug

Long term benefits in recovery from sex addiction

Not only can the recovering sex addict have a richer, less destructive sex life, but he or she will throughout the time of recovery make many other changes as well.  If recovery continues to be a process of overcoming past fears and insecurities through active participation in treatment, therapy, support groups or a combination of these, the addict can grow in many ways over a period of 3 to 5 years and beyond.

Some of these areas of improved functioning are internal, and some have to do with relationships and general levels of functioning.  The addict in good recovery will show improvement in

  • Empathy for others
  • Less narcissistic attitudes
  • Greater feelings of overall comfort
  • Improved self-care
  • A commitment to honesty
  • Greater ability to be responsible and nurturing as a partner and parent

Addicts in recovery can expect to learn many life skills they never had before, such as the ability to set appropriate limits and boundaries, to stick up for themselves, and to set life goals and achieve them.

So where does it end?

These are pretty hefty promises but I have seen them fulfilled.  You might ask “So why do we keep on talking about ‘recovering’ addicts instead of ‘recovered’ addicts?”  Perhaps addicts feel the need to be vigilant about habits that may still be deeply buried in their “lizard” brains.  Perhaps it is just a leftover tradition from the founders of AA.  For the time being we could just think of it as a way to stay connected to a fellowship and a reminder to us to give back.

Sex Addiction Treatment and Forgotten Childhood Trauma

Many people in sex addiction treatment or recovery programs can remember and talk about their history of abuse or trauma.  But sometimes recovering addicts have all the outward symptoms of having had traumatic childhood experiences but they don’t remember being traumatized or mistreated in any way.

Sometimes  people in sex addiction treatment feel certain that “something must have happened to me” and though they rack their brains they cannot remember anything that they can label as abusive or traumatic.

We who work with sex addicts assume that there is always going to be a history of  some problems in relationships with caregivers which lead to  an insecure, avoidant or disorganized attachment style later in life.  This problem with close relationships relates directly to  sexually addictive behavior and is why we think of sex addiction as an intimacy disorder.

Often addicts will go in for EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) or somatic techniques in an attempt to connect with forgotten memories, and many claim this helps.  And sometimes the abuse happened before the child learned to talk, which means that there is no way to remember it in words.

But just as often the traumatic events are there but are simply not recognized as such by the addict.

Why people can’t see their traumatic childhood

First and foremost, many people have a mistaken notion about what constitutes childhood trauma.  Infants and children need consistent nurturing, closeness, touch, connection and love in order to develop as strong, stable normal adults.  The absence of this kind of closeness and support does not allow the child to develop normally.  So people in sex addiction treatment need to look at the kind of relationship they had with their caregivers and at what was missing in that relationship.

Many addicts were not held enough as infants, were not soothed enough or were left alone or with strangers.  These things are traumatic to the developing child.  As children many addicts experienced abandonment, were sent away, or were devalued or rejected by their caregivers in some way.  All of these things constitute abuse and lead to problems later on.

Most people whether they are sex addicts or not tend to idealize their family and their early life, or at least to minimize the hurt or deprivation they suffered.  Growing up we need to see our parents in a positive light; it is part of what helps us get through childhood.  We want to trust and look up to our parents and it is very threatening for a child to think anything bad about their parents.  This leads to a tendency to idealize our childhood even in the face of evidence of stressful and traumatic experiences.

Add to this the fact that most of us resist seeing ourselves as “damaged.”  If we are survivors, we have come through a lot and we want to see ourselves as basically OK.  This makes it all the harder to understand our early life.

How to connect with childhood trauma

In addition to understanding the biases described above, it is important to understand that people do not have to remember major horrible events in order to connect with their trauma history.  Very often we already know everything we need to know but we have not looked at it closely enough.

Much of the work of uncovering our traumatic past history involves looking at events that took place and reinterpreting what was going on in light of what we now know as adults.  What seemed like our parents having high standards for us may turn out to have been a way they put us down or conveyed negative expectations about us.  What we saw as encouraging self-reliance or being given a lot of freedom may have been a form of neglect.  And what we took for bonding may have been invasive or inappropriate.

It will be important to go back and look at what were vivid memories or recurring themes in childhood and look at them with fresh eyes, critical eyes.

What I hear over and over is “well, they did the best they could!”  People don’t want to blame their parents or caregivers or seem ungrateful.  But it goes without saying that our parents did the best they could.  That does not help us unravel our own issues.  In sex addiction treatment we need to look at what went wrong as much as, or more than, what went right.  This is the real eye opener.   Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Does Sex Addiction Lead to Gay Sexual Experiences?

There is no reason to think that sex addiction is inherently gay vs. straight.  Here are the available estimates to date.  Rob Weiss who writes on sex addiction and gay sex addicts reports that 10% of gay men are sex addicts.  Studies and estimates of the number of straight sex addicts in the U.S. are in the range of 6 to 9%, so a conservative estimate would be about 7%.

Given the available recent data, around 3.5% of the U.S. population are gay. So it seems that of the approximately 250 million adults in the U.S. around 16.9 million are straight sex addicts and around 875,000 are gay sex addicts. (The latter number may be a little off as it assumes lesbians are sex addicts in the same proportion as gay men which may not be the case.)

This set of numbers seems to show that there are an awful lot of straight people in the U.S. who are sex addicts and a relatively smaller number of gay sex addicts.  But proportionally speaking, sex addiction is an equal opportunity affliction.

Although there is no reason to think that sex addiction in and of itself does anything to change a person’s sexual orientation there is occasionally some spill over.  On the basis of my own experience with both straight and gay sex addicts I have concluded that there are some reasons why straight addicts, at some point in their addiction, can have experiences with gay sex and possibly the other way around as well.

Sex addiction is progressive

Untreated sex addicts tend to act out more frequently and to seek out new and more exciting sexual activities.  As with all addictions it takes more of the drug or a stronger drug to keep the high going.  Sex addicts who started out with internet porn and strip clubs may progress to sexual massage parlors and prostitutes.  Sometimes the addict will escalate into risky or illicit behaviors like boundary violations with adults or children or voyeurism.

In the search for a new and different high, I have seen many sex addicts who have had experiences with same sex partners.  This is not to say that they are covertly gay, but in this case it is only that they are looking for the next edgy thing.

Denial can dissolve normal restrains

Sex addiction depends on a sort of delusional state in which boundaries around what is unacceptable behavior become weaker.  Denial allows addicts to let go their inner compass.  And denial too is progressive and spreads to other areas of life.  Secrecy and lack of integrity become the norm.  As the denial and addiction take over the addict more and more ignores the consequences of his behavior regardless of whether he is gay or straight.  He may exploit others or allow himself to be in situations which for him are abnormal.  In other words he may lose the sense of control over his life and be less able to self activate.

Porn as the great accelerator

Internet pornography is so varied and intense it its content that it can present the addict with new and highly charged stimuli which trigger a forgotten experience or trauma from childhood.  If the scenario involves gay sex and if the addict acts on it then it can look like a gay-straight issue when in fact it is unconscious imprinting that does not relate to the addicts underlying sexual orientation.

Recovery and sorting out sexual orientation

In the first year or two of recovery, sex addicts are sorting out who they are.  As they let go of their old way of living and understand the experiences that led to their addiction, they will sort out their sexual orientation, possibly in a new way.

The addict who has been repeating childhood trauma with same sex partners may find that in recovery his more integrated and conscious sexual desires fall in a different direction.  I have seen a gay sex addict come to the realization that he may actually be bisexual and so on.

Sometimes the acting out behavior does represent a true underlying orientation and the person acts it out in secret due to shame.  But first the person needs to be evaluated for and possibly treated for sex addiction and their true orientation can become clear.  See also my prior post Can a Straight Man be Addicted to Gay Sex?

Fighting Porn Addiction: Should Porn be Against the Law?

Even if they do not talk about the problem in terms of porn addiction, many countries are concerned about the mushrooming consumption of porn and are making moves in the direction of criminalizing internet pornography.  A number of countries already have.  The concern is not only about child porn but all hardcore online porn.

Whether governments should ban porn or not is a complicated matter that is debated on many levels.  But there is also a debate about whether it is actually possible to stop the flow of porn onto the internet. 

Let’s look at these two questions separately.

Should countries prohibit hardcore adult porn?

A number of countries are either attempting to enforce existing laws against pornography by blocking internet porn sites and/or by prosecuting those responsible for the porn sites.  A number of other countries are in the process of trying to make online porn content illegal.

Hardcore pornographic content is already being blocked in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Gaza Strip, Indonesia and Pakistan and there is a complicated regulatory structure in Australia.   (See the Wikipedia catalog of countries and their existing porn laws.)

In other countries there is heated debate and movement toward the banning of internet porn, such as India, Egypt and Iceland.  And in the UK and the US there is controversy about and resistance to making or enforcing laws that criminalize the posting or viewing of hardcore adult pornographic content.

Some of the main arguments for making anti-porn laws (or for enforcing laws that may be on the books) are:

-Porn is socially unjust in that it is oppressive toward women (Iceland),

-Porn is causing violence against women (India)

-Porn is socially and morally corrosive (China, Egypt and others)

-Porn addiction is a problem for many adults (US, UK)

-children can be inadvertently exposed to harmful content (US, UK, Iceland and others)

The arguments against criminalizing adult hardcore porn are mainly that such laws would violate freedom of expression, that porn is personal and is something that should not be controlled by governments and that there are legitimate positive uses for pornographic content.

Is it possible to outlaw internet porn?

A 2011 International Herald Tribune headline states: “Over 1,000 porn sites blocked in Pakistan.”  Although at that time Pakistan was continuing to find and block sites, the article goes on to say that there was a list of over 170,000 websites that might be banned.  The article says:

“Blocking 170,000 sites is not feasible for any operator.  The screening time on a per request basis will essentially slow the internet down to make it unusable.”

The International Business Times last month had an article on China’s anti-porn ban which reported that the creator of China’s biggest porn site was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2005, and that movie producers and film studios creating erotic films can potentially lose their licenses to make movies.

But the article goes on to state:

“Still, with constantly developing technology, and the demand for pornography, Internet users are still able to access pornographic material.”

Last month the L.A. Times reported that following anti-porn demonstrations, Egypt now has a plan to implement a court-ordered ban on porn websites.  The plan is to target each individual website and will cost about $4 million.  This is a big and controversial expense for a country that is under pressure economically.  This seems like a never ending if not impossible task for any government to attempt.  And if porn cannot be interdicted at the level of the website or the internet service provider it seems like a hard sell to prosecute individuals for watching the material that is currently flooding the web.

I am convinced that porn addiction is a growing problem and that the epidemic of porn consumption around the globe shows no sign of slowing.  The process of getting the product to the customer via the internet is extremely sophisticated and difficult to regulate.

Yet we do regulate some products that are addictive and/or damaging such as cigarettes, alcohol and even the sexual content of movies.  People need to find a way to agree on some basic ideas about what content should be regulated, especially as regards children.  The problem of implement regulations on internet content, like the problem of combating porn addiction, will probably be a long and difficult process combining the efforts of research, technology, public heath and advocacy.

How to Get Your Spouse into Sex Addiction Treatment

As a porn and sex addiction therapist I am often contacted by the spouses looking for sex addiction treatment for their partner.  I will look at the reasons for this and give my views on why the role of the spouse or partner is important in getting treatment for the addiction.

Why partners do the initial reaching out for help

  • The sex addict usually resists treatment for the same reason any addict does—part of them would really like to keep doing what they are doing no matter what the consequences are.  Hence it is easier to let the partner do the leg work of finding help.  At this early crisis stage immediately after disclosure the addict will be inclined to say they want help but will not want to be proactive in seeking out what might actually be an effective intervention.
  • The spouse of partner of the sex addict may be the one who is experiencing more of the distress in the situation.  The addict will surely be feeling shameful and remorseful when the addiction is disclosed, but this is nothing compared to the trauma of the betrayal usually experienced by the partner.  This in turn motivated the partner to go into crisis mode and begin trying to find solutions.
  • The sex addict may resist being the one to reach out for sex addiction treatment because he is too embarrassed to call up and admit to a stranger that he has these problems.  I often hear this discomfort in the voices of addicts who do call me and I hear them groping for a way not to have to state the problem directly.

Why the partner’s role is so important in getting help

Most often a sex addict or porn addict is in the grip of a strong compulsion to “act out” in their addictive behavior, whatever it is; porn, sexual hook-ups, infidelity, prostitutes, online sexual encounters, etc.  They may engage in this behavior frequently or less frequently, but the main point is that they are doing it addictively, meaning they are leading a separate sex life, they cannot stop, it is going to escalate over time, and it will have negative repercussions for their life and relationships.

The untreated sex or porn addict is in a state of denial.  Very often it will take some force from outside to get his attention and to convince him to get some serious treatment.  That force may come in the form of getting in trouble with the law, losing a job, or losing a marriage.  But whatever it is it will exert the necessary pressure on the addict. 

When spouses and partners discover a sex addiction they are in a unique position to use the crisis to force the addict to get help.  Addicts tend to panic at the thought that they will lose their wife and possibly alienate their children.  The spouse needs to recognize that very often they and they alone can lower the boom on the addict and cause an effective intervention.

Spouses should not expect that the therapist, even the most expert therapist, will be able to force treatment on an addict.  In the simplest terms, the therapist has no ammunition compared to the spouse. 

What the spouse needs to do

Spouses and partners seeking sex addiction treatment should be prepared to draw a line in the sand about the need for the addict to get help.  They need to say that they will live with a recovering sex addict but not with a practicing one.  And they need to mean it, in other words they need to be prepared to separate if there is inadequate movement.

Spouses need to be realistic about the kind of help that is required.  Often sex addicts will promise to quit, attend a few 12-step meetings, engage in an online program, install blocking software or get some couple counseling.   Sometimes addicts try to convince their partner that the addiction is really the partner’s fault, which it never is!

These can be ways to diffuse the situation while still having no real motivation to change.   A serious sex addiction requires a serious treatment program, often a one or two week outpatient intensive or a four to six week residential program followed by active12-step participation, and follow up therapy. 

Ultimately the addict will have to become engaged in their own recovery for it to work.  But the initial impetus can often come from the desire to hold on to a partner.  And in the long term, the relationship can get on the right track if both partners are engaged in recovery both separately and as a couple.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource