Being Sexually Triggered vs. Sexually Aroused

Maybe you have heard recovering sex addicts talk about being “triggered” and wondered how it differs from just being aroused or turned on by some stimulus or other. Being triggered is a common term used in sex addiction recovery. It means something different from simply feeling aroused by something or someone.

A triggering experience can be seeing, hearing or doing something that is a precursor to the addict’s sexual acting out behavior. There are sexual images and sexual stimuli to be seen everywhere but certain kinds of perceptions will be more likely to be associated with a particular person’s preferred sexual behavior.

What triggers do

A trigger sets the stage for a sequence of behavior moving toward acting out. An addict whose preferred sexual scenario involves power and exploiting someone weaker, such as that of rescuing a helpless female may be triggered by seeing an attractive woman who is in a difficult situation.

Sex addicts are not always fully aware of why an experience is triggering. It may seem to be unrelated to their sexual acting out behavior and still make them want to go out and do that behavior. An addict who typically finds sexual partners for anonymous sex through the internet may begin to feel an urge to relapse into that behavior when simply looking at Craig’s List ads for someone to play bridge with. The mere fact of online descriptions or photos of people may be enough. In this case the addict is on thin ice, often not realizing it.

The triggering experience need not be sexual and in fact often it is not. For someone who is compulsive with prostitutes or sexual massage parlors, certain parts of town or certain streets may cause the beginning of a chain reaction known as the addict’s “ritual.” An addict who is an exhibitionist or a voyeur will likely become triggered in any situation in which being seen or seeing others undressed is a possibility, such as finding him or herself in a locker room or changing room with little privacy.

In contrast to ordinary arousal, being triggered may involve the beginning of delusional thinking. The addict sees something and either consciously or unconsciously it touches off an association with the addictive behavior on whatever level. At this point, sexual acting out begins to seem more like a viable option even though the addict wants to avoid it like the plague when he has his wits about him.

Identifying “triggery” feelings as useful information

Although addicts may slip into ritual or delusional thinking without realizing it, there are often ways to catch yourself and not move toward a slip or relapse.

  • Feeling triggered can involve a sudden feeling of hyper-arousal, a dopaminergic “burst”, which is different from normal sexual arousal or attraction. It is more sudden and intense and is thus more compelling. To an addict in good recovery it is a warning. Sometimes the triggering involves the blurring of boundaries with other intense feelings like fear or anger which in turn bring on sexually addictive urges.
  • Another way that the addict may identify a trigger is through noticing and examining their own thought processes. Addicts in recovery get progressively better at seeing the ways in which their thinking can go awry. Even though you may not think there was any triggering event, you may still notice that your mind has for some reason begun to distort reality.
  • You may find yourself feeling that there is no harm in doing a particular behavior or you may begin to look for little ways to get a sexual hit.  At this point the addict can get a handle on things by going back and looking at what may have been a triggering experience.
  • Since the sex addict is locked into a pretty set pattern of sexual acting out behavior, it is sometimes the case that the experience of feeling triggered is one of sudden familiarity.  The excitement, the intrigue, whatever it is, feels like where the addict belongs. This is another kind of signal.  In normal arousal there is always some sense of not knowing where it is going.

But remember, they are your triggers and you must manage them. It is never someone else’s fault if you get triggered! Most recovering addicts get very good at identifying what are triggers for them ahead of time and avoiding them. This takes time and experience and is part of what happens in treatment and 12-step work.

Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Porn Addiction in Film: “Don Jon” Gets Intimacy Disorder Right

The new film “Don Jon” starring and written and directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (and hopefully its planned sequel “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”) have the potential to do more to combat the epidemic of sexist porn and sex addiction than all the “feminist porn” movies, books and women’s studies classes put together.  The film is so well done and so entertaining that you might not notice that it is a feminist film or that it deals with intimacy disorder.

In the title role Gordon-Levitt plays a shallow young man whose life is anchored by strong ties to his family, church and male friends.   He is not a sleaze or a loser, he likes to keep his apartment sparkling clean, and he’s a nice guy with a lot of charm and innocent warmth.  It’s just that he inhabits a social world in which the sexual objectification of women and the search for sexual hook-ups are the norm.  He is also a hope-to-die porn addict, which he confesses to his Catholic priest every Sunday but which he fails to identify as a real problem.  He has no idea what intimacy is let alone intimacy disorder.

The story is one of a man whose consciousness is raised through meeting and connecting with Esther (played by Julianne Moore), a totally present and very spiritual survivor of great personal tragedy.  The theme of the film is stated toward the end: that intimacy is losing yourself in someone else not losing yourself in fantasy.

A lot of the film is taken up with the funny and poignant attempt at a relationship with Barbara, a woman he lusts after but who withholds sex.  Scarlett Johansson gives an amazing performance as Barbara, the sexy, gum-cracking, love addict who wants to mold a relationship to match her fairy tale fantasy of the great love.  As this relationship develops we see that both Jon and Barbara are totally intimacy disordered.  Neither one really knows how to get to know another person or how to move forward in a genuine courtship.

In the Julianne Moore character, Jon finds an ancient goddess archetype,  who approaches him in a night class which he is taking to please Barbara (i.e. to get in her pants).  In case there is any doubt that religion and spirituality are not necessarily the same thing.  Jon goes  to church every Sunday with his family and confesses his “sins” of pornography/masturbation and sex out of wedlock with hilarious honesty (“35 times in the last week”) and while he performs all the resulting Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s diligently, he never evolves one inch until he meets his de facto spiritual guide.

Gordon-Levitt, unlike the character he plays in the film, has feminist consciousness in his DNA.  He is the son of non-observant Jewish progressives.  His father was at one time the news director for KPFK and his mother ran for U.S. congress in the 70’s in the Peace and Freedom Party.  Gordon Levitt is quoted as saying:

“My mom brought me up to be a feminist.  She was active in the movement in the 60s and 70s.  The Hollywood movie industry has come a long way since its past.  It certainly has a bad history of sexism, but it ain’t all the way yet.”

Is Masturbation OK in Recovery From Sexually Addictive Behaviors?

Masturbation  can present a problem for people with sexually addictive behaviors.

I would not encourage anyone to see masturbation as inherently bad or a problem, and yet there are some people who would see any sexual activity outside of marital sex, even masturbation as wrong.  If you hold such a view on religious or other  grounds, then you may see masturbation as wrong no matter what.

But since I do not hold such a view I distinguish between those situations in which masturbation is harmless and those in which it can complicate things for someone attempting to recover from sex addiction.

When is masturbation counter-productive?

In the early months (or maybe years) of recovery I believe it is a good idea for sex addicts to abstain from masturbation, regardless of whether compulsive masturbation is one of their sexually addictive behaviors or not.  Here are some situations where Masturbation can reinforce addictive patterns.

  • Masturbation can itself be a compulsion, meaning that it is being used to excess and as a drug.  For some sex addicts masturbation is their primary sexually addictive behavior.  Often it is done in conjunction with porn use but sometimes it is done using fantasy alone.  Compulsive masturbation often starts early in life and continues into adulthood.  The addict will often develop a pattern of masturbating numerous times per day.  In order to be free of this compulsion and lead a more normal sex and relationship life in recovery, the addict will need to “kick” the habit and allow their brain chemistry to return to normal functioning.  This means total abstinence for a period of time during treatment and recovery.
  • Masturbation can be part of a pattern of other sexually addictive behaviors.  Masturbation often accompanies other sexually addictive behaviors built around fantasy such as compulsive cybersex, sexual chat,  voyeurism, and exhibitionism.  The masturbation may be done at the time of the other behavior or it may be done later using the stimulus of the memory of the event.  In this case the behavior of masturbating is tied to whatever pattern of addictive acting out behavior exists and provides the sexual gratification for which the other behavior is the stimulus.  At least initially, the addict cannot quit one behavior without quitting both.
  • Masturbation in early recovery can prevent the process of withdrawal and lead to relapse.  Since the addict’s “arousal template” as it is called, is one of addictive sexual acting out of one type or another, it is likely that any form of sexual stimulation, at least in the beginning of recovery, can lead back to cravings and urges for the addict’s preferred sexually addictive behaviors.  Even if the addict has never masturbated compulsively, masturbating in recovery can bring on cravings for other behaviors, behaviors like anonymous sex, prostitutes, etc.   I takes a long time in treatment for the unhealthy urges and fantasies to subside or at least be less powerful.  Instead of allowing the addictive pattern to weaken, masturbation may be like taking small amounts of the drug, thus prolonging the process of withdrawal.

When is masturbation a useful part of recovery?

After a sex addict has established a period of abstinence from all sexually addictive behaviors, it is possible that masturbation can be engaged in in a normal way that does not threaten their sexual sobriety.  This is very much a subjective and individual decision to be arrived at by the addict and their sponsor or counselor.

  • Masturbation can become a more healthy activity that is not a compulsion and is not tied to another sexually addictive behavior.   It may be that the addict will find it a useful way to explore and check in with the fantasies that have driven their addiction and the memories or traumatic events that have shaped their sexuality in the past.
  • Sometimes addicts can actively change the content of their masturbation fantasies to experiment with different and healthier mental stimuli.  Some addicts masturbate while thinking about their spouse or partner.
  • Or addicts may simply be able to enjoy occasional masturbation as a positive, private experience that is different from their relational sex but is not part of a compulsion or an addictive pattern.

But many times masturbation loses it’s charm for sex addicts once they have given up their sexually addictive behaviors and no longer crave the hyper-arousal that their addictive fantasies provided.


When Love Addicts Fall for Sex Addicts

As a therapist I have noticed that partners of sex addicts frequently have characteristics of love addicts.  This is not always the case of course.

Partners of sex addicts may be innocent bystanders.  But I think there are some reasons to suggest an affinity between love addicts and sex addicts.

There are underlying similarities between sex addicts and love addicts in terms of brain chemistry, intimacy issues, abandonment fear and co-dependentence.  Both tend to have early childhood trauma and attachment issues.

However, I think it is the separate, distinct characteristics of each that attract them to each other.

Here are my thoughts on how this pairing might come about and what function  it might serve for the addict and the partner

The allure of the sex addict

What sex addicts do is to behave in certain predictable ways that turn out to be an engraved invitation for the love addict.

  • Superficial intensity

Love addicts have the fantasy of being desired and rescued.  As Pia Mellody puts it

“When these individuals get old enough, they begin to form a fantasy in their head of somebody rescuing them from being so alone, of making them matter. The fantasy usually takes the form of being rescued by – it is like Cinderella — a knight in shining armor or a wonder woman, who will take care of them and help them come out of their dilemma of being too alone and worthless and not knowing what to do.”

Sex addicts are themselves very insecure and narcissistic.  They want to be seen as the hero even if it is a façade.  The love addict would like to be permanently swept away.  But intensity is not the same as intimacy; it is a fantasy that cannot be sustained.

  • Dishonesty

Sex addicts can appear to offer unconditional love and acceptance because they lack the ability to be who they really are in a relationship.  The sex addict is often comfortable with saying what the love addict wants to hear since he or she is invested in a whole other, secret sexual life.

This works for the love addict who needs to feel completed in a relationship.  The love addict does not see through the sex addict’s perfect love but merely projects their own fantasy onto it.  They feel safe.

  • Seductiveness

Sex addicts are seductive.  They can manipulate the love addict into feeling that they are perfect, the fairy princess.   The love addict needs to feel perfect in order to feel safe.  If I am perfect you will never leave me.

  • Lack of intention or commitment

Sex addicts substitute the intensity, superficiality and seductiveness for any real investment in the relationship or in the future.  Lacking intimacy skills they don’t confront the partner about anything, don’t negotiate, and often avoid talking about their needs and wants altogether.

The love addict cannot tolerate the requirements of real intimacy either such as being open to confrontation, being willing to admit to being imperfect or wrong, or allowing the addict to be imperfect.  Since the sex addict lacks the ability to be real and work on a relationship, the basic unavailability of the sex addict a good fit. 

As Patrick Carnes has said:

“Love addicts consciously want intimacy, but can’t tolerate healthy closeness, so they must unconsciously choose a partner who cannot be intimate in a healthy way.”

The love addict partner is unconsciously drawn toward a relationship in which there is intense romanticism (at first) but which cannot lead to a stable grown-up relationship.  In the long run, the love addict will be subjected to disappointment, deception and episodes of abandonment by the person they love.  Yet they will often continue to be “hooked” on the fantasy.