Do You Have to Say “I am a Sex Addict” Forever?

Sex addicts, like alcoholics in AA, typically identify themselves as: “I’m so-and-so, and I’m a sex addict.”  Some will say “I’m a recovering sex addict.”  As with the traditional model of alcoholism, they see their problem as chronic: manageable but incurable, like some physical diseases.

I have lately come to believe that sex addicts can recover.  I think there comes a point when they can say “I’m a recovered sex addict.”

Recovering begins with getting sexually abstinent

The 12-step model which originated with Alcoholics Anonymous became the basis for the other fifty-odd 12-step programs that came later.

As with other addictions, sex addiction recovery requires that addicts “kick” the habit first. For SAA members, each person defines their problematic, addictive sexual behaviors.  These are sexual behaviors that are compulsive, go against the person’s values, are dangerous, or cause serious problems.

For one person abstinence may be refraining from exposing himself to women in movie theatres and on buses.  For another it may mean abstaining from extramarital affairs and internet pornography.  Each person decides a set of behaviors they need to avoid and then counts as days of “abstinence” consecutive days of avoiding those behaviors.

These “bottom line” or “inner circle” behaviors as they are called are usually decided on by the addict in collaboration with the therapist or sponsor.  As recovery progresses the addict may add behaviors to the inner circle or take other behaviors out.

Why abstinence is essential in starting addiction recovery

In addition, sex and porn addicts are usually expected to have an initial period of several months of total abstinence from all sex including masturbation and sex with a spouse.  This is because for the sex addict, sex is literally a drug.  It is necessary for the sex addict to go through withdrawal in order to allow his brain chemistry to stabilize and his head to begin to be clear of the delusional preoccupation with the drug or behavior.

As a therapist, I can tell you that I would find it impossible to treat someone’s psychological problems if they were using drugs.  This is equally true with sex addicts.  A person’s drug of choice is bound to be stronger and more effective in the short run than anything I can offer in the way of relief.  Before I can do therapy I must get the client to address this and other “therapy interfering behaviors” as they are called.

What comes after abstinence?

Sex addiction treatment, like the 12-step program model, is designed to go beyond quitting a drug or behavioral addiction.  This is because abstinence alone will not make you stay sober. 

In order for recovery to be lasting, the addict must delve into their life history and arrive at an in depth understanding of the ways they are damaged and how that damage has led to their addiction.  In working through what is usually some kind of early relational trauma, the addict no longer needs to let old fears and insecurities direct his or her behavior.  The addict can then become, as recovering people say, “comfortable in their own skin.”

Without this deeper level of psychological change, most addicts cannot stay away from some form of addictive behavior.  They may manage a period of abstinence for months and even years, but their adjustment to life is fragile and unsatisfactory and they eventually get into trouble again.

The fruits of a fuller recovery

Recovery begins and ends with connection.  In the beginning addicts are in hiding, leading a double life of deception and shame.  The initial commitment to get into recovery involves a decision to connect with a group or person such as a 12-step program group or a therapist.  This is an initial act of faith based on little more than being fed up with the way things are.  This is a big step in itself, since believing in and connecting with anyone is often a stretch for an addict.

But what begins as a connection with a person or an SAA meeting grows into a deeper and wider connection; a connection with one’s own innermost self, with one’s significant other, with community, with meaningful work and with humanity.  The addict “grows up” to become a fully functioning adult who lives in contentment and integrity.

Feeling peaceful and alive, feeling secure and happy, helping others, these are worth the effort.  But I believe that in gaining this, the addict can be confident that he or she has truly changed.  They are not the same person and thus I believe they can say “I used to be a sex addict; now I’m a recovered sex addict.”

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

Relapses and Slips in Porn and Sex Addiction

It is accepted among those of us who work with porn and sex addiction that there will be relapses or “slips” at some point in the first year or so of recovery.  Internet pornography in particular is notoriously hard to quit.

Sex addiction is  clever and devious.  It wants to find a way to come out and play.  So even when the addict is totally abstinent from his or her “bottom line” behaviors (behaviors that the addict has identified as the ones that need to be out of bounds) the addict may engage in other watered down kinds of behavior to get a “hit.”  For example, the addict who wants to quit internet pornography may find himself watching movies that have a significant amount of sexual content or looking at YouTube or Facebook videos that are suggestive or outright sexual.

But in early recovery addicts are likely to repeat even their bottom line sexually addictive behavior at some point.  So when is this something to be concerned about? When should it be called a slip and when should it be seen as an out-and-out relapse?

When is it just a slip?

What is counted as a slip is doing the addictive behavior (e.g. going to a strip club, watching porn, engaging in cybersex, having a sexual hook-up with a stranger, or getting together with an old affair partner).  It is not doing the things that lead up to the bottom line behavior but it is actually doing something that is what you have decided not to do any more.  (Slips will usually count as sexual acting out and will mean changing your sobriety date.)  What I believe makes it a “slip” rather than a relapse is:

  • You perform the sexually addictive behavior without planning to.  You did not enter the situation consciously intending to do the behavior.  It “just happened” and you may feel a certain shock at finding yourself in the situation.
  • You do the behavior only once.  You realize immediately what you have done and you get out of the situation before you do it again.  You turn off the computer, you hang up the phone, you get rid of the person’s contact information etc.
  • You talk about it with someone like a sponsor, counselor or recovery partner and you describe it in your regular 12-step meeting right away.  You do not attempt to hide it or minimize it.
  • You figure out what you need to learn from the slip. This means that you use the slip to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that can lead up to you slipping.  Do you have to plan your day or evening more carefully? Should you be more aware of slippery situations like business trips?  You will need to anticipate known stressors or other things that constitute your “relapse scenario” as it is called.
  • You may change your recovery plan in response to the slip.  You might decide to put additional behaviors, people or activities, such as browsing singles ads, into your list of bottom line behaviors so that you see them as relevant to your staying abstinent.   You may also consider whether other addictions such as alcohol or drug use have played a role in your slip and consider addressing them more strenuously.  And you may want to consult with a doctor if appropriate when you believe you may have psychological issues or need medication to stay emotionally stable enough.

Avoiding Relapse

If you respond to the incident of sexual acting out in the way described above you will have gone a long way to avoiding a full on relapse in which you continue the acting out behavior.  Often people have a slip and decide that it is a relapse.  They therefore feel “What the heck! I’ve already blown it; I might as well go all the way.”  This is using the slip as an excuse to keep acting out.  But the fact is a slip does not mean that you have blown your program.  It is an opportunity to make your program better and to learn about yourself.  If you use it.

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

Why Sex Addicts Blame Their Partners

For most sex addicts, blaming a spouse or partner for a pattern of sexual acting out behavior is a predictable part of the denial process .  Even when they are devoted in many ways to their spouse and family, addicts may still feel that their behavior is caused by something in their situation.

Like all denial mechanisms, this is partly a matter of wanting to avoid feelings of shame about the behavior, as well as wanting to explain it away.  This “shame dumping” as it is sometimes called can be conscious or unconscious, overt or covert.  It is like saying “I’m really a good guy; I only do what I do because of such-and such.”

Your own problems and addictions are usually hard to spot and/or admit to.  But it is always easier to see what’s wrong with someone else or what’s wrong with your life.

Feeling abandoned by a partner with the birth of a child

It is very common for an underlying sex addiction in men to really begin to take hold following the birth of a child.  The problems with the addict’s intimacy avoidance, their addiction proneness, or their lack of emotional maturity were most likely there before.  Often they were masked by the newness of the relationship.

The birth of a child takes the mother away to some extent and puts the emphasis on someone other than the addict.  The addict may flee the new demands and seek to escape into acting out.  In this case the addict may feel unconsciously that they have been rejected or abandoned by his wife and thus feel justified in acting out behaviors like going to strip clubs, prostitutes or sexual massage parlors.

Self sacrifice and overwork

Self sacrifice and devotion to their partner may paradoxically be a setup for the addict to begin to feel like indulging the urge for a separate secret life of acting out.  Many sex addicts are prone to work too hard and try to be the hero for their spouse or partner.

Later they come to resent it and feel that they are owed something.  Instead of being able to practice the intimacy skills of stating their needs with their spouse and letting go of being the hero, they take refuge in a very self indulgent secret life which they feel they deserve.  You will sometimes hear addicts in recovery say “I had to shoot my white horse.”

Sexual dissatisfaction

Sex addicts often feel that their sexual acting out whether in porn use, serial affairs, or any other sexual behavior is a direct reaction to something that is missing in their marriage.  They may say that the problem is that they “want more sex than my wife” and their reasoning is that if that is the case then they are justified in going outside the marriage or relationship to get sex.  After all it’s his/her fault.  If their partner were meeting their needs then they wouldn’t have to seek sex elsewhere.   But in reality it’s apples and oranges.  What the addict wants is an addictive high, a dopamine rush that is the result of a secret sexual behavior.  This is not just a case of needing more sex.  And it is certainly not the partner’s fault.

Lack of investment in the relationship

Most sex addicts who have partners and who are active in their addictive behaviors are lacking in the ability to be fully invested in their relationship.  Even if they love their partner very much, they have chosen a relationship and a way of relating to a partner that sets the stage for the compartmentalization and deception that go along with sex addiction.  They often feel that they didn’t really want to get married or commit to the partner in the first place.

All too often sex addicts have no idea what a good devoted primary relationship should look like and they are unable to bond effectively.  They expect little of the relationship and of their partner and so are free to put their eggs in several baskets.  They may think consciously that their partner is just too busy with work or that their partner will be likely to betray them anyway.  But it is not their partner who can’t make the bond happen it is them.  Their addiction (and intimacy dysfunction) is not an effect, it’s a cause.

Ogling Other Women Can be a Real Problem for Partners of Sex Addicts

Many wives and partners of sex addicts complain of their partner ogling other women.  A man who can’t help staring at other women may be just a rude guy or his ogling may be part of a pattern of sexually compulsive behavior.  If you are the partner of such a man you will know that it is crazy making.  There are a million ways for a man to brush aside your concern and make you feel that you are overreacting.  It is “gaslighting” on steroids.

I have worked with many sex addicts and their partners for whom ogling is a serious problem. By that I mean often the sex addict will be unable to stop looking at attractive women and will be using the images of sexy women he sees in passing as a way to be swept away, to feed a fantasy life, and to avoid the person he is with.

I saw one sex addict who admitted that he ogled in this way; that he looked at women “from the neck down”.  He was happily married yet he saw himself as being sexually compulsive in this one area.  He claimed he would do anything to stop because it hurt his wife so much.  When he couldn’t stop looking at another woman in a restaurant on his honeymoon it was a wake up call for his wife (and him).

The three second rule

Sex addicts in recovery are told to follow the three second rule, meaning that although you can’t help glancing at or noticing someone, you can give yourself three seconds to stop looking.  At that point you can hopefully manage to redirect your thoughts away from sexual objectification and into seeing the person as a person (a student, someone’s daughter, etc.) and to wish them well.

One of the partners of sex addicts who wrote to me  challenged this idea.  Her partner is a recovering sex addict who ogles women.  She wrote:

“His comment to me about three seconds was that he rarely if ever looks that long because he wants to avoid discovery. He is very subtle about his looking, yet he is able to get a potent hit, even though his eyes only “flick” briefly onto a woman’s body. So basically, someone could look for under three seconds and get a potent sexual hit. In other words, it’s really not about the amount of time. It’s about the intent, the hunting, the feeding, the drinking in, the filling up.”

She describes also:

“…a different person I know who captures image impressions of women’s bodies and files them away mentally for later fantasy use. These also could be just very brief glimpses of someone’s cleavage or of someone in an every day position that is sexually titillating to the viewer.”

This woman’s partner is not unusual.  Many sex addicts complain that they are helpless because there are just so many sexy women around and they can’t help looking at them.  And yet ogling can feed an addiction by adding to what some sex addicts call their “data base” of sexual imagery that they can call up at a later time to use for masturbation or even during sex.  It can feed what is essentially a stash of mental pornography even if they have been successful in giving up an actual pornography addiction.

One thing is for sure; if a man has already identified himself as having problematic, compulsive sexual behavior then his ogling is probably one of his array of sexually addictive behaviors.

What ogling does

Remembering images and having fantasies is not at all pathological in itself.  And to some extent the level objectification of women that is involved in ogling is an everyday occurrence in our culture.

But as I noted elsewhere, the American Psychological Association talked about ogling as one step along a scale:

with sexualized evaluation (e.g. looking at someone in a sexual way) at the less extreme end, and sexual exploitation, such as trafficking or abuse, at the more extreme end.”

Sexual objectification of women (and men) is rampant in our culture and it is probably getting worse.  As a form of objectification, ogling may or may not be a dangerous trend, but can seriously interfere with a person’s ability to relate in an intimate relationship.

Ogling as a form of sexualizing and objectifying people is so common among sex addicts as to be almost universal.  And it can also provide a direct trigger to relapse in an addict who gets swept into fantasy.

For some sex addicts looking at women in a sexual way is part of their addictive ritual.  They feel deprived of sex, even rejected by the women they look at and this paves the way for them to escape into their other sexually addictive behaviors such as internet porn.

Is ogling voyeuristic?

As I discussed in a prior post it may not be possible for most of us to tune out sexy women.  But sexual looking and sexual evaluation of strangers can be seen as unwanted and invasive in itself, quite apart form its impact on partners of sex addicts.  Some women may want to be looked at, but some may feel slimed or even violated by it.  And since the ogler has not way of knowing it’s best to assume that there is something uninvited and even potentially voyeuristic about it.