In sex addiction treatment we describe the addicts addictive sexual behaviors as “acting out” behaviors. What does this mean? In general when we talk about acting out it means doing something that indirectly expresses a fantasy or feeling. Often this acting out is done without awareness of the real fantasy or feeling underneath. For example, if I lash out when I feel hurt it means that I am acting out my hurt instead of being able to talk about it.
- The sex addict’s arousal template
You will hear recovery people talk about the sex addict’s “arousal template.” This refers to a particular addict’s preferred sexual acting out behavior scenario. These vary widely from person to person. Many different sexual behaviors can be addictive for different people. The preferred behavior may involve other people or not. It may involve voyeurism, paying for sex, anonymous sex, serial affairs, sexual massage parlors, cybersex, exhibitionism, fetishes, and so on.
Even within these categories the behavior may be done in a particular stereotyped way by a particular addict. And too, the arousal template may be exhibited in the type of pornography scenarios that the addict prefers. The behavior may be perfectly legal, like viewing pornography or going to strip clubs or it may be illicit, such as child porn or sexual exploitation of the vulnerable. Whatever it is, it may be done addictively or not. If it is done addictively it will be done to excess, with escalating intensity, with negative consequences, and with an inability to quit.
- The arousal template as an X-ray of early trauma
Where does this arousal template come from? In sex addiction theory it is believed to be based in stressful experiences in childhood. Any traumatic childhood experiences including an inadequate bond with caregivers can deprive a child of necessary supports and lead to problems in development that lead to any number of addictions as adults.
In childhood any highly charged experience has the potential to become sexualized in the course of development whether it started out as a sexual experience or not. Take for example a patient who is raised by deaf parents who later becomes an exhibitionistic sex addict. He grew up never being sure of getting his parents attention because they could not hear him. He had to be looked at in order for them to know that he needed something, and in order to connect at all. This produces intense feelings of anxiety and frustration in the child who in adolescence begins compulsively exposing himself to the young girls on the block. This escalates into various exhibitionistic behaviors in adulthood.
In the above example, it becomes very clear that the sex addict’s addictive sexual behavior is related to early experience. In the same way we can look at a given addict’s preferred acting out behavior and use it as an X-ray of early experiences that were intense or stressful, or that were violating or frightening.
Of course many other factors come into play in the creation of an addiction in any given person and their life experience. There are genetic factors, temperamental factors, and family dysfunction which can all increase or decrease the risk of future addiction.
Some experiences are extremely powerful but occur too early to be remembered in words. These experiences are stored in the brain and body but are not able to be dredged up into conscious memories. Sometimes we can reconstruct experiences based on what we know of a person’s history and what we can deduce they may have gone through as a young child.
In any case the more strongly the person’s arousal template is connected to a childhood trauma, the more addictive they are likely to become in their sexual behavior.
- Treatment and the arousal template
Early experiences can shape sexual behavior in ways that are an obvious reenactment of traumatic experiences. The addict may repeat his or her victimization or may reverse the situation and take the role of the perpetrator. It is said that repeating trauma in this way “deepens the trauma wound”.
Sex addicts do not know why they are compelled to do a particular thing. They only know that doing that thing is their most exciting “high”. In treatment addicts are forced to abstain from their sexually addictive behavior which allows them to begin to see what their emotional landscape looks like without their sexual drug. This in turn opens the way to connecting with the feelings and experiences that played such a formative role in their early life. Understanding these feelings and experiencing them instead of acting them out allows the addict to escape from the endless cycle of re-enactment of sexually addictive behavior and to learn healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional stress.