Is Healthy Masturbation Part of Sex Addiction Counseling?

I am returning to this topic because it is one that comes up repeatedly in sex addiction counseling.  Masturbation to pornographic images or fantasies is not necessarily an unhealthy thing on its own. But for sex addicts the uncontrollable acting out of particular sexual fantasies and the act of masturbating while having specific sexual fantasies are very similar processes.

If the addict’s preferred acting out behavior is visiting prostitutes, going to sexual massage parlors, anonymous sexual hook-ups, cyber sex, porn, serial seduction or more likely some combination of behaviors, the fantasies that accompany masturbation will likely mirror those activities.

Sex addicts have what therapists call an “arousal template,” the sexual scenario that they find most exciting. To the addict it is far more thrilling than any other sexual activity; it should really be called the hyper-arousal template.  It may be any one of a myriad of sexual experiences, remembered or imagined, but that scenario is what they return to when they masturbate.

If not an exact repeat of the behavior, the masturbation fantasy will likely contain the essential elements of the arousal template, such as dominance, submission, multiple partners, the feeling of being intensely desired, or any of an array of specific sexual acts or fetishes.

Risks of masturbation during recovery

A great many sex addiction therapists believe that in the initial phase of recovery when the addict is trying to abstain from compulsive sexual behavior, that sexual activity should be avoided entirely, including masturbation.  Even if masturbation is not part of the addict’s acting out scenario per se, it will most likely bring up fantasies of that activity which in turn could trigger the addict to relapse into the full-on behavior.

A sex addict who compulsively seeks sexual encounters with people he or she recruits from online sources such as personal ads may masturbate while thinking of these hook-up experiences.  But this can bring up urges for more, which in turn may lead to the addict “taking a quick look” at the online ads or photos, and then to actual acting out.

When sex addicts use masturbation to “relieve the tension” in order to (theoretically) avoid their preferred sexually compulsive behavior, they may be perpetuating their problem.

In sex addiction counseling we often discourage using masturbation in this way.  If it is a watered down version of the behavior the addict is trying to quit, it has the potential to simply prolong the process of withdrawal.  The addict is trying to “kick” the habit of a compulsive sexual behavior, one that is secret, alienated and often surrounded with shame.  And reliving that behavior in masturbation fantasies is like methadone maintenance for opiate addiction.  It is not the same as getting sober.

Adding masturbation back into the program

When in the recovery of the sex addict, or in the process of sex addiction counseling, is it appropriate to allow for masturbation?  Using masturbation in recovery depends on:

  • The addict’s ability to masturbate without addictive fantasies.  This is difficult for most sex addicts as they often find it hard to get aroused or to climax with different fantasies or no fantasies at all.
  • The addict’s ability to masturbate to orgasm and avoid “edging.”  Edging is the process of repeatedly bringing oneself to the edge of orgasm, pulling back and starting again as a way to prolong arousal.
  • The addict’s ability to plan to masturbate rather than doing it when a sexual urge arises.  The spur of the moment decision to masturbate may be due to urges or triggers that the addict should pay attention to and deal with in other ways than simply reacting sexually.

How masturbation can be useful in sex addiction counseling

Masturbation can be like a sexual laboratory.  Here are some of the ways in which the addict can use masturbation to explore and learn about himself or herself.

  • Psychological factors surrounding the act of masturbation.  Arousal and orgasm may bring up ideas, voices from the past that have played a role in shaping the addict’s sexuality.
  • Emotions or even “body memories” can crop up when masturbation is done without going off into the trance of addictive fantasies.  These emotions and memories may relate to past traumatic experiences that the addict has never worked through.
  • Some people in sex addiction counseling can experiment with changing their fantasies while masturbating.  They can use masturbation to “stretch the envelope” i.e. to go to fantasies and images that are more in the healthy range for them, like thinking about the person they love.  For some this will be a return to a more normal time in their life.

Some people have become free of sex addiction through years hard work in their sex addiction counseling program and have begun a new way of living.   For these recovered addicts, masturbation is often neither compelling or triggering.  It can then take its place as a normal kind of sexual activity.

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Sexually Addictive Behaviors Connect to Early Memories

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.