It’s OK to Have Bad Sex: The Sex Addict’s Difficult Adjustment

Sex addicts tend to be perfectionists.  And this is especially true in their attitude toward sex.  They are known for their all-or-nothing thinking, the tendency to view the world in terms of extremes.  In their sex life with a partner, sex addicts in recovery tend to carry with them an extreme and basically intolerant set of expectations. Just as an aside, there have been a slew of blogs and research survey findings that suggest that we are all having our sexual expectations distorted by the increasing pornification of our culture.  Some in the “feminist porn” movement and elsewhere have attempted to fight the idealized images and expectations shown in mainstream porn and in the “ambient porn” of movies, games, magazines and TV.  See also my journal article the findings of the APA task force on the sexualization of girls in our society.

The over importance of sex and orgasm

Sex addicts have as a core belief that sex is their most important need.  Thus sex addicts place an undue emphasis on sexual arousal and gratification.    Even before the advent of internet porn, sex addicts have always tended to be in a hurry to get to the sex act and to achieve the perfect orgasm.  If this didn’t happen all was lost. Having permission to have “bad sex”, i.e. sex that doesn’t match some perfect ideal, is a way to counteract the desperate need that sex addicts feel.  It can help relieve the pressure and can allow for times when the partners feel less energetic, more sensual etc.  It takes the focus off of “getting my needs met” and places it more on just having a sexual, physical experience with someone you are close to.

Fantasy standards of desirability

Because sex addicts are used to engaging in sex that is excessively loaded with fantasy content, (sex with strangers, cybersex, escorts, strip clubs, and of course pornography) they usually have perfectionistic (fantasy ridden) ideas about how women’s and men’s bodies should look.  This then results in the feeling that any sex with someone who doesn’t measure up to a fantasy standard of beauty or prowess is no good.  Hence the saying that to an addict “sex with a real woman is just bad porn.”

Unrealistic expectations about sexual behavior

Sex in the context of a relationship may seem boring to a sex addict.  In a real situation the addict has to deal with all kinds of awkward, messy and most importantly unpredictable elements.  These will almost certainly burst the addict’s fantasy bubble. In addition, sex addicts are used to fantasy scenarios that may involve all kinds of erotic behavior that their partner may not wish to engage in. We are asking the recovering sex or porn addict to adjust to what they may see as “plain vanilla” sex.

Paradoxically, sex in real life may also be more unpredictable and less boring.  Sex addicts are used to controlling the sexual experience from beginning to end.  In sex addiction, the addict has a preferred scenario or arousal template. This can evolve and escalate into more extreme behaviors, but the addict knows what he or she is going to get.  Real, relational sex is not so predictable.  This means things may end up unusually exciting and passionate or they may end up less so.

Expectations of hyper-arousal and porn induced ED

In addictive sexual acting out, the addict seeks a very extreme form of arousal and often seeks to prolong it.  This level of extreme or hyper-arousal is unlikely to exist in any everyday situation.  Furthermore there is beginning to be evidence that porn addiction in particular can lead men to experience erectile dysfunction when they attempt to have sex with a real person.  This porn induced ED, as it is called, is reversible when the addict abstains from porn use for a period of time.

The use of ED drugs like Viagra is becoming increasingly prevalent, even among younger men and men who don’t need it.  Addicts in particular may have exaggerated ideas about what they need to be able to do to “perform” sexually and may be very anxious in trying to have healthy sex with a partner.  It is normal for men to have a physical response to what is going on around them and sexual “performance” can vary for any number of reasons.  It is unfair, inaccurate and inhumane to see these fluctuations as a sign of something wrong or bad.  In recovery there is often a period of insecurity about sex but this is not a signal to panic and reach for ED drugs.

Sex can be a good thing no matter how it turns out

Sex addicts are so zeroed in on sex as central to life that they don’t realize that it is only one aspect, not the be-all and end-all.  Sex addicts find it hard to fathom the idea that, for many people, sex is great but has its proper place among many other great things in life.  In relationships sex is no doubt very important but it is a source of bonding as well as excitement and gratification.  The behavior of the partners and the level of arousal will exist in a broader spectrum or array of experience.

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

Sex Addicts are Codependents Too

If you are a clinician working with sex addicts you may be struck by how often the addict is desperate to save their marriage or relationship.  Sometimes to the point of being so obsessed with holding onto their relationship that it interferes with their focusing on treatment.

It may not be immediately obvious why this is so.  Addicts appear to be focused mainly on themselves. Typically they:

-are sexually compulsive outside of the relationship

-are intimacy avoidant

-use coping skills which create distance

-lead a double life

We typically think of the spouse or partner of the addict on the other hand as the codependent:

-fearful of abandonment

-enmeshed and preoccupied with their partner

-emotionally constricted or volatile

-subject to self-doubt and insecurity.   

And yet most married sex addicts entering treatment (more often they are men but by no means always) exhibit exactly these signs of codependency. They may exhibit them more than their supposedly “co-addict” partners.

Origins of codependence

People who exhibit codependence have typically had some kind of stress or inadequacy in their relationship with their care-givers early in life.  This is sometimes referred to as “relational trauma.”  This early relational trauma causes the child to grow up with mistrust of those close to him and to be insecure and avoidant regarding relationships and sometimes regarding the world in general.

Instead of growing up with a strong internalized sense of self, the codependent survives childhood by using one or another “strategy” by which to adapt to a less than nurturing situation.  These strategies, like numbing out, distracting oneself, suppressing feelings, being over compliant, etc. take different forms depending on the kind of relational stress and the nature of the relationship with the parents. 

But bottom line, the development of the sense of self is impaired in an attempt to get the caregiver’s approval or love.  The codependent’s core belief is “my worth as a person depends on my value to someone else.”

In what way are sex addicts codependent?

Although sex addicts may have a façade, a “narcissistic false self” as it is sometimes called, they have typically grown up with some serious disruptions in their intimate relationships with caregivers.  This can take the form of abuse, but not always.   Often the parents of addicts are distant, repressed, rigid or disengaged. 

Patrick Carnes has pointed out that relational trauma is “a powerful factor in the genesis of addictions and compulsions.”  In Carnes’ theory the addict shares the same fears, mistrust and basic sense of unworthiness as a codependent.  The lack of a strong sense of self and of self worth underlies the intimacy avoidance of addicts and the tendency to medicate their fears with sex and to split their sex life off from their normal life.

The belief that they are unworthy and that they are only lovable to the extent that they can please someone else, can lead to the addict’s extreme fear of abandonment and rejection by the very partner that they have betrayed.

A passage in the Co-Dependents Anonymous “Big Book” states this point clearly:

“Since the very nature of existence is relationships, and I had a disease that precluded my ability to maintain healthy relationships, I began to see that I was pretty well screwed.

I think of the disease of codependence as a tree. 

The roots of the tree are my childhood abuse and neglect.  The branches are my acting-out behaviors I developed to cope with life.  Both the roots and the branches have to be healed (my italics). 

I cannot stop the acting-out without healing the damage that spawned the behavior, and likewise, I cannot work on the roots if I’m still medicating myself with my addictions.”

Understanding and working through these underlying early childhood issues will dismantle the unconsciously held core beliefs and allow for the emergence of a real self and real intimacy with another.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

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

Good Wives? Supporting Your Sex Addict Partner and Yourself

People in the addiction field have long argued that alcoholism, for example, is a “family disease”.  This is often framed in terms of Family Systems Theory  which posits that “This family system is a complex whole that cannot be understood by examining members separately.”  As new forms of compulsive behavior such as sex addiction have been added to the list of addictions, the tendency has been to see these as also being “family diseases”.

But in the field of sex addiction treatment this idea has been challenged of late and the emphasis has shifted away from seeing the partner as part of the same problem to seeing the partner as experiencing serious trauma following the discovery of sex addiction in their significant other.  Many writers and advocates for partners of sex addicts object strenuously to the use of terms like co-dependent or co-addict (see for example).  Some even discourage partners from attending partner 12-step programs (link t) because they may to use the term “co-dependent” and/or encourage examination of the partners’ own role in the problem.

A triple bind

As I see it, many partners of sex addicts are caught in a number of cross-currents.  They want to do what is best for their partner and are often genuinely able to see that the addict is suffering from a “disease” that he or she cannot control.  And yet the spouse is likely to be experiencing a great deal of traumatic stress due to the seriousness of the betrayal and the shattering of their world as they knew it. And in addition, the partner must grapple with how and whether to proceed as a couple (or family).  In other words the partner of a sex addict may be confused about what is best for him (the addict), for me, and for us.

In a nutshell, partners need help and support but they don’t need to be blamed.

How best to support yourself

In my post Discovery of Sex Addiction in a Partner: What to Do First I outlined some of the main steps that partners can take in the initial phase of post discovery crisis.  I think one of the most important points is that the partner is likely to be in a PTSD state and is therefore likely to experiencing strong emotions, confusion and even irrational thinking.  Do not get down on yourself if you do things that seem dumb or crazy in retrospect.

This is to be expected, and it means that getting support and help for yourself will be crucial.  It also means that at this point you may not be a very “good wife” because your focus needs to be on yourself.  Counseling with someone who has expertise in sex addiction, and participation in a partner support group either through a clinic or through a 12-step program is great if you find it works for you.

The pitfalls of any support group are

-that it might make you feel labeled by the term “co-dependent”,

-that it might encourage you to adopt a victim role when that is not what you need, and

-that it could and sometimes does, turn into a gripe session.

On the positive side support groups help you to

-realize you are not alone,

-get validation for what you experience,

-be comforted by others who care about you, and

-pick up a lot of useful information from other partners.

There are a number of websites and blogs specifically for partners and spouses of sex addicts and they are all good and helpful.   Here are just a few of the sites I like are:

Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center

Married to a Sex Addict

Mishka Wife of a Sex Addict

Wife of a Sex Addict

Can you support your partner in a way that is not “co-dependent”?

The answer is clearly “yes”.  Co-dependence can best be thought of as problem solving behaviors that don’t work.  For example, if in the past you sensed there was something wrong in your relationship but didn’t trust your own intuition. You may have decided to avoid a confrontation and accept an explanation that really didn’t hold water.  We do things for all kinds of reasons that may or may not lead to effective action.

I believe the most effective action that partners can take involves using the leverage that they and they alone have to get the addict to accept treatment.  Denial is the norm for sex addicts and they don’t want to give up their addiction.  Spouses and partners are in a unique position to exert the necessary pressure to get the addict to accept help in the first place.  When threats and pleas don’t work, it may mean separating from the relationship for a while.  Whatever gets the addict expert help is a good start.

Additionally, I have seen many sex addicts who have followed through with successful recovery motivated largely by the desire to win back their spouse and rebuild their relationship.  And both partners often find it helpful to work together on recovery once the situation has stabilized.

But ultimately you as a partner need to develop a clear idea of your own boundaries—of what will be acceptable to you in a relationship in the long run and what not.  You do this for yourself but it also benefits your partner.

Treatment for Partners of Sex Addicts: The Fallout and the Recovery

When a partner discovers they are in a relationship with a sex addict they are to a greater or lesser degree in a kind of post traumatic state of shock.  This means that they may not be able to sort out what they are feeling very well.

Often the first reflex is to be angry and want to reject the addict.  But I have found that the partner or spouse will usually realize that the addict has a serious problem and begin to do the leg work of finding the right kind of help.

Sometimes the partner will be interested in participating in the addict’s recovery and sometimes not.  Often the partner will be on the fence about whether they will be able to stay in the relationship.  There are many different kinds of responses to this crisis and many different ways of coping.

Some common reactions

Some spouses and partners focus too much on the addict.  They go into an emergency mode in which they concentrate their energy on the addict’s need for help that they neglect their own needs.  The feeling is to get this problem solved as fast as possible and get back to “normal.”  But the treatment for sex addiction will of necessity change the people involved in some profound ways and will therefore mean that the relationship will not go back to exactly the way it was.

Getting help for a sex addict partner is not like helping a partner get through knee surgery.  It involves the addict getting help with problems relating to intimacy.   A relationship that was one of dishonesty and compartmentalization becomes one of openness and trust.  This big picture is usually hard for either partner to discern at the outset.

Some partners feel an urge to explain away the addict’s problem.  They feel very invested in what they may think was a great relationship and don’t quite know how to adjust to the idea that there is a major problem.  One way to attempt to get clarity  is to blame themselves or other circumstances, such as a separation, a pregnancy and so on.  “If such-and-such hadn’t happened then my partner wouldn’t have felt X or Y or Z and he wouldn’t have needed to engage in sexually addictive behavior.”

But the addict does have a problem and the fact that a life stressor caused it to escalate does not mean that it is not there.

Sometimes partners are so angry at their spouse or partner that even though they do not immediately decide to leave the relationship they try to completely shut out the problem.  They say in effect: “I’m fine, you’re messed up and you need to go get fixed.”  Meanwhile, their thinking goes, I will just get on with my life, and if you get better then we’ll be a couple again.

This is also a natural response but the fact is that although the addict’s recovery is not the partner’s responsibility, the partner does have to face up to what has happened to the relationship and to the impact that it has had on them.  Eventually partners of sex addicts need to be able to recognize that the kind of betrayal they have experienced is not a small matter and that it is OK to be vulnerable to being hurt and OK to get support.  We are human and we need to be able to trust those we love.  And because we are human our loved ones can hurt us. This means we deserve help too.

What kind of help do partners and spouses need

The kind of support that partners need and want varies enormously.  I have seen spouses so devastated by sexual betrayal that they wanted and needed a residential treatment program of their own.  Other partners find it useful to get therapy with a sex addiction counselor for themselves.  They need to better understand the nature of sex addiction and the fact that they didn’t cause it and they can’t cure it.  They may need to learn to set boundaries, communicate their feelings more clearly and sort out, bottom line, what they are willing to accept and what they are not.

Most spouses and partners benefit from the support of other spouses and partners of sex addicts who are dealing with the same experiences.  This can take the form of group therapy, 12-step programs for partners of sex addicts or co-dependents generally, on online resources for educational information and websites by and for partners of sex addicts.

It is surprising how many couples survive sex addiction and go on to thrive.  The research has indicated that the participation of the spouse or partner in the process of recovery at an appropriate time is key to this success.  Both the addict and the partner need to get the right kind of help and then they need to work together to rebuild their relationship.  Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource

Why Sex Addicts Seem Sociopathic

To their partners and spouses, many sex addicts will, at some point in their addiction, seem to lack a conscience.  They may lie, cheat, exploit others, think only of themselves and disregard the harm to others.  And they will often be able to do all this while keeping up a façade of social acceptability.

When you’re around a sex addict, it’s easy to see them as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of person; liable to slip into a primitive and depraved state when your back is turned.  Sometimes even the addicts themselves feel that they are two people, one of whom is decidedly anti-social.

The majority of sex addicts (at least those we know about) are not “sociopaths.”  They do not qualify under the diagnostic term of antisocial personality disorder.”  Their behavior takes on this appearance for some very understandable reasons.

What causes the addict to behave without conscience?

  1. Creeping Denial

Sex addicts try to avoid feeling shame.  They also know on some level that others would disapprove of their addictive behaviors.  In order to keep the feelings of guilt and shame at bay, sex addicts find ways to minimize, rationalize, or justify their behavior.  In so doing they build up a layer of denial.

Over time, this habit of denial can then spread to other areas of the addicts life leading to dishonesty and disregard for risks and consequences in general.

  1. Going it Alone

Along side of their public “normal” life, most sex addicts conduct their sexually addictive life such as anonymous hook-ups, online sex, prostitutes, strip clubs and so on, in secret.  In other words they lead a “double life.”  They are intimacy avoidant and can’t integrate their sex life into their normal life.  This leads to withdrawing from people generally and becoming a closed system, often seeming to lack empathy.

  1. Narcissistic Over-Entitlement

One of the defense mechanisms sex addicts use to justify their behavior is narcissistic over-entitlement.  They come to feel that they are special and that they deserve to act out sexually for one reason or another.  They are important, over-worked, stressed out, and just plain different from everyone else.

This is what sex addiction therapists call being “terminally unique.”  They come to feel that the rules for others don’t apply to them.

With treatment the sex addict can re-connect

The reason we know that most sex addicts we treat are not truly sociopathic is that most of them have the capacity to change the way they live.  With treatment and support they can learn not only to overcome their sexually compulsive behavior, but they can learn to live in honesty and integrity.  They can gain self esteem and drop the narcissistic mask of self importance.  And they can gain intimacy skills and connect with others.  They can experience true empathy.

Are some sex addicts real sociopaths? 

Some sex addicts actually do have a diagnosis of anti-social personality disorder. But because they lack the ability to genuinely connect with other human beings:

(1) They will not feel motivated to seek help, and will not respond to treatment, perhaps even ending up in prison, and

(2) They may not actually be addicts but may simply be as opportunistic and self-serving in their sex life as in life in general.

People with antisocial personality disorder have a poor prognosis in any case.  As you can imagine, it is important for the treating professional to understand what it is they are dealing with, but it may take some assessment to separate out the truly anti-social personality from the addict who has just built up an elaborate wall of defense and denial.

What about other diagnoses?

But you might ask “what about sex addicts having other diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD?”  There is reason to believe that sex addicts can have many different kinds of other psychological problems along side their addiction, although these other diagnoses don’t predictably cause sexually addictive behavior.

Addicts who have a co-occurring psychological disorder, such as a mood disorder, can and should get help with their psychological disorder and their sexual addiction for optimal treatment of both.

Dating a Sex Addict: Do’s and Don’ts

Let’s assume you are a very intuitive person.  Let’s say you are a woman who has just found out her boyfriend is frequently watching internet porn, having online sexual encounters, or engaging in other sexual activities in a secretive or compulsive way.

You have already got a pretty good idea that there’s something not OK about it.  Maybe he wants you to act out a particular fantasy scenario or engage in a 3-way or some other act that may not be in your comfort zone.  You say “no” and he keeps pushing you; maybe he even gets irritated.

The following are common sense ideas based on my own experience in working with sex addicts and their partners.


  • Don’t ignore your intuition.  Your intuition is that little faint voice inside you that tells you something doesn’t feel right.  It is way too easy to ignore that little voice especially in new dating situation when you don’t have all the “information.”  Your intuition has a lot of information, so trust it.
  • Don’t let yourself be talked out of what you are feeling.  If you say that you think there’s a problem and your boyfriend denies it and tries to brush it off you should continue to notice the signs of addiction.  And, if you are dealing with a sex addict, promises to change are worth next to nothing.
  • Don’t blame yourself for someone else’s compulsive sexual behavior.  Even if the person tries to blame you and say you are lacking sexually or some other way,  you cannot and should not accept a guilt trip
  • Don’t “manage” his illness.  Many sex addicts will disclose their behavior but not take responsibility for it.  They may let you be their coach, therapist or policeman.  This never works for either of you and is at bottom a way of dodging the issue.


  • Do set boundaries that work for you.  This means deciding what you are really comfortable with.  It also means being clear about what you want and don’t want, expressing it and continuing to stick to it over time.
  • Do continue to observe and put the pieces together.  Ask a lot of questions, particularly about his relationship history and what he is looking for in a relationship.  You are not being paranoid, just prudent.
  • Do take a critical look at his behavior.  Hold onto the idea that no matter how sexually exciting you find the relationship, there are other very important ways to evaluate a potential boyfriend besides sexual magnetism.
  • Do demand that the person get help.  This is something he must do based on his own motivation but you may be important enough to him to provide that initial thrust. This means that if you take a stand you have to be ready to walk.  “Get help or I’m out of here,” is often what an addict needs to give him the impetus to get some help.

Obviously these are just a few observations and not the whole story.  There are many important aspects to how to conduct a dating relationship in present day society.  And there are many different viewpoints out there as to what is “normal” and what is sexually addictive or problematic so that it is easy to feel confused in an actual dating situation.

Please leave a comment and share your experience and wisdom on this topic!

Spill-Over: A sex addict may have a brush with child molestation

The current typologies:

As it stands there are a number of ways to categorize people whose sexual fantasies or sexual behaviors relate to children.  Each category has its own particular characteristics and these categories become especially significant in the legal arena although they also relate significantly to approaches to prevention and treatment.  There are child molesters who are deemed predatory, fixated pedophiles, those seen as more intractable and more difficult to treat.  There are incestuous child molesters, those who molest a particular child whom they are emotionally close to rather than lying in wait for or grooming children at large and who are seen as less dangerous to society and easier to contain.  There are also of course those who are sexually sociopathic, who have a number of sexually exploitive behaviors and are likely to engage in molestation of a child simply because the opportunity presents itself.  Recently there is a distinction made between people who view child pornography because they are predatory pedophiles and people whose pornography addiction escalates into an interest in child pornography or in child molestation that wasn’t there before.  This spreading out or escalating phenomenon may happen more readily in adolescents whose sexuality, as well as their overall cognitive development, is less well formed.  Probably for this same reason, the recent data suggest that treatment outcomes are better for adolescents who have committed a sexual assault against a child.

The “maverick” molestation

In my work treating sex addicts I have seen a number of patients whose “arousal template,” meaning the well established set of sexual fantasy scenarios that drive their addictive sexual behaviors, have nothing to do with children but who nevertheless have at some point either touched a child inappropriately or had the thought or fantasy of acting out with a child or under-age youth.  In these cases the encounter with a child or adolescent is not part of a pattern.  Also it does not represent an “escalation” of their sex addiction.  On the contrary, the addict may find themselves interacting sexually with a child or contemplating it, only to be shaken by the fact that they have done or contemplated doing such a thing.  They may follow through in the moment and then realize afterward that they have crossed a line that they will never allow themselves to cross again.  Or they may recognize in themselves the impulse to act out with a child in a particular situation and be so taken aback that they never again allow themselves to be in a situation in which that behavior poses a risk.

I can hear you saying “Yes but how can you believe them?  What if they are actually bound to continue the offending behavior but they are keeping it a secret?”  That is a possibility, but if you know the patient well enough and over the period of their recovery from sexual addiction then you know with some certainty that it was a one shot deal.  Such an addict will not stop being an addict and will likely continue their preferred behavior such as anonymous online sexual hook-ups, engaging prostitutes, sexual chat rooms or internet pornography and never have another brush with child molestation.  They may even continue their other offending behaviors such as exhibitionism or voyeurism but never act out against a child.  It is simply not their preferred behavior and they are thus able to veer away from it.

What causes this spill over?

But although they have a distinct arousal template for their compulsive sexual behavior and although they do that behavior or that set of behaviors over and over, and although they may increase the frequency, the riskiness or the bizarreness of the behaviors, they are not destined to become child sexual abusers.  I believe that this phenomenon, if it is a phenomenon, of the random act with a child, represents the fact that:

  • Many sex addicts view the world through sex colored glasses.  As I like to put it, “they could sexualize a ham sandwich.”


  • Many sex addicts grow up in families or living situations in which there are extremely poor boundaries.


  • Poor boundaries do not always represent covert incest

All sex addicts I have known are liable to see any and every situation through a sexual filter.  They project their own preoccupation with sex onto the world at large and react from their own need to put sexuality first.  But that is not enough to explain the spill over phenomenon.  I think that those addicts who are particularly prone to have a one-time sexual brush with child molestation are those who were raised in families or situations in which there were very poor boundaries.  By this I mean situations in which there was a lack of appropriate generational boundaries and a lack of personal boundaries, e.g. sleeping in the same room with teen aged children or in which male and female children and teens were thrown together in sleeping or living arrangements without privacy.  Usually these are situations in which the parents or caregivers had a poor sense of appropriate boundaries themselves but are not engaging in covert molestation.  In these cases, there is likely no history of actual molestation of the addict as a child.  It there were it would raise the red flag of possible child sexual abuse pattern.

I believe the spill over phenomenon is a byproduct of sexual addiction caused by an extreme lack of an appropriate sense of boundaries beginning in childhood.  If this is the case and if it is fully understood then I believe it helps to allay the fears of the patient and therapist alike.  Whatever other challenges the sex addict faces, the behavior or fantasy of acting out with a child may truly be an atypical event for some addicts, one they can walk away from and one that may not signal a larger problem relating to children.

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Post a comment now!