I can’t tell you how many people in sex addiction programs are baffled about the issue of healthy sex. They are pretty clear on what they need to not do, but they are at a loss to envision what a healthy sex life would look like for them. Many addicts have never had the experience of what they see as “normal” sex with anyone. For example, they may have experienced their sexuality only in the two dimensional fantasy world of pornography, or they may have experienced sexual arousal only in very alienated or risky situations with strangers, illicit situations etc. In other words, for most sex addicts in early to mid recovery strong sexual feelings have never been integrated in any way into their life and relationships. Therefore, they have trouble seeing how they could ever feel intense sexual interest and gratification in the absence of their “acting out” behaviors. They know it exists, but for them it is an empty concept. The problem is further complicated if the addict is married or in a long term relationship in which they have been leading a double life. Chances are that they have periods of aversion to sex with their partner and/or that they have a sex life with their partner in which they find ways to bring their addictive behaviors into the mix such as being lost in their addictive fantasies during sex, bringing other people into the situation somehow, etc.
What has been written about healthy sex may or may not help enlighten the addict in early sexual recovery. Dr. Patrick Carnes’ writing is read by many recovering addicts and he has defined 12 dimensions of healthy sexuality which mostly have to do with the overall emotional maturity and relationship skills of the individuals in question. Such things as the ability to nurture and be nurtured, a clear sense of self and good boundaries, comfort with sex in general, the capacity for genital and non genital sex with a partner and so on. While these may be a necessary foundation for a sexually healthy person, they don’t help flesh out the concept of the sex life itself. Likewise, most addicts at some time come across the saying that “intensity is not intimacy”. Dr. Carnes spells this difference out in terms of ten different domains of functioning, e.g. high drama vs. problem resolution, or fear and arousal vs. passion and vulnerability. So although a person may be aware that fear or drama are what escalate their arousal, they have no model in their mind for how to achieve that level of arousal any other way. The awareness is important, but they would like to know where it’s all going.
So when we ask a sex addict to believe that he or she will be able at some point to enjoy the rewards of healthy sex are we able to offer any proof? Are we simply saying that they should clap their hands to show they believe in Tinkerbell? Well, in a way, yes. We already know that the willingness to embark on any journey of recovery involves a leap of faith. So sex addicts need to take it on faith that they will like what they get when they get there. But they also need to recognize some other realities about a healthy sex life with a committed partner.
First and foremost I think that addicts need to realize that healthy sex in the context of a good relationship may have a high degree of passion, variety and deep gratification, but it will not involve the same kind of hyper-arousal, the blast of instantaneous intensity that comes with acting out situations and fantasies. The good news is that the need for that kind of “hit” dissipates in the fullness of recovery. In other words you won’t have what you once had but it won’t matter as much as you think it will.
By the same token, addictive sexual behaviors tend to be the same every time. The addict controls the script and the outcome, even to the point of building in the risk or fear to heighten the “fuel mix”. The healthy sexual relationship has more room for the unexpected to happen, so that even though the context is one of comfort and safety, there is the possibility of genuine discovery.
Second, people tend to be unclear on the role of fantasy in their sexual life with a partner. Although this is an individual matter, generally speaking sexual thoughts and images can and should be part of healthy sex as long as they do not remove you from the present situation. Any kind of sexual fantasy may enhance your experience with a partner (or in masturbation for that matter) but it should be one that allows you to be more engaged in the real, physical experience at the time rather than less. Fantasy as a means to check out, numb out or escape is likely to set up a pattern that is not conducive to healthy sex.
Another way to look at this trade off in recovery is to put it in terms of what the AA book entitled Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions calls “the sacrificial spirit”. We sacrifice something to get something more worthy. In this case we sacrifice the need to focus only on ourselves and our own most perfect gratification and we behave in ways that have to do with the overall benefit to our lives and the lives of everyone around us. As addicts change, they will likely come to see that addictive sex is a drug they want to put down and that it was only their most important need because it was an addiction.
Finally, an inescapable reality of intimate relationships is that they require some attention in order to be maintained. So in terms of a healthy sex life the addict and their partner need to nurture all aspects of their relationship life, including the sexual. Planning to have sex, setting up a time to have sex may seem like anathema to sex addicts starting out in relationship recovery because, again, it’s not the impulsive or mindless escape into the “hit” or the oblivion of acting out. Sure, sometimes sex with a spouse or partner can be spontaneous and free and that’s great. But taking care to have time to have sex is going to be part of taking care of your relationship, just like expressing affection, problem solving, negotiating, and guarding each others’ solitude.