A "Sex Addict" By Any Other Name Hurts the Same

Much like alcoholism decades ago, acceptance and understanding of sex addiction is gradually increasing.  This happens whenever..… 

     ….. a politician or celebrity admits to a history of multiple affairs;

     …..a successful career is suddenly terminated amid whispers of astoundingly inappropriate sexual behavior;

     .....a respected marriage ends in divorce because one spouse was leading a sexual double life.

It's becoming almost universally accepted that compulsive sexual behavior can literally devastate the lives of people who are fundamentally moral, thoughtful and committed.  For example, easy and anonymous access to hardcore pornography, cybersex and other forms of secretive sexual gratification can carry some caring and competent people into a downward spiral of lust that is capable of eroding their deepest principle, clouding their best judgment and destroying their most cherished relationships.

The old jokes (“That’s the addiction I want to have!”) are slowly being replaced by sincere discussions about what makes so many people fall off the sexual cliff.  Because of this gradually improving public awareness, it's becoming more likely than ever that a person caught in an ultimately unsatisfying cycle of sexual behavior may utter a simple but profound sentence: “I think I may be a sex addict.”  This humbling admission can be one of the most important moments in a person's life and mark the start of a journey to healing and happiness. 

But many other people in similar situations can’t or won’t say those words even in the face of potentially devastating and lasting consequences to their personal reputation, professional career, emotional well-being and family lives.  Their reluctance often stems from their belief that the word “addict” is too shameful, too harsh or just doesn’t fit.

  • The stigma and shame may cause some people to think of the worst extremes of sexual behavior, even though an extremely wide variety of behaviors can cause a person to realize that a problem exists.
  • Some skeptics may suspect that the word “addict” excuses responsibility for bad behavior, even though in reality it is an admission of the need to fully address the problem.
  • There can be a mistaken belief that a “sex addict” has to stop having sex, which is not the definition of sexual sobriety.  Although some behaviors have to stop, the ultimate result is to achieve a healthy and balanced approach to sexual desire.

For all of these reasons and more, a person first facing the possibility of being a sex addict is likely to negotiate for an alternative explanation that seems easier to swallow and requires less effort to change.  But isn't the impassioned protest that "I may have some problems but I'm not a sex addict!" just the kind of denial that proves the problem?  The answer may not be so simple.  

The reality is that several other reasons are capable of explaining why someone would engage in inappropriate sexual behavior over and over again.  However, it will soon be evident that none of these other conclusions are very comfortable to face or easy to treat.  

In order to understand these distinctions it is first necessary to clear away any confusion regarding what does NOT constitute sexual addiction.  The next step will be to consider what other categories are capable of sufficiently explaining the kind of behavior that is under question.  The answer may disappoint a person looking for a convenient explanation for the mess he or she has created.  

Many myths and accusations tend to swirl around the concept of sex addiction, obscuring the characteristics that really matter.  A few points of clarification can threfore be very helpful. 

1. Sex addiction is not the same as really, really, REALLY liking sex.  There is a lot of variation in the frequency and variety of sexual stimulation people seek.  Some don’t experience significant sexual desire for weeks, months or longer, while others are willing and able to be aroused whenever an appropriate opportunity is available. 

People express their sexuality in many different ways and for many different purposes.  Sexual energy can be used to: 

  • enhance emotional intimacy with a partner; 
  • relieve stress and escape from the cares of the day; 
  • experience an exhilarating sense of excitement, novelty, and freedom;
  • revel in the delight of desiring and being desired;
  • connect with and explore the profound psychological aspects of the physical self;
  • bring the blessing of a new life into being, and so on. 

All of these sexual desires and motivations have both highly conscious and deeply unconscious roots.  Like fingerprints, our sexual drives and erotic templates are a mix of both the common and the unique.  People are into all kinds of different things. There is no single measure of "normal" sexual expression. 

     Here's the Truth Behind the Myth…..…..

The attempt to blame ongoing sexual shenanigans on a "strong libido” can serve to deflect attention away from the presence of other possible personality deficits.  Chronic lust can obscure the fact that a person may not possess all of the skills necessary to be well-rounded adult, such as the ability to:

  • competently convey a wide range of appropriate emotional expression; 
  • experience healthy emotional intimacy with a primary partner;
  • effectively manage inevitable relationship conflicts;
  • capably cope with the expected and unexpected stresses of life;
  • articulate rather than merely act upon feelings;
  • act with appreciation of the causes and consequences of behavior;
  • develop and maintain healthy limits and boundaries; 
  • enjoy affirming forms of physical and emotional pleasure, and so on.

Relying on intense sexual preoccupation to compensate for the absence of these attributes is a terrible investment of energy.  It should come as no surprise that the eventual result is a level of emotional isolation that is one of the inevitable characteristics of sexual addiction.   

2. Sex addiction is an inappropriate explanation for differences in sexual desire within a relationship.  Sometimes a person who has a relatively lower level of sexual desire may feel like a partner with a higher sexual appetite is showing symptoms of sex addiction.  It’s not enough to say “He’s a sex addict: he wants to have sex with me all the time”.  

This conflict is beautifully expressed in the famous “split-screen” scene from the movie “Annie Hall” in which Diane Keaton and Woody Allen tell their therapists how often they have sex with each other.  She says “Constantly!  I’d say three times a week” while his reply is “Hardly ever.  Maybe three times a week.”  

Some people who engage in ongoing sexual deception claim it is at least partly the result of "a relationship problem" with their spouse or partner.  The reality is that lots of couples encounter deeply troubling conflicts without using them to justify secretive sexual behavior. Of course, a conflicting level of sexual desire can often contribute to and/or reflect other problems in a relationship.  This can be difficult for a couple to address without defensiveness, shame, misunderstanding and defense mechanisms that obscure rather than clarify the issue. The danger is when labels such as “sex addict” and “cold as ice” turn into weapons. 

     Here's The Truth Behind The Myth……….

An incessant desire or demand for exceptionally frequent sex in an intimate relationship can certainly be included as one of a collection of indicators that suggest the possibility that a person may be operating with some degree of sexual compulsion or addiction.  Regardless of any relationship problems that may need to be addressed as a couple, when such sexual desire repeatedly spills outside the relationship, it's reasonable to suspect that a pattern of sexual dependence is either emerging or escalating.  

3. Sex addiction isn’t the only reason a person repeatedly has affairs, keeps blowing the mortgage on prostitutes or chronically masturbates to porn for hours on end.  All of these behaviors can certainly cause shatteringly negative consequences, but they do not necessarily mean that compulsion is the core problem.

Sex addicts aren't the only one with the capacity to engage in sexual behavior that is misguided, immoral, destructive, callous, and deceptive.  Many people seem content, capable and even dedicated to operating with a selfish disregard for anything other than personal pleasure.

     Here's The Truth Behind the Myth..........

It's clearly the case that one characteristic of truly addictive sexual behavior is its capability to operate without regard for ethical, legal, logical or moral constraints.  Addiction erases such limits and boundaries, which is why a sexually addicted individual can engage in thoughts, words or actions that can be profoundly disturbing to others (and even to the addict once the fever has broken).

So why in the world would a person continually engage in sexual behavior that is so fundamentally flawed and inherently unhealthy?  What categories can contain this kind of lifestyle?

Four choices are available, and all of them have the ability to seriously impair the quality of life a person can ever expect to experience unless they are openly addressed in an honest and sustained manner.  It may be surprising which answer offers the most hope.

The first two alternatives are that a person who repetitively seeks intense sexual gratification in the face of enormous personal risk either(1) lacks a steady moral compass or (2) has developed some degree of sexual addiction, compulsion or obsession (all three words mean just about the same thing).

There are two other categories to consider, including the fact that (3) some people are simply ignorant about how to  manage their lives with appropriate sexual boundaries in the first place, generally because they grew up without sufficiently healthy caretakers to model this behavior. The final possibility is (4) the presence of a serious mental illness or other significant impairment that inhibits restrained sexual behavior.  

Therefore, a person who repeatedly engages in a pattern of sexual behavior that violates commitments and has the potential for profoundly negative consequences either:

  • doesn't know any better,
  • is ethically challenged,
  • has a psychiatric illness, or
  • lacks sufficient self-control.

To be blunt, such a person is either ignorant, unethical,  impaired, or addicted (and these categories are not mutually exclusive).

All of a sudden, "addict" doesn't sound so bad, does it?

While these words may seem offensive, so is the behavior that leads to their use.  Too often a person adamantly refuses to accept a conclusion without carefully considering the alternative explanations that may be equally painful to acknowledge. While it's understandable to seek an answer that avoids intense discomfort, it's not helpful to enable this type of emotional evasion at such a pivotal time in a person's life. 

The bottom line is that a person who engages in ongoing destructive or deceptive sexual actions has a significant problem that must be acknowledged no matter what the reason is or what other issues are present.   

Therefore, regardless of whether the label "addiction” seems warranted, issues such as recurrent anonymous sexual encounters, chronic masturbation, extensive online pornography use, frequent affairs, repeatedly paying for sex and other unhealthy patterns of sexual activity are extremely serious behaviors that need to be addressed in a forthright manner.

The goals associated with any problem are at least partially determined by the way that problem is assessed. In other words, what you do about something is influenced by what you call it. Each of the four explanations listed above has specific implications for the type of approach that will likely bring about the best outcome for everyone involved. The particular steps that will be useful to take for each category are beyond the scope of this article and are best addressed in consultation with a qualified counselor and other supportive and informed resources.

A professional who is being asked to guide an individual or couple though difficult areas they are unfamiliar with and which will impact them on a deep personal level for years to come should be able to provide an accurate assessment and competent counseling without preconceived notions about what will emerge. This is not as simple as it may seem.  People have a natural tendency to interpret situations from their particular theoretical, philosophical or ideological perspective.  It’s easy to think you are being objective about a situation when you don’t perceive or fully appreciate the limitations of your own framework.  (As the old saying goes, fish don’t notice the water they swim in.)  To be able to transcend rather than be limited by these preconceptions is the mark of a truly balanced, fair and objective approach.

I’m very comfortable reaching the conclusion that a client does not have a problem with sexual addiction as long as he or she is willing to consider that this may in fact be the underlying source of the problem. Whichever category emerges as the primary focus, such understanding and acceptance often emerge in stages, not always because a person is trying to be deceptive but because of an inherent degree of self-delusion that stems from shame, fear and the inherent fragmentation of awareness that comes from a long pattern of leading a sexual double life. Because of the above, it may take more than one discussion to come to a conclusion on the matter.

This rather lengthy article has presented a way to conceive of chronic sexual indiscretions that includes but is not limited to the addiction model.  There are additional components of this topic that are important to examine in much closer detail, especially in the context of each unique individual situation that presents itself.  

I invite and welcome contact from any person ready to carry this conversation forward.