What Is "Sexual Sobriety"?
Every day an increasing number of people are finding the need to come to grips with the painful reality that their sexual behavior is not well-managed and may even be characterized as addictive or compulsive. This problem has become an epidemic in part because of the Internet's ability to place hardcore pornography and secret sexual encounters within reach of millions of people who are unprepared for the out-of-control obsessive spiral this kind of ready access is capable of creating. The layers of secrecy, illicit excitement, isolation and distorted thinking surrounding these behaviors can rise to such levels that nothing will stop this escalating cycle until some type of discovery makes the double life evident to others.
It is at this difficult point that a person may take the courageous step of turning for help to a 12 step group such as Sex Addicts Anonymous (click this link for a list of the many such groups in the Atlanta area). But for the "addiction model" to be useful, one challenge is to answer the question: just what is meant by sexual sobriety?
For alcohol or drug dependencies the concept of sobriety is straight-forward: no use of any mood-altering substances. Taking a drink or using a drug clearly constitutes a "relapse". But it's not so simple when dealing with sex addiction. In many ways, recovery from compulsive sexual behavior is similar to that of compulsive overeating: the goal is not to abstain altogether. The object of sexual sobriety is to act in a way that is physically and emotionally appropriate for the situation rather than in a compulsive manner that violates personal and relational integrity and leads to self-loathing and emotional isolation. And just as excessive food restriction ("anorexia") isn't the same as healthy eating, "sexual anorexia" is not the goal of sex addiction recovery.
Initial Sexual Abstinence
However, although sustained abstinence is not the ultimate goal, an initial period of abstinence from sex (90 days is often recommended) can be very beneficial for a number of reasons.
- First, a period of total sexual abstinence allows for the process known as emotional withdrawal to occur. A person who can no longer tap into an ever-present sexual "high" that is capable of acting as an all-purpose mood manager now has an opportunity to experience actual feelings that may have become numbed or distorted. It can be quite revealing to experience previously unknown levels of sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness and other unpleasant emotions that begin to emerge when the "self-medication" of compulsive sexual behavior stops.
- Another major benefit of an initial "time out" is that many people under-estimate the effort required to actually do it. This is the kind of evidence that can break through any denial or attempt to minimize that a problem truly exists.
- The final benefit of conscious sexual abstinence during the early part of the recovery process is that it allows for some relationship healing to take place (if there is one that continues in the aftermath of discovery) by removing any sexual pressure from the partner who has often been devastated by betrayal. People who have over-relied on sex may have great sexual proficiency but they are often extremely impaired in achieving true (sexual and non-sexual) intimacy. Taking the time to develop emotional and physical closeness without becoming sexual can bring new levels of healing, nurturance and safety into a relationship.
Varying Definitions for Varying Lifestyles
For many people, a good definition of sexual sobriety is to engage in sex only with a primary partner when true emotional intimacy is present. This acknowledges that even when engaging in monogamous sexual activity it's still possible to get lost in an internal world of secret fantasy, which essentially turns a partner into an object to be used for personal gratification rather than a person with which to share an intimate connection.
It's important to note that there are many different kinds of sexual lifestyles, including some that are not monogamous or which don't necessarily place a high value on deep levels of emotional intimacy in a sexual relationship. Because of this, the above definition of sexual sobriety is only applicable to some people and is used as an example: different behaviors are appropriate in different circumstances, but there are always ethical principles which must be identified and then consistently practiced.
The Role of Masturbation in Sexual Sobriety
For individuals who are not in an ongoing sexual partnership with another person (and even for some who are) the issue of whether masturbation is consistent with the concept of sexual sobriety is important to consider. There's no doubt that compulsive masturbation, both with or without pornography, often becomes a heavily reinforced behavior that is central to the addictive cycle. Most people engage in sexual fantasy while masturbating. For true sex addicts such fantasy can serve as a gateway to a downward spiral into obsession, intrigue, objectification and eventually full-fledged compulsion that respects few if any boundaries. This is especially true when masturbation involves pornography: there is no question that chronic "PMO" ("pornography-masturbation-orgasm") has created an epidemic of people who are almost incapable of maintaining sexual intimacy with a real human being. As the motto for the outstanding website Your Brain On Porn states, "Evolution has not prepared your brain for today's internet porn."
For other people, however, non-compulsive masturbation can actually aid the biological urge for sexual release, provide appropriate self-nurturance and contribute to an overall sense of sexual health. Figuring out which side of the line is best for a particular person is best achieved by talking about this topic with other people, such as a therapist who specializes in such matters or with another trusted person who is dealing with the same set of issues.
Bottom Lines, Border Lines and Top Lines
All this discussion of sexual sobriety leads to the need to discuss exactly what constitutes a relapse for people who struggle with addictive or compulsive sexual behavior. The simple answer is that relapse is defined as any sexual activity that falls outside of pre-determined boundaries. Depending on the person this could include any of the following: using pornography, engaging in anonymous sex, an affair, any type of commercial sex (such as strip clubs, massage parlors or prostitution), or any other form of sexual behavior that has proved destructive to the health of a person's life or relationships. In 12-step lingo these are often referred to as "bottom-line behaviors" which are not to be crossed.
In addition to these “bottom lines”, two other "lines" are helpful to understand. The first is a "boundary" or “border line”, which is any behavior that poses a significant risk to resuming the addictive cycle and which therefore must be carefully self-monitored. Crossing a boundary isn’t the same as crossing a bottom line (i.e. a relapse) but it can be the beginning of a gradual slide back to one. One analogy I use is that a boundary is like the warning track on a baseball outfield, signaling an imminent collision. A few examples of such boundaries may include certain tv shows or print media, late-night internet use, alcohol use, lack of sleep, social isolation or even a lingering resentment.
Three other common boundaries reside inside rather than outside a person. These are:
- objectification (looking at or thinking about another person for purely sexual reasons),
- intrigue (flirtatious, seductive or “grooming” behavior, and
- fantasy (imagining sexual scenarios).
(In this regard it may be useful to look over my description of "the difference between limits and boundaries" as well as the use of such specific techniques as the "3-second rule" to guard against engaging in such potentially dangerous thought processes.)
Finally, “top lines” are all forms of healthy behaviors that promote physical self-care, insure sustained emotional and mental health and ward off the destructive influences that inevitably lead to the crossing of a bottom line. Examples of top line behaviors may include regular exercise, healthy recreational and social activities, daily reading of some uplifting source of inspiration, meditation or prayer, journal keeping, 12-step or other support group attendance, and regular professional counseling: everybody will have their own personal combination.
Support for Maintaining Sexual Sobriety
Most people working to maintain sexual sobriety, especially those who have the courage to accept that they are sex addicts, find it extremely beneficial to have regular contact with other people who are similarly engaged in the recovery process, which is often best obtained by attending 12-step meetings. This is where a person can find a sponsor, a person possessing extensive sobriety who can provide ongoing mentoring on a personal basis. It is also a way to develop relationships with people who can serve as sources of accountability and support, despire the initial reluctance a person who is accustomekd to living in secrecy may have opening up to others. (See, for example, my article titled 'Picking Up the 500 Pound Telephone".)
It's important to note that four major 12-step groups exist for sexual recovery, and each has a somewhat different definition of sexual sobriety, which can be very helpful to know about. Depending on where a person lives, one or more of these groups may be geographically accessible, although all of them offer "virtual" meetings.
This overview has provided a very brief orientation to some of the key concepts of sexual sobriety as it relates to addictive or compulsive sexual behavior. Freedom from addictive sexual activity is entirely possible but it is rarely an easy matter since this is a behavior that is often woven into the fabric of a person's being at a level that has never been adequately acknowledged or openly shared. Sincere remorse, earnest conviction, heartfelt promises and penitent prayer are often woefully insufficient for achieving long-term sexual sobriety. Prolonged and definitive courses of action are often necessary to instill new and healthier behaviors that result in positive self-esteem, an ongoing sense of integrity and the presence of healed and trusting relationships. As is sometimes humorously said by those engaging in such a process of recovery, "the work is hard but the pay is good!"