Sex Addiction: Three Drugs In One
I do a lot of work helping both individuals and couples heal from the damage of compulsive sexual behavior, commonly known as sex addiction. Some people still laugh and say "oh, that's the addiction I'd like to have!" But the combination of shame, betrayal of principles and loss of control make this disorder anything other than a laughing matter.
It's important not to confuse sex addiction with a healthy and vibrant sexual appetite, including the use of pornography or any sexual variation two consenting adults want to enjoy with each other. But when obsession and loss of control enter into the picture, the fun stops. The person who loses 8 hours masturbating, who spends thousands of dollars on pornography or prostitutes, or who feels compelled to have multiple anonymous sexual partners is not expressing freedom of choice but is enslaved to an obsession where self-control has been lost.
Part of what makes sexual compulsion so powerful is that it can create three distinct types of "highs". Most mood-altering drugs operate either by intensifying brain chemistry (such as speed or cocaine), by serving a sedating or anxiety-reducing function (as happens with alcohol or opiates) or by taking a person into a state of altered perceptions or heightened fantasy (like hallucinogenics or even marijuana). The intense feedback loop of sexually addictive behavior is capable of engaging all three of these neurochemical pathways. Sexual intrigue and fantasy can do all three, simultaneously serving to stimulate, calm, disinhibit and dissociate a person through alterations in brain chemistry. And since such mood alteration is only a thought away (making it truly a "between the ears" addiction) it's no wonder that it can be so reinforcing even in the face of profoundly negative consequences.
I've previously written about the "triple-A engine" of online sexual addiction (anonymity, accessibility and affordability) that greatly accelerates and intensifies the downward progression of truly addictive behavior. And both research and clinical experience have amply demonstrated that engaging in illicit behaviors creates an inherent "rush" of shame and fear that paradoxically drives rather than inhibits the addictive spiral.
It's generally accepted that alcoholics or drug addicts can't successfully control their usage without risking a full-blown relapse. A similar parallel can be made with certain aspects of sex addiction: some behaviors need to stop in order to prevent further pain and destruction. But it's also true that sex, like food, is a natural and even necessary human function. In this sense total abstinence is not the goal (although such cessation is often initially useful to identify and treat the underlying emotions that are being "medicated"). The road to recovery is more similar to a compulsive over-eater. The goal isn't to refrain from all sexual behavior: such sustained abstinence merely switches the problem from addiction (excessive use) to anorexia (excessive avoidance). The goal is to achieve a healthy, intimate and boundaried expression of sexuality that is affirming to self and others.
Given the nature of sexual addiction as almost invariably accompanied by great shame, a person engaged in obsessive sexual behavior is generally not likely to stop until some dire consequences arises. This may be an arrest, a discovery by a loved one or an employer, or a disease. This is when support groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous can serve such an extremely helpful function. Instead of the intensity of the obsession a person can begin to experience the true healthy intimacy of fellowship and understanding. False stimulation and cold comfort can give way to a life that is fulfilling, stable, meaningful and productive. This is the promise of recovery, and it is ultimately more satisfying than any drug.