What is Sex Addiction? (Part 1)
What is Sex Addiction?
It is important to understand what sex addiction is. The definition of sex addiction has been confusing to practitioners. Sex addiction can involve a wide range of behaviors, including compulsive masturbation, chronic extramarital affairs or one-night stands, viewing of pornographic magazines or videos, internet pornography, prostitution, voyeurism, exhibitionism, sexual harassment and sex offending (Carnes, 2002). It is important to understand that individual sex practices are multi-faceted in nature, thus these sexual behaviors may be viewed as normal. However, sex addiction indicates compulsivity and out-of-control behaviors with respect to these behaviors. Compulsivity is the loss of the ability to choose whether or not to stop or continue a particular behavior (Carnes, 2002). To clarify further; it is not the sexual behavior itself that is the problem, but the dependency a person has to the behavior, and the negative consequences associated with that dependency. When a person becomes dependent on something and continues engaging in it despite all the problems caused in their lives, they are addicted (Hall, 2013). Therefore, sex addiction occurs when sexual behaviors become compulsive and continue despite adverse consequences (Carnes, 2002).
Recovery from sexual addiction is a complex process and several challenges to recovery exist. Some challenges to sexual addiction recovery involve but are not limited to; its hard work, many times a comorbid disorder exists, legal issues, the DSM-5 does not recognize sex addiction, treatment is expensive, there is cultural misunderstanding and shame around sex addiction, there is insufficient training in the counseling field, and there is a split of opinion in the clinical community.
Recovery from sex addiction is not only the abstinence of the specific sexual behavior that creates impairment but the reversal of the alienation that is an integral feature to the addiction itself. Genuine sex addiction recovery requires rigorous honesty and the willingness to share our most private shortcomings with others. Revealing all of ourselves to our partners leaves us vulnerable. The expression of healthy sexuality with another requires this type of intimacy (Irons & Rilke, 1994). In addition, sex addicts must establish roots in a caring community. With a treatment plan, support team and changing behaviors, recovery may consist of discarding the prior belief system with a new thinking in order to master the task of achieving healthy sexuality, which is a goal in recovery.
Unhealthy sex is affordable, anonymous and accessible (Cooper, 1998). Some treatment perspectives indicate that sex addiction recovery requires a commitment to ongoing recovery work that can take 3 to 5 years to create a synaptic change to reverse the negative impact the addiction has on the brain (Cozolino, 2002). Also, recovery typically involves attending 12-step meetings, individual counseling, family or marital counseling, group therapy, finding a sponsor and seeking feedback from others (Hall, 2013). This is not an effortless task.
Aside from the rigor involved in attending recovery meetings and therapy, sex addicts have to fight against their own biology. Because of this, relapse is possible. Relapse is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of the acting out sexual behavior to reoccur (Griffiths, 2001). This happens because sex addiction is unlike alcohol or drug addiction where the key step in recovery is to not drink alcohol or use drugs. Sex addiction is not about the pleasure from sex, rather from the rush of neurotransmitters that get released into the brain from the anticipation of sexually acting out. Sex addicts get “high,” when receptors flood with the neurochemical dopamine, they’re not addicted to sex; they’re addicted to their own neurotransmitters (Hayden, 2013). It’s not enough to just stop doing the behavior, they also have to stop thinking about it which creates another obstacle to recovery. Therefore, relapse prevention will need to be revised throughout the therapeutic process (Hall, 2012).
Read Part 2 here.