I have to confess that I haven’t had specialised training in sex addiction or therapy. However, in my practice, I do come across those who either are partnered to, or are struggling with sex addiction.
Sex is a normal, pleasurable, highly sensual part of the human existence. Our survival as a species depends on it. When it becomes an addiction, life becomes extremely difficult for the sufferer.
When sex is an addition, sex becomes the only reason for living. It is the relationship that dominates all others that becomes the one to turn to when feeling pain and hurt. It is who failures and successes are either mourned or celebrated with.
What defines sexual addiction?
Addicts describe their addiction as an urge that is beyond their control, despite how it makes them feel and the impact it has on their partners. It is characterised by sexual cravings, thoughts and desires. It leads to a seemingly double life that is often at odds to the addicts values and beliefs. Sexual addiction does not discriminate between men and women, afflicting both genders in similar ways. It leaves feelings of shame, depression and disgust that is occurs in a cycle that can feel like a nightmare.
The Cycle of Sexual Addiction
Patrick Carnes, a renowned author, speaker and therapist, pioneered understanding of sexual addiction and described a cycle of stages addicts go through. He believes that each time the cycle is experienced, the behaviour strengthens. Over the years, this cycle has been expanded to provide a more complete understanding of this experience.
This cycle includes:
Stage 1: Triggers – something happens where there is a compulsion, a need for a sexual fix, with its root being the need for relief from physical or psychological pain. As with other addictions, there is a desire to escape, avoid or dismiss their reality. A willingness to go somewhere loneliness, depression, shame, anxiety, stress or boredom doesn’t seem to exist. Interestingly, it is said that even causes for celebration can also trigger the compulsion.
Stage 2: Preoccupation/Fantasy – thoughts are dominated by sexual fantasies. These thoughts are alive with sexual experiences of the past and fantasies of what could be in the next encounter. The preoccupation becomes an obsession. People become sexual objects, with any negative consequence are not considered. It is the primary mechanism for coping with triggers in stage one and once in this stage, the cycle is very difficult to stop without help or intervention.
Stage 3: Ritualization – the fantasy is in the process of becoming a reality and is full of excitement, intensity and arousal. It’s been described as a trance like state or a bubble that is all consuming. Nothing except the thought of a sexual encounter exists. According to Rob Weiss, it’s this stage where a ‘high’ is experienced and as such, the longer the stage goes the better. Examples of how this is achieved include looking at porn, sexting, time in chat rooms or via webcams, cruising for sex. This can go for hours or days prior to moving onto the next stage. More often the not, whatever behaviour is preferred, there is often a particular routine that surrounds the lead up to the sexual act.
Stage 4: Compulsive sexual behaviour/Release – sex or orgasm is achieved by whichever means is preferred. Interestingly, this is not the main high because afterwards, the reality of life is faced and the fantasy life created has gone. It’s this stage which highlights that the sex addict is in fact escaping emotional discomfort rather than wanting just the pleasure of an orgasm.
Stage 5: Numbing – the denial of the consequences of what has happened begins in earnest. Any attempt to create an emotion distance to their behaviour is their priority. Behaviour is minimised and rationalised. Statements like ‘it was online and not real, so I wasn’t really cheating’, ‘the person doesn’t know who I really am’ or ‘my sex life isn’t that great anyway’.
Stage 6: Despair – after numbing and denying occurs, feelings of shame, guilt and remorse are intense, as well as helplessness and powerless of the cycle they’re in. The very pain they were trying to escape intensifies, along with self-loathing, anxiety and depression. This triggers the need of stage one with the turning of the cycle again.
The best outcomes happen when an intervention occurs in stage one. It’s crucial that addicts find what their triggers are so they can come up with healthy ways to deal with their emotions and problems. It’s also suggested that 12 step type support groups can help by knowing other people are experiencing similar issues, helping addicts feel less isolated and shameful about their behaviour. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA Oz) is one such group that holds meetings across the country where privacy is protected.
Along with the cyclical nature of addiction, Carnes also identifies that there are key core beliefs that addicts hold. These include:
I’m a bad, unworthy person
No one would love me as I am
My needs are never going to be met if I have to depend on others
Sex is my most important need
With the help and support of therapy and a support group, new beliefs can counter and replace old established and unhelpful ones. Carnes uses these:
I am a worthwhile person deserving of pride
I am loved and accepted by people who know me as I am
My needs can be met by others if I let them know what I need
Sex is but one expression of my need and care for others
Patrick Carnes correctly says,
Your addiction is not all that you are, it is a separate part of you that can be tamed.
My hope is that addicts will come to see this truth become a reality in their life. You’re not alone, help is available.