By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT
For most adults, healthy sexuality is an integrated life experience. Sex with partners, with self, or as a part of exploring new relationships is usually a pleasurable act of choice. For the sex addict, however, sexual behavior can be most often defined by words such as driven, compulsive, and hidden. Unlike healthy sex that is integrated into relationships, sexual addicts use sex as a means to cope; to handle boredom, anxiety, and other powerful feelings; or as a way to feel important, wanted, or powerful. While sexual addiction is not defined by any particular sexual act, sexual addiction is defined by the feelings and activities surrounding sex. Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., in his groundbreaking 1978 book on sexual addiction, Out of the Shadows, helps to define sexually addictive behavior as sexual activity that often falls into one of three categories: Shameful, Secretive, or Abusive.
For most people sex is a pleasurable experience with few negative consequences. Sex addicts are more likely to define their sexual behavior with words like driven, secretive, and shameful than fun, playful, or intimate. Sex addicts repeatedly engage in the pursuit of sex and the sex act itself more as a means to tolerate emotional stress, distract themselves from past trauma, or to feel more important or powerful. You wouldn’t be diagnosed as a sex addict because you engaged once or twice in going to a strip club or seeing a prostitute; sex addiction is defined by how you approach sex and intimacy as a whole. Another way to look at this is through the lens of Dr. Patrick Carnes who in his groundbreaking book on sexual addiction, Out of the Shadows defined sexually addictive behavior as sexual activity most often involving Shame, Secrecy, or Abuse. Let’s examine this further.
Shame can be defined as a feeling of inner worthlessness or despair about ever being worthy or lovable. For the sex addict spending endless amounts of time, money, and energy going to strip clubs, getting sexual massages, maintaining multiple affairs, or masturbating night after night to Internet porn, the shame he feels about these acts reinforces an inner core of negative feelings that end up sabotaging his relationships, career, and self-esteem.
Secrecy is a hallmark of sexual addiction. Compartmentalizing a life of hidden sexual behaviors, the sex addict finds him/herself wrapped in a web of lies and manipulations, consistently hiding from those close to them, while using justifications, rationalizations, and outright denial to lie to themselves.
Abusive sex can run the gamut from manipulating someone or using your power over them get obtain sex to sexual offenses such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, sex with minors, and rape. Potential sexual partners are being abused when invited into situations they do not fully understand, when there is a clear inequity of power in a relationship, and whenever they can’t fully and openly consent to sex
When asked to inventory their past sexual activities, most sex addicts often uncover long histories of various types and degrees of problem acting-out, behaviors that often preceded their present problems. Recovery from sexual addiction, like any addiction, is a long road with many challenges and is a task best undertaken with a professional trained in sexual addiction treatment. The key to healing from years of hidden sexual acts, compulsive behaviors, betrayal, and lies is to have a strong motivation to get well and willingness to take the necessary emotional risks in honestly facing these painful issues in the presence of others who will not judge or label, but who will offer concrete direction and knowledgeable understanding.