A Sexual Addiction Primer

People who are new to sexual addiction — clients and therapists alike — may have trouble getting good information on what this is all about. For those just starting the journey and looking for the basics, here is a sexual addiction primer.

One: Hyper-Sexual Society

People who struggle with sexual addiction are not perverts or predators. They are normal people who have fallen into the trap set by modern western society. Our culture sets the conditions that allow sexual addiction to take hold and our medial culture has become hypersexualized.

Everywhere we are conditioned to satisfy desire. Delaying gratification, living with frustration, saying no to an urge or an impulse is not reinforced by a market that promises easy satisfaction in exchange for cash. Gratification is celebrated because there is money in it for someone.

This makes healthy intimacy and boundaried sexual expression a challenge. Objectified sex (anonymous men/women, pornography, sexting, transactional sex including prostitution and massage parlors) sells. It has resulted in the separation of sexual expression from real and connecting relationship. Instead of empowering intimacy, objectified sex now undermines it.

Two: The Brain

The brain has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to reinforce behaviors that led to the survival of the species. Certain things, namely food and sex, are pleasurable because — in the past — the pursuit of them has led to favorable outcomes for the species. Namely, the species has endured.

The brain creates chains of cells – neural networks — to signal where to find and how to acquire sufficient food and appropriate sexual partners to perpetuate the species.

The tastiest foods also contain the most calories. In a world of scarcity, sweet and fat foods meant survival. But in a world of abundance, sweet and fat for many means obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A brain in one context that served us well creates problems in another.

Sexual pleasure releases powerful chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine that surge in the brain reinforcing the behavior that encouraged the production of children. In a world where the infant mortality rate was high and death was all too familiar, sexual pleasure assured the survival of the species despite the challenges, difficulty, and inconvenience of child-rearing.

But in a world where sexual expression is easily satisfied through unlimited accessibility, anonymity and affordability, those chemical reinforcers attenuate and the body loses its natural ability to produce those “feel good” chemicals on its own. This leads to a need for more and more disconnected sexualized behaviors.

Ultimately this disconnects sexual pleasure from healthy intimacy. It undermines relational foundations of trust and safety. This in turn undermines family well-being. Again, a brain in one context that served us well creates problems in another.

Three: The Behavior

Generally, researchers and practitioners recognize the sexual addiction process as consisting of four distinct phases.

  1. A phase of obsession. Here a person is absorbed by sexual preoccupations. This may be in response to various external stimuli and stressors, but it may also be conditioned by simple boredom, fatigue, negative emotions or intensity of feelings.
  2. A phase of ritualization. Here a person acts out a familiar and well-worn pattern that precedes sexual behavior. Accompanying the behavior may be conflicting thoughts that both resist and advance the ritual. “I should not do this. I am going to do it anyway.”
  3. A phase of sexual activity. This is the stage of sexual behavior called “Acting Out”. It is the return to pornography, sexting or a prostitute, or yet another affair. Acting out for the person results in temporary relief of tension that has built up through the obsession and ritualization phase.
  4. A phase of despair. Following the behavior, a person who struggles with sexual addiction does not feel satisfaction. He may feel remorse that reinforces a fundamental sense of shame. In this phase the person convinces himself that he must keep this behavior secret, that he is not worthy to be in a healthy relationship with others, and that he must endeavor at all costs to either never act out in this way again or to continue in secrecy. To stop the behavior at some point in the disease is a commitment that cannot be kept despite one’s best intentions.

People who struggle with sexual addiction recognize this pattern at work in themselves. While others may only see the sexual behavior, the drivers of the addictive process are obsession, ritual, and secrecy/shame/despair. This is what we address in treatment.

Four: The Symptoms

When a person presents with at least two of the five following symptoms, a professional assessment for sexual addiction is advised.

  • Repeated, unsatisfying sexual experiences that feed a recurring and insatiable urge to pursue the next sexual experience.
  • The sexual partner (or image in the case of pornography) is reduced to the state of partial object that serves obsessive needs and compulsive urges.
  • Compulsive masturbation that continues despite negative consequences including but not limited to injury, abrasion, fatigue, or social and/or professional difficulties.
  • Obsessive attention on one or several partner(s) in which the person is idealized and serves as the only means of satisfaction.
  • The replacement of intensity of feeling (romantic attachment) leading to seeking new adventures in love over the slow development of sustained intimacy with a partner.

Take the free Sexual Addiction Screening Test for a more comprehensive assessment tool.

Obviously there is much more to this complex disorder than can be addressed in a simple blog. Our hope this that this will be a start for you to get help or to help others in need.


Image by Jenn

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