Mind Matters — Sexual Addiction

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of addictions over the years. We understand how difficult drug and alcohol addictions are. Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Steps is a worldwide phenomenon. We recognize the need for twenty-eight day treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse. TV programs and movies don’t shy away from depicting alcoholism and its devastating aftermath. We’ve come to recognize the need to “treat the sin and love the sinner” so to speak, understanding, along with AA, that alcohol and drug addictions are complex dis-eases that involve body, mind, and soul. Many people, in fact, have had to confront their nicotine addiction when medical crises have arisen. Many, then, know firsthand how biologically and psychologically difficult it is to break out of such addictive behavior.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for sex addictions. While we may consider alcohol and drug abuse to be personal and painful disorders and not about morality, we often take a self-righteous and judgmental stance about sexual addictions—not accepting that they too are personally painful conditions. Because sexual addictions are not as obvious as drug and alcohol addictions, their prevalence may be underestimated. Patrick Carnes, known for his extensive work and writing in the field of sexual addictions, believes that possibly four out of ten American adults are sexually addicted. Given the possibilities with cybersex, this is not surprising. Yet sex addictions can be every bit as lethal to the individual and as devastating to his or her family as drugs or alcohol can be.

Psychiatrist Martha Turner notes that “sex addiction is uniquely insidious; it starts earlier in the life span and lasts longer than most other addictions before it is addressed.” Sexual addictions often arise from early trauma experiences in the family of origin. Shame and loneliness are most often core issues for the sexual addict. Perhaps as an antidote to those negative feelings, the sex addict seeks escape with sex to feel some sort of control or power. This is no solution of course, but just perpetuates the cycle of feeling shamed and lonely once again.

Sexual addictions take various forms. To name a few: fantasy sex, voyeurism, exhibitionism, anonymous sex, paying for sex (i.e., seeking prostitutes), exploitive sex (for example, taking advantage of someone who is vulnerable). (See the accompanying sidebar, Indicators of the Presence of Sexual Addiction.)

We have seen recently political leaders who appear to have acted out sexually in ways that I would consider to indicate sexual addiction. At first sight, it might seem ironic that these politicians, prior to their behaviors being discovered, were adamant stalwarts of sexual moral rectitude, one decrying homosexuality, the other railing against prostitution. Interpretations of their earlier defense of certain sexual mores may have been their own unconscious attempt to contain their own behaviors. They became the Dr. Jekyll to their Mr. Hyde. When we as a society can accept how we in our culture and in our families abet sexual addictions, perhaps we will be less morally outraged and scandalized and more compassionate.

That compassion would go a long way in transforming the shame that creates the milieu for addiction to be so rampant. What a healing that would be!

The 10 Indicators of the Presence of Sexual Addiction

  1. A pattern of out-of-control behavior
  2. Severe consequences due to sexual behavior
  3. Inability to stop despite adverse consequences
  4. Persistent pursuit of self-destructive or high-risk behavior
  5. Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior
  6. Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy
  7. Increasing amounts of sexual experience because the current level of activity is no longer sufficient
  8. Severe mood changes around sexual activity
  9. Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experience
  10. Neglect of important social, occupational or recreational activities because of sexual behavior
(Patrick Carnes)