Many people I've spoken with have a difficult time understanding what sex addiction looks like. I offer this comparison to alcoholism because it is an addiction most people are familiar with. Each addiction comes with its own nuances, but in my experience sex addiction resembles alcohol addiction in these ways:
- Addiction is a brain disease. Brain scans of addicts reveal nonfunctional areas - the equivalent of holes- in their cortexes, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and making conscious decisions.*
- It truly has very little to do with the actual act of sex. - I know. That's a weird one.
- It has many forms as does any addiction. Just like some alcoholics are able to keep their drinking to certain hours/days while others steal from their loved ones to stay in the drink, sex addicts fall on a wide spectrum. Some spend all of their time fantasizing while never actually acting on their thoughts. Others seek out or become prostitutes. Some only participate in cyber sex, never touching a real person. Others engage in exhibitionism/voyeurism and have sex in public places where they could be arrested. There are so many ways that this disease presents itself. Some seem harmless while others are life threatening.
- Some alcoholics only drink whiskey or vodka or wine while others drink mouth wash or rubbing alcohol. Both are addicts. All addictions are progressive which creates even more space on that fore mentioned spectrum. Some sex addicts sleep with only people they know while others have anonymous sex with anyone they can find. Some are extremely disturbed (and possibly past repair) and have sex with those who don't/can't consent.
- As with any substance or chosen "poison", people turn to them to escape pain, stress, anxiety, social awkwardness, sadness/depression, traumatic memories, tough work weeks, boredom, embarrassing moments, etc. Turning to these substances or sexual behaviors is a way to escape reality (past, present or future).
- Lots of people drink (heck, most people drink) but many people aren't alcoholics (though many drink compulsively). The addiction begins when they are unable to control the frequency, rate, duration, level, etc. Most addicts believe they are in control and could stop if they wanted to. However, they realize this is not the case when they attempt to abstain consistently and find they are truly not able. They make promises to not do certain behaviors, not "use" in certain situation, stop all together and realize they are completely powerless. Since all addiction is progressive, the addict who can keep it to drinking after 5pm today will in time find that starting to transform into drinking with lunch then maybe alcohol in their office, and down the line drinking to function in the morning. Similarly, sex addicts who can keep it behind close doors in the beginning, may find themselves losing their job due to porn on their computer later down the line. It affects the individual differently in regard to severity and rate.
- Most addicts set up and maintain rules/boundaries to prove to themselves and secretly to others that they don't have a problem. We think, if I can keep it to only the weekends, then obviously I'm not addicted. Wrong. Since addiction is a spectrum, most addicts are able to follow some rules for a time (duration depends greatly on the person/environment). For me this was work. As long as I was doing well at my job, I was fine. Lots of addicts excel at their jobs. This is known as a functioning or highly functioning addict. Main word in their is addict because we still are.
- Ironically, the deeper one goes into the addiction the less aware they are of their problem. In the beginning of all of this years ago, I thought, "uh oh! I'm using sexual behavior as an escape from the pain/discomfort I'm feeling. That probably is dangerous.......Oh well, I'm sure it won't affect me because after all, I'm Me!" As I progressed, I was not able to identify the people I was hurting, the opportunities I was missing, the relationships I was ruining, how often I was embarrassing myself, and most frighteningly I was not aware of how much I wanted/needed people close to me, to have a future and to have respectable relationships.
- Many alcoholics begin using alcohol in a fun setting as a way to enjoy themselves or to enhance their experience. It is not until later when they begin using it as an escape or to feel less instead of more. Many sex addicts engage with sex in a fun way before walking down the very dark path of addiction.
The most important thing to take away is that addicts are not bad or gross or weak people. We are people who are in a great deal of pain and are surviving the best way we know how (which is often learned in childhood and dictated by that child inside even as an adult).
*Patrick Carnes A Gentle Path Through the 12 Steps
** New York Pathways