Sex addiction: it’s such a loaded term. What’s the difference between a normal approach to sexuality and an addiction? Is it even possible to be addicted to sex? Are you wondering if you are, or maybe someone you love, such as a spouse? After all, God created us to be sexual beings, so where is the line drawn?
One of the most challenging things about identifying any addiction is defining this line, and when it is crossed.
Let’s use alcohol as an example. Most of us would agree that the line of addiction is crossed when a person’s alcohol consumption leads to negative consequences in numerous areas of their life, or when they’re constantly focused on when they’ll get their next drink.
You could apply this litmus test to prescription drug use, or gambling, or other potentially addictive behaviors. No matter what someone is addicted to, they have a desire for that thing, and when they obtain it, it’s a “fix.” This description of addiction applies to sex as well.
There’s an organization called Sex Addicts Anonymous, organized along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous. In their 12-step publication called “Hope and Recovery,” they define sex addiction as follows:
“Addictive sexual behavior, acting-out behaviors we sometimes call it, leads to feelings of shame and depression: it has the effect of masking, covering up, or numbing feelings; and it leads to isolation and a complete loss of control. Healthy sexual behavior, on the other hand, is characterized by mutual respect, a sense of clarity about feelings and communication, joyfulness, and genuine intimacy; it tends to make people feel emotionally and physically safe.”
Desire for the sex addict is conflated with control, power, and ritual. By contrast, a person who has a healthy approach to sexuality will desire trust and vulnerability in their intimate relationship.
If there is one sentence that can sum up sex addiction, maybe it’s this: sex addiction is an intimacy disorder that is rooted in shame. The shame associated with sex created a cycle of illicit behavior, secrecy, and desire. When sex addicts’ behavior is revealed, they often express relief that they were finally caught.
What kind of symptoms would show you that this might be a problem in your own life or someone else’s life?
Sex Addiction Symptoms
Here is a list of possible sex addiction symptoms (IITAP, 2018):
- Consequences in your work life, social life, or hobbies – Are you having trouble enjoying activities you used to love? Have you isolated yourself from people? Has your work performance suffered?
- Continued illicit behavior despite consequences – Even if you’ve gotten caught, have you continued? Even if you want to stop, does it seem impossible? Do you feel caught in a trap instead of being in control of your behavior?
- Preoccupation – According to Dictionary.com, the noun preoccupation describes “a subject or matter that engrosses someone. Synonyms: obsession, concern.”
- Loss of control – “Loss of control generally refers to lack of the ability to provide conscious limitation of impulses and behavior as a result of overwhelming emotion” (Griffin, 1990, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health)
- Withdrawal – You’re probably familiar with the concept of withdrawal in substance abuse, but this also happens with sex addiction. Merriam Webster defines withdrawal as “the discontinuance of the use of a drug; the syndrome of often painful physical and psychological symptoms that follows discontinuance of an addicting drug.”
- Escalation – One of the most basic aspects of any addiction is that you continually need more of whatever you’re addicted to in order to get your fix. A smoker might start off with cigarettes, then progress to marijuana and eventually cocaine. A sex addict may start off viewing pornography (more about this later), and progress to acts that offer a greater “high.” Escalation happens because the brain’s reward system adapts to each behavior and requires more stimulation to produce the same pleasurable effect.
- Inability to fulfill obligations – You may find yourself lapsing in many of your responsibilities to other people and yourself.
- Loss of time – This is when you’re so wrapped up in your preoccupations that hours go by before you even realize it.
- Efforts to stop – This means that you’ve likely made multiple attempts to pull yourself out of the behavior, but have been unsuccessful.
- Compulsive Behavior – “Resulting from or relating to an irresistible urge, especially one that is against one’s conscious wishes” (Dictionary.com)
With sex addiction, what does this look like practically? Bringing these dark behaviors into the light is imperative for healing.
According to IITAP (2018), behaviors characteristic of sex addiction can include:
- Pain exchange
- Trading sex
- Intrusive sex
- Exploitive sex
- Paying for sex
- Anonymous sex
- Seductive role sex
The viewing of pornography does not necessarily constitute sex addiction, but it would be difficult to find a case of sex addiction today that does not include porn addiction. Pornography would fall under the fantasy category in the IITAP list.
Pornography addiction can be controversial in the conversation about sex addiction, especially because it is so common. You may wonder, “I’m not involved in any of those behaviors listed, except I regularly watch porn, and I hide it, and it affects my life regularly, so does that mean I’m a sex addict?”
Mental health professionals who study and treat sexual addiction are called Certified Sexual Addiction Therapists (CSATs). In recent years, due to the explosion of Internet pornography, experts have realized the need for two distinct categories of sexual addiction:
- The Classic Sexual Addiction (most often rooted in past trauma).
- The Contemporary Porn Addiction (not necessarily based on trauma, simply on access to the Internet or pornographic materials).
Certain symptoms are characteristic of the classic sex addict as opposed to the contemporary porn addict (Reimersma & Sytsma, 2013):
- History of ongoing abuse
- Insecure attachment style (a therapist can assess you for this)
- Poor impulse control (this will be indicated in other areas with a need for instant gratification, such as financially)
- Other addictions (such as smoking, drinking, gambling, workaholism, etc.)
- Comorbid mood disorders (such as anxiety and depression; this can also be assessed by your therapist)
- Used to soothe toxic emotions (sexual behaviors are used as coping mechanisms and to self-soothe, instead of finding constructive ways to cope with life’s difficulties)
Sex Addiction Treatment Options
One of the most important parts of sex addiction therapy is attending individual therapy with a counselor who specializes in this issue. Again, sex addiction has a proven connection to past trauma, and talk therapy is a vital part of uncovering that past pain to find healing today.
Group therapy can also be a useful treatment method for sex addiction. A group setting allows the addict to break the cycle of secrecy and shame surrounding their behaviors.
For a sex addict to remain sober from their behaviors, in the long run, long-term treatment is a must.
Recovery from pornography addiction looks different than recovery from classic sex addiction. Sometimes this behavior can be resolved in a shorter period of time. The addict who is committed to reprogramming their brain, especially if they’re relying on God’s help, can see significant positive change taking place within a year.
This doesn’t mean that after one year you’ll never have the urge to view pornography again. In fact, this may be something that comes to your mind throughout your life. When we’re talking about successful recovery from porn addiction, we want to see that you’re not acting upon the temptation that may still be there.
You might be familiar with the apostle Paul and the story of the thorn in his flesh. We don’t know if that thorn was a physical ailment or a spiritual temptation or something else, but we do know that God’s grace allowed Paul to persevere the rest of his life even with the thorn still there (2 Cor. 12:8-9). God’s promise of sufficient grace for Paul can apply to us as we look to him for strength in weakness. We do not have to live in slavery to our fleshly, worldly desires. We can walk in freedom in Christ.
If you are someone who is struggling right now with a porn addiction, it’s important to realize that the power of this addiction lies in the rewiring of your brain. You literally have to detox mentally from the stimuli that you have become accustomed to. You’ll have to intentionally redirect your thoughts, over and over again, every day, to a mindset that produces life instead of death, one that honors God instead of reveling in the false allure of sin.
Although the Bible isn’t a science textbook and doesn’t delve into the details of neuroplasticity, we can see the truth of Scripture and how God’s Word can impact our minds in the following passages:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ. – 2 Corinthians 10:4-5
But that is not the way you learned Christ! Assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:20-24
Hope for the Sex Addict
All of this information about sex addiction can seem really overwhelming, especially if you’re in the throes of an addiction, or you’re married to an addict, or you’ve discovered that someone else you love is an addict. Dwelling on the negatives of the addiction itself can lead to despair.
You might wonder if there’s even hope. Recovering from an addiction like this can seem insurmountable. But through Christ, there is hope!
We have the promise of Scripture that, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation, he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
God also promises that even our sins, failures, and temptations can be used for our good and His glory: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This is a promise to those of us who trust in Christ for salvation.
If you have repented of your sins and embraced Christ as your Savior, the Holy Spirit will do the work of conviction in your heart, and you will desire to be free from patterns of sin that enslave you and do not please God.
If you are sensing conviction, that is a sign of hope! Listen to the voice of the Lord through His Word as you confront the sin in your life. Reach out to a counselor for help and accountability as you walk through the process of recovery and find freedom and joy on the other side.
“Handsome Guy,” courtesy of Andy, CC0 Public Domain, ABSFreePic.com; “Trapped,” courtesy of Andrew Neel, unsplash.com, Public Domain License; “Dark Hallway” Courtesy of Charles Deluvio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Caught”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License