Sexual addiction can be hard to recognize, particularly in a culture where sex and sexual innuendo are used to sell everything from cheeseburgers to luxury vacations. Not to mention all the sexy selfies on social media, dating sites, and elsewhere. In some ways, a sex addict walking around in today's world is like an alcoholic wandering through a fully stocked bar where all the other patrons are sipping cocktails. It's all just very, very tempting, and everyone seems to be partaking, so what could be the harm if...
Exacerbating matters is the fact that sexual compulsivity is not the sort of thing people willingly talk about. People who are struggling with their sex lives tend to feel shame and to keep both their actions and their feelings about those actions secret from loved ones, therapists, and even themselves. If you are wondering whether you or someone you know might be sexually addicted (as opposed to being a sexual player in a sexual world), it can be helpful to understand the primary differences between casual, at-risk, and addicted users.
- Casual users of sexual fantasy and behavior are men and women who find non-intimate sexuality (porn, virtual sex, digital flirting, casual/anonymous hookups, affairs, and the like) to be fascinating and fun. They get involved in these pleasurable distractions occasionally. Much of the time their behavior is driven either by curiosity and novelty or life-stage events. For instance, they may engage in non-intimate sexual activities (online or real world) more in late adolescence or after a relationship breakup. Typically, casual users of sexual fantasy and activity find non-intimate sexuality to be an intermittent source of relaxation and fun, but ultimately not as meaningful and satisfying as deeper, more intimate connections. As such, their interest in non-intimate sexuality is not sustained over time.
- At-risk users of sexual fantasy and behavior are men and women who go through periods of intense engagement with non-intimate sexuality, perhaps using it as a distraction from emotional discomfort and other life issues. They may have addiction-like periods, but they can (and usually do) limit or stop their behaviors if/when they start to experience (or even to see the possibility of experiencing) adverse consequences. Sometimes at-risk users look a lot like addicted users, hiding the nature and extent of their sexual behaviors, temporarily ignoring potential and even actual consequences, and escalating the nature and extent of their use. What differentiates at-risk users from addicted users is at-risk users can stop the activity on their own while addicted users cannot. In other words, at-risk users retain control and choice over their engagement with non-intimate sexuality. Addicted users do not.
- Addicted users of sexual fantasy and behavior are men and women who compulsively use non-intimate sexuality as a means of escape and dissociation, regardless of potential and/or actual consequences to themselves or others. In other words, addicted users repetitively use sexual fantasy and activity as a way to numb out and not feel stress and other forms of emotional discomfort. And they do this even when they don't plan to or want to. Typically, they find themselves leading a double life, separating their sexual activity from their work and home life--keeping secrets, telling lies, manipulating, juggling, minimizing, justifying, etc. Usually they lack empathy for those who are negatively affected by their addiction, including spouses and partners, kids, friends, neighbors, and employers. Sometimes they even blame their "need to escape through sex" on the attitudes and actions of these other people.
If you are still uncertain as to whether you (or someone you care about) might be a sex addict, asking the following questions may give you clarity.
- Do you feel as if you are inordinately preoccupied with sex? For example, when you wake up you might grab your phone, even before you get out of bed, to check your hookup app profiles, looking to see if anyone contacted you in the night.
- Have you tried (and failed) to either cut back on or quit certain sexual behaviors altogether. For instance, you might have promised yourself (and maybe others) that you would stop looking at porn. And you might have kept those promises for a few days or maybe even a few weeks. But then, suddenly, you found yourself right back at it.
- Have you experienced negative consequences related to your sexual behaviors? For example, related to your sexual behaviors have you ruined important relationships, struggled or been reprimanded at work or in school, gotten anxious and depressed, spent money you'd rather spend elsewhere, been arrested, or experienced other problems?
If you answered yes to these three questions, there is a strong possibility you are sexually addicted, and you may want to seek clinician assistance. If so, referrals to certified sexual addiction treatment specialists (both inpatient and outpatient) can be found here and here. Additionally, there are several 12-step sexual recovery programs that you may wish to look into, including Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), Sexual Compulsive Anonymous (SCA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA). For more information about sexual addiction in general, you could read my books Sex Addiction 101 and Sex Addiction 101, The Workbook.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. An internationally acknowledged clinician, he has served as a subject expert for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.