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Sex: When is it an addiction?

Forward Movement Publications in Cincinnati published a pamphlet I was asked to write explaining sexual addiction to the average Christian reader. You may find the contents of the pamphlet below:

Sex:  When is it an Addiction?

By Dr. Paul Schmidt

Of all the experiences we 21st century Americans crave, of all the images we see that motivate us to buy, the biggest idol we worship today is romantic intimacy.  We long for a lively, creative, safe, sensual, affectionate, utterly enjoyable connection with the one we love.

Oh sure, we have other major longings—health, wealth, youth, beauty, closeness with nature, peace of mind, and healthy family bonds.  We know much more about how to get and keep these than we do about romantic intimacy.

So why don’t more people find this intimacy as it was made to be?   Well on the road to Shangri La, we get hijacked.  Most of us have turned aside and run aground, settling for things much easier to obtain, things that are more gratifying in the short run.  We give up our integrity for intensity.  So we lie marinating in the juicy, perverted, counterfeit versions of romance we get from Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and that modern marvelous mainstream sewer, the Internet.  No wonder there’s so much sexual sickness today.  What constitutes sex addiction, and how common is it?

  Sexual Addiction

In 2004, America spent more money on pornography than on the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball combined, more than NBC, CBS, and ABC earned as an industry.  Addiction to pornography over the Internet is by far the fastest growing addiction in the world, and women, children and geriatrics are the fastest growing groups of cyber-addicts.  Our best estimates are that 6% of Americans are sex addicts, and the prevalence is slightly higher in Christian circles.  So if your family has 20 folks over for Christmas dinner, odds are there’s a sex addict in the house.

What forms does an addiction take, and what is its course?   Each addict usually has 1-3 out-of-control habits with sex.  These habits usually include traditional sexual deviations, but viewing pornography and marital infidelities (affairs or one-night stands) can also become addictions.   When loved ones discover the problem, they usually take on a reformer’s zeal, sexual anorexia, or both, any one of which just provokes the addict into rationalizing more severe and more cleverly hidden sexual misconduct.

For those who do not recover, symptoms progress.  It takes more and more stimulation to give them the same satisfaction, so their abominations grow like mildew in the dark.  They generally go through their relationships and die a rather miserable, lonely death, financially and spiritually bankrupt.

When does sex become an addiction?   When sexual behavior works against intimacy in a monogamous relationship, or against personal integrity for a single person who’s not in love, it can be called “Dysfunctional Sexual Behavior” (DSB).  Experts agree that you have an addiction when your DSB shows three or more of the following ten signs (hallmarks for any addiction):

impulse control (recurrent failure to resist DSB impulses),

broken plans (frequency/duration of DSB keeps exceeding what’s planned),

can’t quit (persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to stop for good),

time loss (DSB takes up excessive amounts of time),

preoccupation (thoughts of DSB keep intruding),

irresponsibility (DSB occurs during times committed to obligations or responsibilities),

social fallout (recurrent negative consequences of DSB in work and/or family life),

social dropout (skipping social, occupational, or recreational activities for DSB),

behavioral escalation (it takes more cost and/or risk to get the same emotional relief), and

withdrawal symptoms (irritation, tension, or despair when unable to act out the DSB).

Addiction via Computer

Cyberporn has become epidemic in our culture because it seems to be accessible, affordable (at first), and anonymous (but it never is).  Internet service providers know who uses porn, and employers can track their computers.  Porn sites buy and sell links and email addresses for big money, and infect users’ computers with pop-ups.

Organized crime is behind most of the porn traffic, and all the bigger hosts know exactly which pictures you watch the longest, what sequences made you get out your credit card before, and how to present similar but new things the next time you get on line.  So there is a constantly updated, personalized temptation waiting for the sex addict every time he goes online.  Satan has done himself right proud here.

Is this experience addictive?  Besides being a gateway drug that fuels escalation and triggers new forms of sexual acts and crimes, cyberporn is highly addictive itself, and has rightly been called the crack cocaine of sexual experiences. Since these and other sexual experiences produce massive amounts of dopamine in the brain, it’s been said that sex addicts carry their drugs with them.

How do Sex Addictions Form and Grow?

In classical conditioning demonstrated by Pavlov, the sound of a bell becomes a turn-on when it is paired repeatedly with the pleasure of eating.  Likewise, and Americans are tragically unaware of this, whatever is presented the first few times with sexual arousal and orgasm becomes a turn-on.  That explains how various things one would think would be turn-offs, if experienced by sex addicts while they were messed with in their youth, perpetually produce the effect of throwing gasoline onto a lust bonfire.  For example:

 Addictions are fueled by Trauma.  When people are raped, incested, or sexually abused, they are usually attracted to repeat the traumatic situation, in a futile and subconscious effort to make it turn out differently, and too often to pursue sexual release they can’t find any other way.

Addictions are fueled by Shame.  Though addicts believe shame will help prevent acting out sexually, it’s actually a huge trigger.  Recovery requires addicts to break the shame cycle.

Addictions are fueled by Other Addictions.  Sex addicts are usually addicted to something else too:  alcohol or other drugs (42%), eating disorder (38%), workaholism (28%), compulsive spending (26%), or compulsive gambling (5%).

Addictions are fueled by Aversions.  Sexual anorexia (extreme disgust and avoidance) often co-exists with addictions in addicts (binge-purge cycle) and their significant others.  All aversions help trigger, maintain, and rationalize the addiction.

Addictions are fueled by Enablers.  Some partners and loved ones believe they might have caused the addiction, or perhaps could learn how to control or cure it.  This actually takes responsibility for addiction and recovery away from the addict.  The co-addict “enables” the bad habit by robbing the addict of the guidance and motivation for change that can only come with pain, which can only come when the co-addict lets go (like God lets go of sinners in bondage, see Romans 1). 

Significant Others

The family members of sex addicts are caught in a vicious cycle.  The three cases illustrations from the start of this article had problematic marriages even before detection by the spouse, but even moreso afterwards.  The sex-addicted partner is motivated by a wicked concoction of lust combined with shame and/or self-pitying resentment.  The addict is convinced that the spouse is undersexed, and detection only makes that situation worse.

The good news about sex addiction for the addict’s loved ones is that they didn’t cause it, they can’t control it, and they can’t cure it.  The last two may not sound like good news, but only this truth can set them free to live their own lives better, within the marriage/relationship.  The bad news is that they are sick too, in that they have usually become addicted to the addict.  Codependency is simply caring about the feelings and needs of another person to the neglect of your own.  Jesus’ second commandment is that we love our neighbor as ourselves, not instead of ourselves, or as a priority over ourselves.

The Path of Recovery

God does not leave us to travel this earth alone.  As we recover from sin, we all need to replace our primary identity from our blood family with a new primary identification with our family of faith, just as Jesus did (Matt. 12: 46-50).  Another way to say this is that both addict and co-addict are called to give up their bondages (to sex and to each other) by becoming bondservants of our Lord.

So the road to recovery ideally involves church, counseling, and the 12-step community.  You can think of recovery as people and principles—it takes both.  Like church, you can’t succeed treating your 12-step group as just a social club, and like the Bible, you can’t successfully apply 12-step principles by studying them alone.  Recovery usually takes 3-5 years, and that’s if addicts use 12-step groups, plus individual and group therapy.

12-Step Recovery and Research

Beginning addicts and those without healthy religion or marriages need extra help getting over shame.  They will benefit from Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) or Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), which don’t consider any private behavior harmful, including premarital relationship sex, masturbation, or adding to either of these some internet porn.

For more happily married, and more actively Christian addicts, and those less vulnerable to shame, Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) considers a spouse the only acceptable sexual outlet.  In the battle against lust (which SAA and SLAA don’t recognize as such), this creates a “hedge around the law” for safety against sin.  SA is more consistent with Christian tradition that sex outside marriage is wrong, and with Jesus’ common sense teaching in Matthew 5: 27-28 that mentally rehearsing a sexual act makes it more likely to happen.

It helps greatly if both the addict and his/her partner will work a 12-step program together.  For these folks, there is Recovering Couples Anonymous, www.recovering-couples.org.

Do addicts and co-addicts have to use a 12-step program?  Research says that if they want to recover, the people and principles of recovery are absolutely essential.  Individual counseling comes in a close second.  Also vital is confessing thoughts, feelings, memories and behaviors to others in recovery:  indeed “we are as sick as our secrets.”  To learn more, the addict can visit sexhelp.com, sash.net, or sa.org.  Co-addicts can find help at sarr.org and sanon.org.

The bad news from research is that apparently less than 10% of addicts have found recovery, and that like alcoholism and other addictions, sex addiction is a progressive, fatal disease that will ruin every aspect of the addict’s life.  The good news is that research has identified thirty tasks addicts can do that will virtually assure their recovery (see www.sexhelp.com).  Studies show that over 90% of those who complete even the first 19 of these tasks were still in recovery without slipping back into addictive behaviors five years later.  And the best news of all:  like recovering from other addictions, God is at the heart of it, and recovery transforms every aspect of life into better-than-ever faith, hope, love, joy, and peace.

Indeed, even when both parties devote themselves to God as embodied in church, trained counseling, and 12-step recovery groups, honestly the marriage is never ever the same.  But the good news is that these admittedly few marriages that do recover are really wonderful, very exciting, quite fulfilling.  They are actively involved helping others come through the turbulent white waters of sex addiction and co-addiction.  These folks are mighty warriors in the kingdom, and they are wildly happy with each other.  That is good news indeed.  Praise be to God.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.