Thursday, September 6, 2012

What is Sex Addiction?

Question: I am reading through your tweets that contain statistics on sexual addiction, and I am wondering, what is it exactly? I am guessing that it is just someone who has sex all the time, but I bet that it is more than that. I would love to hear a more specific definition, and learn more about recovery options. Thanks!

Answer: That is a great question!  To help you with your understanding of sexual addiction, I would like to start by explaining the continuum that sexual behavior falls on.

First, if someone is engaging in no sexual behavior with him/herself or with a partner, then they would be abstinent. Next, appropriate sexual behavior, in the Christian context, would be sexual activity within the confines of a marriage relationship. These first two categories are considered healthy sexuality. The next level on the continuum would be acting out. This is the person who occasionally engages in sexual acting out with either alone (with pornography and/or masturbation), or with a willing partner who is not his/her spouse. Next, the person may start to abuse their sexuality through promiscuity or excessive masturbation. Lastly, that person may fall into the addiction category with their sexual behavior, the characteristics of which I will describe next (Ferree, 2010). The reason that I wanted to go through this continuum first is because I think it is important to recognize two things. First, that just because you are struggling with sexual integrity issues does not necessarily mean that you are a sex addict. Second, if you are struggling with sexual acting out, it is important to know that it is a slippery slope to addiction, so it is important to get help as soon as possible.

There are four main aspects that characterize a sexual addiction: compulsion, obsession, tolerance, and continuing despite adverse consequences. Compulsion is where the addict engages in the sexual behavior even when they don’t want to. Some addicts describe compulsion as “feeling driven” to act out.

Let’s use John as an example. John signs onto his computer with his only intention being to check his email. When he sees an ad with a woman in a bathing suit, he experiences an overwhelming urge to surf the web for pornography, even though he promised himself and God he wouldn’t do that again last Sunday at church. He feels powerless to stop.

Compulsion is the main characteristic that separates the sexual sinner from the sexual addict. The second characteristic, obsession, is when the addict is abnormally preoccupied with sex, to the point where other important aspects in their lives are ignored.

Let’s take another example with Julie. Julie is having an affair with Bob, and she spends all of her time thinking about him, planning their next rendezvous, writing him secret emails, etc. to the point that her children feel abandoned by their mom because, even when she is with her kids, her mind is somewhere else.

A third characteristic is tolerance.  Tolerance refers to the neurochemical process that happens through prolonged sexual acting out that tells the addict that they need more and more sex to accomplish the same “high”. Prolonged sexual acting out actually alters the brain chemistry. This means that sexual addiction is a progressive disease, where more and more acting out must be done for the addict to get the same high.

Lastly, a sexual addict will continue in his/her addiction despite adverse consequences. “Continuing to do something that harms you just doesn’t make sense; that is the hallmark sign of addiction” (Ferree, 2010). An example of this would be if a woman was engaging in heavy promiscuity. She goes to the doctor and finds out that she has an STD. She knows that this has come from her anonymous sexual partners, but continues in her sexual acting out anyway.

So, if you or someone you care about can see these characteristics as part of his/her sex life, what do you do? Well I have two words for you that will probably scare you to death, but they are vital to your recovery from this disease: tell somebody.  You cannot do this alone. My guess is that you have tried a lot, and to no avail. This is because this fight is too big for just one person. You have to bring other people into your corner to help you get healthy. James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed”. You have to face your biggest fear of someone finding you out head on.

If you don’t think you are at a point where you can tell people in your life, start out with going to a therapist and telling him/her, or go to a Sexaholics Anonymous group. Eventually, both your therapist and/or your 12-step group are going to require you to open up to the people in your life, but maybe this could be this first step in your recovery process.

Now, we could spend countless pages talking about the twelve steps to recovery and accountability partners, but unfortunately this blog does not permit that. So, my prayer for anyone struggling with this disease is to reach out. Stop living in the shadows of your sin and come into the light. It will be hard, but I know that the Lord promises that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). He cleanses us from our sin, we cannot do it alone. Admit your powerlessness to the Lord, confess your sin, and allow him to help you walk in righteousness.

 *This column is not intended to substitute for an actual session with a licensed counselor.
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