Often, when people hear the words “sex addiction” their kneejerk response is, “Sounds fun. Where do I sign up?” In truth, sex addiction is the opposite of fun. It is a behavioral compulsion that leads to a wide array of negative life consequences – relationship trouble, problems at work or in school, loss of interest in previously enjoyable hobbies and interests, social and emotional isolation, shame, depression, anxiety, financial issues, legal woes, and more – just like every other form of addiction.
Sex addiction is not about having a good time. Neither is alcoholism or drug addiction. Being an addict, regardless of the addiction, is a miserable, powerless, shaming experience. Consider the case of Michael, a 29-year-old landscape designer.
Michael, like many addicts (of all types), grew up in a dysfunctional and occasionally abusive home. His father was an active alcoholic, and his mother alternated between being completely checked out emotionally and being painfully clingy and needy. The behavior of both parents was erratic at best, so Michael never felt safe or protected.
Michael started looking at pornography when he was 11 to escape the dysfunction of his chaotic home life, sometimes “borrowing” his father’s dirty magazines, other times searching for free porn on the Internet. Over time, his sexual forays escalated in both time and intensity. By the start of high school, his self-esteem was in the toilet, primarily because of the shame he felt about looking at and masturbating to porn for several hours every night (sometimes to the point of injuring his genitals). By the end of high school, he was sneaking off to “the bad part of town” to have sex with prostitutes whenever he had the money.
After high school, Michael took a job with a local landscaper and started dating the sister of a coworker. Because he really liked her, he stopped seeing prostitutes and cut back on his porn use. At the age of 20, they were married, and he quit porn altogether. Or so he thought. A year later, his wife was six months pregnant and he suddenly found himself online again, compulsively masturbating to pornography. Before the baby was born, he was back to seeing prostitutes.
Now, at 29, Michael spends almost all of his non-working time either looking at porn or hooking up with women met on apps like Ashley Madison and Tinder. (Sometimes these women are prostitutes, sometimes not). He says that his wife does not know what he does with his time – she just thinks that he works very long hours – but he feels terrible about his behavior. He says that the extramarital sex is not fun and he desperately wants to stop, but he can never seem to manage that for more than a few days at a time.
For active sex addicts like Michael, sexually addictive activity takes place no matter what, regardless of outward success, intelligence, physical attractiveness, existing intimate relationships, or anything else. Very often sex addicts, feeling shameful or fearful, will tell themselves, “This is the last time that I am going to behave in this way,” yet they are compelled to return to the same or a similar sexual situation.
Over time, sex addicts organize their entire lives around sexual fantasy and the behaviors that follow. They spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about, planning for, pursuing, and engaging in sexual activity (with themselves and/or others). Sex becomes an obsession to the point where important relationships (spouses, kids, parents, friends, etc.), interests (exercise, hobbies, creativity, etc.), and responsibilities (work, finances, childcare, etc.) are ignored.
Oftentimes, sex addicts’ behaviors escalate to the point where they violate their inner values and moral code. This both creates and intensifies their shame. And because they feel so much shame about what they are doing, they nearly always find themselves leading a double life, keeping their sexual acting out secret and hidden from family, friends, and everyone else who matters in their life.
In these respects, Michael is a garden variety sex addict. He started small, looking at porn and masturbating. Over time, his behaviors escalated, and eventually he found himself looking at porn for hours on end and seeing prostitutes whenever he could afford it. Additionally, his actions, right from the start, were engaged in less for enjoyment and more to escape the vicissitudes of life – in his case the emotional discomfort of living in an alcoholic and abusive household.
The criteria most often used by certified sex addiction therapists (CSATs) to assess for and identify sexual addiction are as follows:
Without doubt, Michael qualifies. He spends almost all of his spare time thinking about and pursuing sexual activity, he wants to quit and has repeatedly tried and failed to quit, and his life is falling apart. His life revolves around sex, he can’t control it, and he’s an emotional wreck. Even though he has not yet been found out by his wife, he is dealing with shame, depression, anxiety, and intense feelings of guilt and remorse. This is exactly what it’s like to live life as a sex addict.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he 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 treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.