I spent most nights in 2014 desperately scrounging the web for conversations and information on addiction and self-improvement.
Back then, I felt like I was watching life slip through my fingers.
Yet in my frantic, haphazard quest, I was amazed to come across such a disproportionately large amount of questions and discussions about sex addiction.
I’d be pacing through cartoon Yahoo! Answers avatars, scanning Q&A topics on searches for “addiction” that might read: sex . . . sex . . . marijuana . . . sex . . . meth . . . sex . . . masturbation . . . sex . . . porn . . . cocaine . . . sex…
“Addictive sexual behaviors are very painful conditions for those who suffer from them, regardless of their being cloaked in the guise of the pursuit of pleasure.”
Improving the Relationship (the Goal with Addiction)
I’m not going to go into the social reasons why so many these days might label themselves sex addicts. Instead I’d like to look at the idea of sex addiction as a perfect illustration for how addiction essentially becomes a bad relationship with something fun or valuable.
Should the goal with addiction be to end the relationship, or to find restoration and improvement?
While more serious chemical addictions might require chemical solutions, my basic thesis is that it’s possible to face, overcome, and return to balance after addiction without having to run and hide forever.
I’ve seen my own relationships with sex, alcohol, food, weed, exercise, other people, and work (for example) go from abusive and unstable to helpful and fun.
“Here’s my evaluation of almost everyone who is diagnosed as a sex addict—by themselves, their loved ones, or an addictionologist: it’s someone who is unhappy with the consequences of their sexual choices, but who finds it too emotionally painful to make different choices. You know, the way some of us are with cookies, new sweaters, or watching the Kardashians on TV, which is to say, it’s not about the sex. It’s about the immature decision-making.”
No, addictions aren’t all the same; and fighting each unique compulsion does play out a little differently.
I’ll come back to how facing sex addiction might compare to facing other addictions.
But what should the goal in facing and overcoming sex addiction be?
What does a good relationship with sex look like?
First, let’s make beliefs about sex (in terms of right or wrong) another conversation. If addiction means doing something you’ve told yourself not to—something you see hindering you—let’s focus on when you find yourself unable to control anything sexual (including masturbation and porn) even when you clearly see the behavior negatively affecting your life.
I believe a helpful goal to aim for when it comes to your relationship with sex is to set yourself up to have the best and most pleasurable experiences possible.
Again, this goal could apply regardless of your convictions about sex. If you believe sex should only be for marriage, then aim at making the experience of sex with your spouse the most pleasurable and meaningful it can be.
“Like compulsive overeaters, who must change their relationship to food in order to savor a gourmet meal, sex addicts must learn how to enjoy sex rather than abuse it.”
Our Wrong Approach (Why Less is Really More)
As I read through the struggles of so many who felt powerless against sex addiction, I honestly felt like I was being translated back to my fifteen-year-old self—to a time when I faced all those same fears and feelings.
If you’d have asked me at fifteen, I’d have sworn I was addicted to masturbation. It was definitely a source of deep shame, and something I felt was keeping me from all my biggest dreams and goals.
Every time I gave in to temptation, I’d feel a little worse about myself.
As would reoccur decades later in the throes of full-blown weed addiction, I made all sorts of plans to quit masturbating as a teen, all of which I quickly watched myself fail.
Eventually it got to where I couldn’t help but imagine just how bad I’d feel (right after) if I were to give in. Being unable to ignore the consequences enabled me to quit for about a year.
At fifteen, all I wanted to do was trade up from the shame and disappointment I felt to something hopefully far better and more rewarding.
Doing anything compulsively means doing it when it’s not even fun—when you don’t even really want to. Maybe adolescents unconsciously sense that compulsive masturbation is ultimately a losing battle; they know deep down they won’t be able to keep going at the same scope or pace forever. That just means the joyless feeling of forcing that “fix” is something they’ll have to endure more and more if they don’t gain control.
“Some sex addicts become compelled to engage in increasingly frequent encounters to achieve the same effect. That effect, on a conscious level, is sexual pleasure; however, and more important, on an unconscious level, the effect is an emotional one, such as a desire to ward off depression, feelings of inadequacy, or loneliness. Just as the drinker must drink more to get the desired effects of alcohol, the sex addict needs to increase the amount of sexual activity to achieve the same desired effect of meeting the unconscious emotional need.”
Tantric sex has become quite a novel idea in western culture—something we might equate with the likes of Shaolin monks or Reiki. It’s like many cool ideas that get needlessly spun into costly sciences with built-in mythologies. The basic idea of Tantra is just learning to slow down and relax before and during sex, allowing each aspect and sensation to occur as naturally as possible without tensing or forcing anything.
I mean, go read the lyrics to Relax, by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
There’s something about the American (or western) psyche that seems to approach sex in precisely the wrong way. It’s glamorized, hyped up, and sold as something to always get absolutely as much of as possible.
But then you have to approach the experience all flexed out with pleasure-zapping tension and focus. You develop the ability to force yourself, through sheer concentration, to . . . well, to “get there.”
I think society will mature when we can learn to let sex be whatever it is without all that needy glorification and giggly hype.
Sex can be fun, just like drugs, alcohol, and anything else that need not necessarily be taken to extremes.
I think all those things are better when they’re not “such a big deal.”
Compulsive sex is a slippery slope. Degrees of kink are added to rekindle dying thrills, replacing natural pleasures with what, at its core, amounts to obligation.
Forced to Grow Up (Finding Magic Again)
By contrast, if your goal is to make sexual experiences the most pleasurable they can be . . . and you succeed . . . then the thrill never goes. It’s actually sort of like always returning to the best parts of puberty: the innocence, the longing, and the pure enjoyment of really desiring and then appreciating every moment.
That’s the opposite of the binding-obligation nature of addiction: that feeling of needing and giving huge amounts of time to acquiring some fix.
My personal opinion: If young people especially used masturbation to practice experiencing every part of sex this way (including the waiting), I think they’d enjoy their sex lives a lot more.
Beyond just sex, addiction takes you ever closer to a state where you find no pleasure or joy in whatever it is anymore. That’s a bad relationship.
The same method I share in all these articles and throughout my Facing Addiction story is that the way to restore your relationship with whatever you’re addicted to—the way to find balance and control so you can live the way you want to—is to find a way that works for you to go public with your real experience.
“You can’t run away from sex — unless you’re running in the direction of a convent. It’s better to put sex in context: as a part of the mix of feelings and factors that make up the whole person.”
So, just for fun: Pretend you and whatever you’re addicted to are sitting next to each other in a counselor’s office. Your entire history and all your feelings have been brought to light. The counselor has revealed your next steps in your own words; and no matter what you do or how you hesitate, those next steps are always perfectly clear and impossible to ignore or escape.
Your real experience is the truth to uncover, and your own story is the counselor. Let it leave you with no choice but to take all your next steps toward improving your relationships with everything in your life.
“The addiction model starts with ‘we admitted we were powerless.’ The therapy model starts with ‘you’re responsible for your choices; I wonder why you keep doing what gives you what you say you don’t want?’”
As with sex, the goal of making any experience the best it can be (of having the best relationship with whatever you do or use) isn’t a line you’ll ever actually “cross.” It’s a state you can always be moving closer to, always making progress.
Going public simply makes not doing so less and less acceptable to you.
“A breakthrough comes when a sexually addicted person gets a view of himself or herself beyond the addiction, a glimpse of the person he or she might become.”
Here’s where sex addiction might be a little different than others. With weed, for example, the compulsion seems more constant (even right after using). For me, getting high isn’t really like a goal to get to and through (like an orgasm can be when sex is compulsive); it’s more like a consistent desire for “just a little more.”
But the goal (having a good relationship) is the same. I hope to always be moving toward getting high only when I know I should. That also happens to make the experience as magical, worthwhile, and guilt-free as possible.
So here’s to better relationships all around.
Myers, W. A. (1995). Addictive sexual behavior. American Journal Of Psychotherapy, 49(4), 473.
Klein, M. (2012). YOU’RE ADDICTED TO WHAT?. Humanist, 72(4), 31.
Rice, R. (1997). The startling truth about sexual addiction. (cover story). Cosmopolitan, 222(1), 132.
Levin, J. (1999). Sexual addiction. National Forum, 79(4), 33.
Rosellini, G. (2002). a woman’s guide to Sex and Recovery. Sex & Recovery: A Woman’s Guide, 1.
Frykholm, A. (2007). Addictive behavior. Christian Century, 124(18), 20.