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 number of questions and discussions on sex addiction.
I’d be pacing through cartoon Yahoo! Answers avatars, scanning Q&A topics in searches for “addiction” that might read: sex . . . sex . . . marijuana . . . sex . . . meth . . . sex . . . masturbation . . . sex . . . porn . . . cocaine . . . sex…
Improving the Relationship
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 of how addiction essentially becomes a bad relationship with something fun or valuable.
Should the goal 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 and overcome addiction, and to return to a state of balance without having to run and hide forever from temptation.
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.
No, addictions aren’t all the same, and confronting each unique compulsion does play out a little differently.
We’ll come back to how facing sex addiction might compare to facing other addictions.
But if the goal is to improve the relationship, what does a good relationship with sex look like?
First, let’s make beliefs about sex in terms of right or wrong a separate 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 any sexual behavior (including masturbation and porn) that you see potentially affecting your life in a negative way.
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, most pleasurable experiences possible.
That 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
As I read through the struggles of so many who felt powerless against the pull of compulsive sex, I honestly felt like I was being translated back to my 15-year-old self—to a time when I faced all those same fears and feelings.
If you had asked me at 15, 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 if I were to give in. That perspective enabled me to quit for about a year.
At 15, 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 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 the “fix” is something they’ll have to endure more and more if they don’t gain control.
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 concepts that get needlessly spun into costly sciences (with their own 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 have 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, “get there.”
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.
I think our society will mature when we can learn to let sex be what it is without all the needy glorification and giggly hype.
Forced to Grow Up
If your goal is to make your sexual experiences the most pleasurable they can be, and you succeed, then the thrill never goes away. It’s sort of like always returning to the best parts of puberty: the innocence, the longing, and the pure enjoyment of real desire and fulfillment.
That’s the opposite of the binding-obligation nature of addiction: that feeling of needing and acquiring some fix.
My personal opinion: If young people used masturbation to practice appreciating every part of sex (including the waiting), I think they’d enjoy their sex lives a lot more.
Beyond just with sex, addiction takes you ever closer to a state where you no longer find pleasure or joy in whatever you’re addicted to. That’s a bad relationship.
As I’ve been sharing, the way to restore the relationship—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.
Just for fun: Imagine 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.
Well, your real experience is the truth to uncover; and your shared story is the counselor. Let it leave you with no choice but to take your own next steps toward improving your relationships with everything in your life.
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.
Here’s where sex addiction might be a little different from others. With weed, for example, the compulsion seems more constant (even right after using).
But the goal of having a good relationship is the same.
So here’s to better relationships all around.
Rice, R. (1997). The startling truth about sexual addiction. (cover story). Cosmopolitan, 222(1), 132.