If you’re reading this, you are likely wondering if either you or someone you know is struggling with sex addiction symptoms. In fact, you may still be a skeptic concerning the idea that sexual addiction is even a real thing; if so, I understand that. After all, God created us to be sexual beings with the purpose of us procreating – so how can we possibly do too much of that?
I’m glad you (hypothetically) asked. Perhaps if I phrase this question in a different way, it may illuminate the topic in a different light for you:If you or someone you know engages in the consumption of alcohol to the extent that it could potentially lead to negative legal, relational, occupational, physical, emotional, or financial consequences – and thoughts of how to obtain that next drink were at the forefront of one’s mind more often than not – wouldn’t we agree that this person may in fact be struggling with an addiction to alcohol?
One might be able to exchange alcohol in this scenario with a drug of choice, or even another behavior of choice such as gambling, to further understand the concept of addiction.
You see, when we have an addiction to something (regardless of what it is) – we get a “fix” of sorts, when it moves from a thought of wanting that thing – to a behavior of actually acquiring or using that thing. Our “things” may vary, but for the sake of this article, we are going to assume that sex is that drug/behavior of choice.
In Sex Addicts Anonymous 12-Step publication, Hope and Recovery (1987) – it phrases it like this:
“Addictive sexual behavior, acting-out behaviors we sometimes call it, leads to feelings of shame and depression: it has the effect of masking, covering up, or numbing feelings; and it leads to isolation and a complete loss of control. Healthy sexual behavior, on the other hand, is characterized by mutual respect, a sense of clarity about feelings and communication, joyfulness, and genuine intimacy; it tends to make people feel emotionally and physically safe.”
You see, an aphrodisiac for the sex addict includes ritual, control, and power. Conversely, an aphrodisiac for the intimate/beloved relationship includes surrender, vulnerability, and trust. Are you starting to see the difference now?
If I were to sum up sexual addiction in one single phrase, it would be this: It is an intimacy disorder, rooted in shame.
The cycle of shame keeps the struggle hidden, and very often I will hear someone struggling with sexual addiction say things like, “I’m glad I got found out – otherwise I may not have stopped,” or “I never would have admitted to this being a problem for me if I hadn’t gotten caught in the act.”
This begs the following question:
What exactly should we be looking for concerning sex addiction symptoms?
Sex Addiction Symptoms
If you find that you are experiencing the following, you may be in the midst of a sexual addiction (IITAP, 2018):
- Compulsive Behavior – “resulting from or relating to an irresistible urge, especially one that is against one’s conscious wishes” (Dictionary.com)
- Loss of Control — “Loss of control generally refers to lack of the ability to provide conscious limitation of impulses and behavior as a result of overwhelming emotion” (Griffin, 1990, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health)
- Efforts to Stop – “conscious exertion of power: hard work” (Dictionary.com)
- Loss of Time – Do you find yourself so wrapped up in sexual preoccupation, that before you know it, unaccounted for hours have seamlessly passed by?
- Preoccupation – “A subject or matter that engrosses someone. Synonyms: obsession, concern” (Dictionary.com)
- Inability to fulfill obligations – these could be financial obligations, relational, familial, work-oriented, etc.
- Continuation despite consequences – this one is a big telltale sign; have you gotten caught but cannot decrease the behavior, in spite of you truly desiring to? Does it feel as though the sexual behavior has a grip on you, instead of you having a grip on it?
- Escalation – Similar to how someone currently struggling with a drug addiction may have begun with something as minor as a cigarette in childhood or adolescence, then in junior high it becomes a few hits off a marijuana joint, then in college it’s a couple snorts of cocaine … you get the idea. For the sex addict, it may start as something perceived to be “harmless,” i.e. viewing porn at home (more on this later), and then escalate into an act that offers a greater “high” once the rewards system in the brain has adapted to and developed a tolerance for what once did the trick.
- Social, Occupational, Recreational Losses – What you once enjoyed and were known for partaking in – has it seemingly disappeared? Have you begun to isolate, when you used to be social? Are you no longer performing as well as you once did at work? Which of your talents, gifts, or hobbies have been pushed aside and forgotten about?
- Withdrawal – You’ve heard of withdrawal before; this time, the withdrawal is surrounding sex, rather than drugs or alcohol “The discontinuance of the use of a drug; the syndrome of often painful physical and psychological symptoms that follows discontinuance of an addicting drug” (Merriam Webster).
These sexual behaviors may manifest themselves as any of the following:
Fantasy, voyeurism, exhibitionism, seductive role sex, intrusive sex, anonymous sex, trading sex, paying for sex, pain exchange, exploitive sex (IITAP, 2018). You might notice that I did not specifically mention viewing pornography; however, pornography may certainly fall under the category of “fantasy” in the above list.
This does bring up an interesting point – one might ask themselves, “If I’m not engaging in any of the above, but I view pornography on a regular basis, and I hide the fact that I do from those I love, and it is having some negative effects on my life – am I a sex addict?”
Recently, the community of mental health professionals who study and treat sexual addiction (Certified Sexual Addiction Therapists or CSATs) came to the realization that going forward, we will likely be looking at two different categories concerning sexual addiction –
- The Classic Sexual Addiction (most often rooted in trauma history)
- The Contemporary Porn Addiction (no history of trauma needed; rather, only access to the internet or pornographic materials is needed).
For the Classic Sex Addict, we are looking for the following signs (Reimersma & Sytsma, 2013):
- History of enduring abuse
- Insecure attachment style (this can be assessed by your therapist)
- Poor impulse control (look for this to show up beyond sexual impulses; i.e. in relation to money habits, the need for instant gratification in multiple areas, etc.)
- Cross Addictions (Are you also a cigarette smoker? Do you gamble regularly? Drink regularly? Are you obsessed with work/financial gain?)
- Co-morbid mood disorders (your therapist can assess you for this)
- Used to soothe toxic emotions (this is why it’s so hard to break away from the cycle; when the going gets tough, the sex addict gets going … sexually; in an effort to self-soothe and distract from difficult emotions).
Sex Addiction Treatment Options
A key component to successful treatment for the Classic Sex Addict is individual therapy for treating the underlying trauma history, because often, the current behaviors are a form of reenacting trauma the addict experienced previously.In addition to individual therapy, group therapy is equally as important and vital to the recovery process for someone with a sexual addiction. In a group setting, the addict is able to reduce shame by sharing their story with others who have struggled in similar areas, and we have found that the community support offered in a group setting is absolutely paramount to the healing and recovery of addictive behaviors. Long-term treatment is mandatory for a Classic Sex Addict to experience success in sobriety.
For the person who is addicted to viewing pornography, the recovery will look different, and often times the behavior will be more resolvable in a shorter length of time. I am not saying it will be any easier per se, but for someone who is committed to reprogramming their brain (did you know God enables us to do that?!) we can see some really positive effects taking place in a reasonably short amount of time; about a year.
This does not mean that the temptation to look at porn will go away in a year’s time – in fact, let’s be real, the temptation may last a lifetime, but success does not mean the absence of temptation, but rather, the absence of acting upon temptation.
Even Paul prayed and pleaded with God to remove the thorn in his flesh, and God told him that His grace was sufficient to see Paul through this life with that thorn intact (2 Cor 12:8-9). This ought to give us all great hope! We do not serve a God who is incapable of helping us – rather, He sees us and gives us strength to be who He created us to be – living in freedom and not in slavery to the desires of this world.
If you are struggling with porn addiction, know that your brain has now been wired to behave in a certain way when you are exposed to pornography. Thus, it will take some time to allow a mental detox of stimuli within your brain, and the intentional redirecting of your thoughts to that which produces life inside of you, instead of spiritual death.
I will not delve too deeply into the topic of neuroplasticity right now, but modern science supports the fact that God really meant business when He said things like:
- Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
- For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ… (2 Cor. 10:4-5)
- But that is not the way you learned Christ! Assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:20-24)
Hope for the Sex Addict
If you have made it this far, then you may now be entertaining only one thought in your mind – “Is there hope?” Yes! If you have not truly taken to anything that I have said up until now in this article, please pay attention to this one statement:
As long as Jesus lives, there is never-ending HOPE available to us!
This is good news my friends. I personally believe that Christ Himself was tempted sexually – why wouldn’t He have been? He came down here to identify with us and show us that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor 10:13).
This leads to our next thought – can God possibly use this affliction for my good and His glory?
Absolutely. In fact, He promises to use EVEN this – for your good, and for His glory: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Regardless of how far you believe you have fallen from grace, God has all that you need to restore what the locust has eaten, my friend. I know that it takes great courage and faith to create a lasting change in your life – but on this side of heaven – you only get ONE life. What do you say we make it one of freedom, joy, and gratitude for the power and glory of God? Get in touch with a Seattle Christian Counselor who specializes in sexual addiction. Let’s do this – together.
Compcare Publishers. Hope & recovery: A twelve step guide to healing from compulsive sexual behavior Hardcover – 1987.
International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP, 2018) www.iitap.com
Griffin, JB JR. Loss of Control. In: Walker HK, Hall WD, Hurst JW, editors. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations; 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 204.
Riemersma, Jennifer & Sytsma, Michael. (2013). A New Generation of Sexual Addiction. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. 20. 10.1080/10720162.2013.843067.
“Dark Hallway” Courtesy of Charles Deluvio, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Worshiper”, Courtesy of Cherry Laithang, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Whanake”, Courtesy of Hillie Chan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hope”, Courtesy of Ron Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License