What is Sex Addiction?
Part 1 of a 3-Part Series There is a destructive elephant looming large in the room. Its name is sex addiction and it is spreading throughout the world at pandemic proportions. In fact, you may very well know at least four men who struggle with sex addiction, yet they are unlikely to be able to admit the issue or seek help. As the numbers of those affected continue to rise, most people are unaware of the existence of this addiction.
Sex Addiction: The Hidden and Little-Understood Pandemic
The statistics surrounding sex addiction are stunning. Sex addiction currently affects an estimated 60 % (+) of the teen and adult male population. In the Christian culture, the numbers affected are the same as those outside the church. Many in church leadership are deeply affected – and for them seeking help may mean the end of their church leadership position. The topic is seldom discussed directly in Christian circles, nor is it mentioned from the pulpit.
Sex Addiction Defined
This article is the first in a three-part series and focuses on the definition of the addiction as it applies to men. While women can be afflicted with sex addiction issues (called “sex and love addiction”), the vast majority of sex addicts are men. Sex addiction is defined as:
A compulsive sexual behavior is sometimes called hypersexuality, hypersexual disorder, nymphomania, or sexual addiction. It’s an obsession with sexual thoughts, urges, or behaviors that may cause … distress or that negatively affects your health, job, relationships, or other parts of your life.1
Behaviors associated with sex addiction are compulsive. They include acting out with prostitutes, the viewing of pornography, masturbation, and other outlets for the addiction.
The Consequences of Sexual Addiction
Sex addiction substantially stunts the emotional growth of the addict. It can also physically affect him due to high-risk exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. It is often fatal to marriages and shakes families to their very core.
Sex addiction causes an inescapable cycle of shame and guilt. As the cycle continues, the addiction permeates every moment of every experience, every day. It causes debilitating change to the addict’s cerebral cortex as the phase of acting out provides a “hit” that is said to be more powerful than cocaine. As with cocaine for the drug addict, the sex addict’s tolerance levels for sexual experiences increase over time, resulting in more frequent and more intense periods of acting out. This acting out results in a continuing increase in the addict’s tolerance levels and the increased tolerance levels increase both the frequency and intensity of the periods of acting out, which results in … well, you get the idea. The addiction cycle runs more frequently and deeper with each revolution of the cycle.
The addiction typically begins at puberty and can occur for a variety of reasons, including the after-effects of trauma, or psychological, sexual, or physical abuse. From this basis comes an extraordinarily faulty belief system of unworthiness that deepens more and more throughout the life of the addiction.
A Cycle of Guilt and Shame
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., is an internationally-respected leader in sex addiction research and treatment models. His innovative and remarkable work provides proven, cutting-edge information on trauma, sex addiction, and avenues for proper treatment. According to Carnes:
Generally, addicts do not perceive themselves as worthwhile persons. Nor do they believe that other people would care for them or meet their needs if everything was known about them, including the addiction. Finally, they believe that sex is their most important need. Sex is what makes isolation bearable. [Emphasis mine.] If you do not trust people, one thing that is true about sex–and alcohol, food, gambling, and risk–is that it always does what it promises–for the moment. Thus, as in our definition of addiction, the relationship is with sex–and not people.
The addiction is accompanied by a demand for secrecy, so the addict tries to live two lives – one in the real world and one in his fantasy world. The chart below describes elements of the sex addiction cycle.
Cycle of addiction – P. Carnes, Ph.D.
Permission for use granted by
International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals
The pursuit and achievement of a sexual encounter via such means as emotional affairs, physical affairs, viewing Internet pornography, paying or bartering for sex, frequenting adult entertainment-style bars and clubs, masturbation, voyeurism, sadomasochism, etc.
Guilt and Remorse
After acting out, the addict typically feels guilt for the actions he knows are wrong. These feelings of guilt are followed by feelings of remorse for having committed the action.
Shame and Depression
Guilt and remorse are followed by high levels of shame, which lead to depression.
The addict promises himself that he will not act out again. He recommits to sexual sobriety in the hopes that he (and usually he, alone) can control his addictive personality.
As an outcome of his recommitment to not acting out, he commits to what he perceives as his normal lifestyle, including work, relationships, etc.
Due to his faulty core beliefs (i.e. “I’m not good enough”; “I can’t trust others to meet my needs”; “No one would like me if they knew who I am”; “Sex is my most important need”), the addict is driven to relieve his stress by acting out his sexual fantasies in the ways described above. Remember that the addict is driven to deal with stress based on his brain’s need for the “hit.”
A Cycle of Increasing Destruction
Chronic repetitions of the cycle land the addict in an incredibly intense, painful place of shame. This is played out as expressed or internal anger, withdrawal or defensiveness, and arrogance and entitlement. Preoccupation with the addiction grows steadily, and takes more and more time away from life’s normal activities and relationships, including work, sleep, family, friends, hobbies, recreation, and faith.
Active addicts become more and more isolated and frustrated, while their guilt and shame grows exponentially. Shame causes pain and feelings of abandonment, which result in further repetition of the cycle that, again, intensifies the guilt and shame with each repetition. How long and how well can the addict exist as his second life mushrooms out of control? Not long and not well.
Is Recovery Possible for the Sex Addict?
For successful recovery to occur, the sex addict must be willing to admit his powerlessness over the porn-watching and the acting out. He must work toward changing his belief system of shame and worthlessness to one that sees him as worthy of God’s gift of respect, love, and healthy relationships.
And what of his spouse? What happens to her when she discovers her husband’s addiction to sex? The following article in this series will be provide an overview of her experience following the discovery.
Christian Counseling for Sex Addiction
In the meantime, if you suspect that you or someone you love is sexually addicted, encourage them to seek professional help, specifically from a counselor who specializes in this condition. If you sense rumblings that something is amiss in your marriage, including issues such as a mysterious shift in the normality of your relationship, or a lack of emotional intimacy in your husband, pay attention to your concerns and carefully address your intuitions. Christian counseling can provide a safe space in which to address your concerns and find support as you move forward.
Mayo Clinic. Definition of sex addiction. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/compulsive-sexual-behavior/basics/definition/con-20020126
Patrick Carnes. 2001. Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, Hazelden: Center City, Minnesota. p. 16
Initial research resources for the sex addict:
Carnes, Ph.D., Patrick (reprinted 2013). Don’t Call It Love – Recovery from Sexual Addiction. New York City. Bantam Press.
Carnes, Ph.D., Patrick (3rd Edition, May 23, 2001). Out of the Shadows. Center City, Minnesota. Hazelden
May, Ph.D., Gerald (2007). Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions.Photos
ʺSadness Man in the Shadow,ʺ courtesy of George Hodan, PublicDominaPictures.net; ʺMan Working,ʺ courtesy of Wilfred Iven, stocksnap.io, (CC0 License); ʺCycle of Addiction,ʺ courtesy of P. Carnes, PhD.