1. Sex addiction actually, er, exists
It is a condition or syndrome with a proven neurological, psychological basis. It’s not just a pretext or for the philandering, the promiscuous and priapic. It is an addiction or compulsion to certain sexual behaviors that causes the sufferer to transgress their own values and ruins their lives. Of course, sexual desire is an evolutionary urge, a normal drive, perfectly healthy in most people. But for some, genetic predisposition, family trauma or attachment disorders and early exposure to sexual material has warped this desire, hijacking reward centres in the brain and causing the sexual drive to dysfunction. An allergy of the mind arises; sexual activities are craved but when indulged in they cause mental pain. This is sex addiction, and it is a ‘thing’ and it affects more people than you think. Perhaps it is because it is a process addiction or because of the shame and stigma surrounding it (see below) it still remains misunderstood by most.
2. Sex addiction is as powerful as crack cocaine
In the book The Porn Trap the authors break down the physiology of sex addiction. They cover the dopamine secreted during the anticipation and the mind-blowing opioids of the orgasm and fulfillment. Gary Wilson in Your Brain on Porn, writes about how repeated exposure to pornography subjects the dopamine reward system to the same fatigue over time as cocaine abuse. Research going on at Cambridge University has shown that the pleasure centres stimulated in sex addiction are similar to those in pharmacological addiction. As Patrick Carnes writes, we are looking at self-peddled, self-secreted drug abuse, a chemical dependency.
Due to neuronal plasticity, (neurons that ‘fire together, wire together’,) using porn and other thrill seeking sexual practices compulsively, eventually recalibrates the brain to such an extent that it cannot snap back and is chronically impaired. The brain then craves this fix. The results can be a skewed arousal template, (not finding ‘normal’ women or real, intimate sex exciting), diminished libido in the absence of sexual fetishes, or even erectile dysfunction as documented by Gary Wilson in his book. That’s just addiction; not to speak of the experience of withdrawal.
3. Sex addiction is not a modern phenomenon.
Sex addiction was not invented by the publicists of Michael Sheen and Tiger Woods. It’s always been around. Many have a history of it in hiding their families, secreted in rumours, half truths, concealed in euphemism, in understatement, and embarrassed whispers about being ‘a bit of a ladies’ man’ or having a racy love life, when speak in hushed tones about a man who died of venereal disease or in a brothel in an addled stupor. Many writers, poets and artists have been sex addicts or have written about sex addiction – it just wasn’t called sex addiction. You can find sex addiction hiding in coy euphemism in the novels of Dostoyevsky, and in the diaries of Leo Tolstoy whose first sexual experience was with a prostitute. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is an allegory for the double life of an addict. Given its long lineage why has it only now come onto our radar?
4. Sex addiction thrives in shame, secrecy and stigma.
This is generally an invisible addiction involving furtive behaviours and does not leave the visible symptoms of alcohol or drugs. It’s an internally secreted drug that can be activated by fantasy. Sobriety is more than abstinence from actions; a mere thought can trigger symptoms .
Sex addiction is problematic also because, even leaving aside the difficulty of diagnosis and debate over whether it is a compulsion or true addiction it is not something people want to admit and it is seldom spoken about. Sex preference is, after all, such a personal thing and the embarrassment of having to admit that such a private urge is not under control can be crippling particularly for men who in our societies have been conditioned to seem in control.
It is easy to see how a macho omerta can easily descend over such a topic. Because sex is treated with either fear or ridicule, the idea of sex addiction must seem either implausible, laughable or a fabrication. It is easy to either dismiss this stuff as ‘just a bit of porn’ or to demonise the ‘pervert’. Unfortunately, this shame only fuels the behaviour because the unwanted behaviour is seen as sordid (whether masturbating to porn, paying for sex) and social opprobrium attaches to it, it cannot be shared. This leads to a festering guilt and feeling that can only be dealt with by acting out – an addictive cycle is set up. Since shame reduction is a major factor in recovery from any addiction and shifting social norms can be a part of that.
5. Sex addiction is a destructive form of mental illness
The internal world of the sex addict is not widely understood. My experience of sex addiction is that it is a devastating mental illness. It is cunning, baffling and powerful. It is an illness that lies latent unless activated by indulging in certain behaviours. Central to the illness is an allergy of mind or hypersensitivity to sexual phenomenon that can be indulged in by other people without negative implications. The allergy of mind triggers off a phenomenon of craving, that is all consuming, a ravening obsession that haunts the sufferer. When a sufferer’s addictive mind is activated they pass into a trance like state, likened to a ‘bubble’ which brings intoxication and a grim compulsion to continue the behaviour despite the fact that it is becoming more extreme.
Sex addiction comes with an array of unpleasant symptoms. Of course there is the mind bending morbidity of mind plagued by sexual fantasy, the psychosis of preparation for acting out, the dirty high of a spritz of dopamine. And of course, the behaviours that tend to become more degrading over time. The results of withdrawal can be as horrific as anything unleashed by hard drugs: porn headaches, low self-esteem, self-loathing, paranoia, insomnia, dread, concentration problems, brain fog, lethargy. This is all accompanied by the horror of wanting to act out again which the sufferer knows will only perpetuate the pain but that they feel utterly powerless to stop. Sex addiction metes out a horrendous psychological toll that damages lives.
6. Sex addiction is chronic and highly progressive
As far as we know, sex addiction is chronic and incurable. Once a mind has become addictive, as far as we know, it is impossible to reverse, though the condition can be managed. Using porn, with high speed fast ethernet connection, produces ‘feel good’ chemicals like adrenaline, endorphins, and serotonin. A constant overload of these neurochemicals means the user needs the same, or more, the next time. This means that the behaviours become exponentially more intense and self-harming. Thus begins the pernicious descent into the mental purgatory of the porn trap. Without help, the sufferer is likely to become locked in a vicious cycle of acting out, recrimination, mental pain and relapse. If unchecked, this can become so all consuming, that it affects everything: relationships, work and ultimately can be a life threatening illness as low self-esteem, unmanageability, sense of hopelessness, isolation and shame linked to often leading to extreme, self-destructive, suicidal thoughts that interfere with leading a normal life.
7. Sex addiction is not defined by the behaviours themselves
Whether the poison for some is being addicted to online pornography, compulsive cruising, hook ups, web cam sex, visiting lap dancing clubs, erotic massage joints, saunas, infidelity, S&M or sex parties/ orgies, searching out or paying for fetishes, dogging, voyeurism, exhibitionism, all the way through to all manner of paraphilia through to child porn and even pederasty. For some it may be compulsive masturbation or having multiple intrigues. They are essentially all manifestations of the same disease and all have the phenomenon of planning, acting out and the inability to control. They all become powerless and unmanageable if they’re left unchecked.
Sex addiction is not one form of behavour; it is better characterised by the allergy of mind, phenomenon of craving and the cycle of shame and acting out. And, most crucially, the inability to control behaviour, to stop when it has started. That is what typically separates those who are addicts from those who just enjoy sex or who have a high sex drive: an inability to stop.
8. Sex addiction is also expressed in extreme sexual abstinence
Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. This means that it is always about a compulsive, habitual, or rigid attitude to sex. It is always about fleeing the spectre of an intimate relationship. So whether someone is having a lot of sex (cruising for multiple sexual partners), or no sex at all (sometimes compulsively avoiding sex with an intimate partner), called sexual anorexia, both are forms of sex addiction. It’s about an inability to set boundaries, having sex when you don’t want to, not being able to have sex when you do want to. The shame cycle means flipping between being in rigid over control, anorexia, perhaps expressed as an extreme form of religiosity, and then flipping over to the exuberance of chaos. This is very common to most addictions: attempting to go cold turkey and then falling off the wagon, compulsive starving and compulsive bingeing with an eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia; workaholism and avoidant procrastination. In fact it is the flip flopping between extreme promiscuity (usually out of the relationship) and extreme anorexia within it that leads to eventual relationship breakdown.
9. Sex addiction often isn’t really even about sex.
Yes, you read that right! It’s true. It’s usually not caused by libido or lust.
It is usually about a range of things: escapism, power, oblivion, regulating feelings, a chemical rush, and not about the act itself. The planning and intrigue around a sexual encounter are often more intoxicating than the encounter itself. Sex addicts sexualise stress, anger, self-pity, shame, resentment, or act out because they feel unfulfilled, ashamed or simply entitled to it.
Sex addiction is usually about seeking to regulate or anaesthetize difficult feelings. Common to most sex addicts is a history of childhood trauma. This could be severe child abuse, extreme neglect or just dysfunctional or inadequate parenting. Sex addicts often come from rigid, shame based families where it was not safe to express one’s true feelings. Genetic susceptibility and vagaries of early brain development play their part. But whatever the circumstances these childhood ‘coping strategies’ no longer ‘work’ and become positively harmful in adulthood.
The Steve McQueen film Shame perfectly encapsulates this in the sibling protagonists. Michael Fassbender’s character is a workaholic sex addict and love avoidant who finds it impossible to connect with those who are interested in him romantically. He uses sex to deal with fears and a stressful, lonely job. His life is a miserable catalogue of stress, remorse and anonymous sexual encounters. Meanwhile his sister is a hopeless love addict, desperately clinging to abusive men.
10. Sex addiction is about to become a lot more mainstream
UK therapist Paula Hall claims that “Search engines deal with about 68 million requests daily for pornography, that’s about 25% of all search terms on the internet and the porn industry is estimated to be worth a staggering $97 billion dollars… 260,000 members of online support groups trying to quit porn because of the damage it’s having on their lives. Or that 27,000 people google sex and porn addiction every day”. I dare say these figures are on the increase.
No one is suggesting censoring this content for adults. Because for the majority, this is just light relief and can be handled quite safely. But many have succumbed to the addiction and clinics and therapy programmes around the UK are increasingly being contacted by people distressed by sexual compulsion, primarily driven by the baffling and mind bending effects of internet porn addiction. There are millions of addicts out there and many trying to stop. Many are on No Fap, trying to stop masturbating, However, many more are silently suffering feeling alone, in the absence of someone saying” “yes, this is a thing, it exists and you can get help for it.” Stigma about sex addiction makes it less likely that people will speak out, hence why I share this piece.
Sex addiction is an undiagnosed malady in a society which refuses to see it for what it is. In a sense, society suffers from a mirror syndrome to the addict him or herself: delusion, denial and avoidance. Yet a number of factors look likely to make sex addiction, certainly porn addiction, increase in scale: work and life stresses, alienation, increased time online, the atomization and loneliness in society and the breakdown of social structures, lack of sex education and awareness of addiction, mental illness, and the blithe permissiveness of online access to pornography (which can be a gateway to more serious behaviours). And of course politicisation of the moral dimension of sexual compulsion that is a decoy from the real issue – that of a disease based on a chemical dependency. I think we are somewhere close to where understanding of alcoholism was in the 50s. We all need to get smart about this. And fast.
For those who want further reading on sex addiction, I’ve found the following books useful in my ongoing recovery from sex addiction:
Patrick Carnes Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (Hazelden Publishing, 2001)
Paula Hall Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction (Routledge, 2012)
Gary Wilson Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction (Commonwealth Publishing, 2015)
Wendy Maltz, Larry Maltz The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography (William Morrow, 2010)
12 Step Recovery programmes for sex addiction are also available.