Bright, reasonable people with successful careers and happy families can lose everything to the greedy mistress that is addiction. What begins as an occasion enhancer—a drink, a pill, a snort—soon becomes necessary to enjoy a social event at all. Eventually the drug of choice requires no excuse. When we try to stop or cut back, our body screams its objections and we realize we now need the drug simply for maintenance. We are addicted.
When we apply this template to sexual behaviour that is out of control, we can see that it does not fit. Though we may consider the thrill of seduction a high, we do not suffer physiological withdrawal without it. If confined to a room with our hands tied behind our backs, we do not sweat and vomit, suffer DTs, or experience hallucinations until we can enjoy the relief of an orgasm once again. The addiction model requires a physiological component that “sex addiction” lacks. Let’s examine this from another angle.
If given free access to sexual expression, we each determine our body’s comfortable rhythm, which may be once a day, once a week, or once a month. There is no right or wrong answer to this question. We run into trouble, however, when someone else—anyone else—tries to impose their values on our appetites, preferences and desires. Such imposition results in either suppression and resentment or rebellion and resentment.
Take for instance the social expectation that, once married, a man should desist from looking at and appreciating any other woman than his wife.
(Although I am directing this article at men, I assure you this issue is not gender-based. Women are not immune from the effects of guilt and shame surrounding their sexuality and often act out in the form of indiscriminate sexual behaviour. It is no more or less damaging for their lives than for their male counterparts, though they may be able to fly under the radar a bit longer. Everything I say in this article applies to all people.)
Talk show hosts and many psychologists will label attendance at strip clubs, viewing porn, or ogling pretty girls as equivalent to cheating, and wives will echo the philosophy. After years of furtive peeking and punishment when ‘caught,’ men learn to suppress their desire. Sex in the marriage becomes stale and routine. They may sometimes plug in to some images on the Internet if guaranteed an uninterrupted interval, but the thrill is dampened by the guilt.
Some men, however, rebel at this expectation of extramarital psychological chastity. Many know well that they can lust grandly without cheating, and they rebel. Sometimes this takes the form of living fractured lives. They love their wives and make happy families, but refuse to be erotically hamstrung. With no acceptable avenues to express their other desires, they get a thrill from exercising their lust in what they believe are private places and moments. They tell themselves that if no one knows about it, no one gets hurt.
These men need other women to reassure them that they are still sexually alive and desirable. They need to know that marriage has not sealed them off from sexual adventure and allure. They need the stimulation, the arousal, the chase. Sadly, it is always coloured by guilt, which dulls the reward and demands ever more stimulation.
You can see how a ravenous cycle can develop. The more guilt a person feels, the more reinforcement he needs that he is desirable. The conquest quiets the anxiety, yet somehow is never enough to offset the guilt. The cycle becomes consuming. Balancing life at home with a secret life elsewhere brings a sense of power and risk that is heady and intoxicating, but eventually exhausting.
Nevertheless, this is not an addiction. It is poor judgment and weak impulse control. It is a reaction to feeling guilty about feeling sexy. That is the problem, and that is where the solution needs to start.
Psychologists untrained in sex therapy often promote an abstinence model for sexual addiction. They will tell you that if you can eliminate desire and arousal, you can manage your sexual behaviour. How sad that eradication of desire would be anyone’s goal!
Sex therapy takes an entirely different approach to troublesome sexual behaviour. It begins by assuming that desire is, well, desirable, and that the goal is reasonable and healthy management of behaviour.
Sex therapists examine and debunk the taboos associated with sexuality. Each client is encouraged to determine his own sexual identity as it works best in his life. We explore options for how best to incorporate healthy, loving sexuality into their meaningful relationship(s). We analyze self-esteem issues to see what part they play in this self-destructive dance and choose better tools for finding solace and affirmation.
This may sound like a long and painful process, but most of the clients I see who present with “sexual addiction” find that taking personal responsibility for the causes of their poor impulse control and unhealthy relationship with sex brings them relief from their distress in remarkably short order. An offshoot of this restored personal control is a new appreciation for their primary relationship and a subsequent improvement on that front.
It is true that some are not interested in looking within themselves and taking control of their behaviour. This is generally evident in the initial session. Some people like the idea of having an addiction; they like having something external that excuses their behaviour. For these folks, there are sexual addiction programs.
However, if you balk at the notion of extinguishing your desire and arousal, if you know in your heart that you control your behaviour, if you would like to make peace with your lust as well as your relationships, please consider therapy with someone trained specifically in sexuality.