What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.

 

 

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What are men unconsciously seeking in internet porn?

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“The soul often manifests itself in the sexual areas of life.”

Thomas Moore

Internet porn is an increasing issue among the male, heterosexual clients I see, and one that can cause a lot of shame as well as impacting on intimate relationships.

Some couples and individuals may have a comfortable relationship with porn and it may be something they enjoy making a part of their sex lives. But for many men it can become something secretive and taboo, which they turn to not simply because of the pleasure it offers but also as a way of escaping difficult feelings.

The easy and free accessibility of internet porn (and the range of sexual activity one can view) means that it can quickly become an instant hit for men who are not feeling good about themselves.

When the need for that ‘hit’, for that escape, becomes a regular way of handling difficult feelings internet porn use can become a problem both for the individual and his partner if he is in a relationship.

For me the interesting part is not just what a man may be escaping by using internet porn, but what he may, unconsciously, be seeking.

To explore this one must ask the individual what he is drawn to in the experience, how he actually feels in the midst of it. Male clients tell me they feel excitement and passion when they are lost in internet porn, that they enjoy the secretive and rule-breaking atmosphere.

Some also feel they are giving themselves a treat or reward and even that they feel somehow nurtured by or attended to by the women they watch engaging in sex.

For some men there is also a pleasure in seeing women treated in a dominating, or even humiliating, way sexually and this may be tapping into unresolved angry feelings towards women that go back to childhood.

Part of the work with these clients is about exploring with them what the porn gives them and whether that is a sign that there is something missing from the rest of their lives and relationships. If they feel excitement and passion using porn, is there a boredom or flatness in the rest of their life or relationships? If so, how can they bring some excitement into other areas of their life?

I would be interested in what might be holding the man back from bringing these energies into his life. Did he grow up with the message that it was somehow not ok for him to express excitement or passion, for example?

If the man feels somehow looked after or attended to by the women in porn videos, does this mean he feels that is lacking in his other relationships with women? Can he ask for these needs to be met in other relationships and can he begin to look after or attend to himself in healthier ways?

For the man who is aroused by women being dominated or treated in a humiliating way I would be interested in how he felt his childhood excitement, anger and sexuality were treated by women. Did he feel those parts were not acceptable and did he feel humiliated by his mother or other females when he showed those energies and emotions?

What I’m aware when I hear the stories of men who have problematic relationships with porn is how the activity, as well as an escape is also a movement towards something.  This ‘something’ is often about feeling alive, connected to one’s excitement, feeling connected to and accepted by a woman.

Even the man who is drawn to porn that demeans women is, in a distorted way, trying to establish a connection with the feminine. If those feelings of anger and powerlessness, with regard to women, can be made more conscious they can then be worked with.

As psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore says, in his book The Soul of Sex, many of the people who came to see him had sexual concerns, “which eventually were revealed as containers of the central mysteries of the person’s life.”