..Pleasure and Pain
are the faces of addicts. See if any look familiar.
- Ben is a successful
attorney. Married with three children, his life looks exemplary
and he seems destined for great public achievement. But Ben also
leads a secret life, revolving around visits to prostitutes and
adult book stores. Lately, he's taken to cruising the World Wide
Web, downloading porn and searching for partners in electronic
chat rooms and online hook-up sites.
- Susan is
a mid-level administrator and a single mother. Every few weeks
or months she goes on a sexual binge, dressing provocatively
and acting out exhibitionistic fantasies in local bars. She has
sex with at least one man each night, and sometimes more.
- Charles spends
hours each day driving between retail outlets as head of regional
sales for a publisher. Between clients, he often stops at shopping
malls and supermarkets, fantasizing about sex with women he sees
and masturbating. Increasingly, he spends his days cruising,
rather than working.
- Paul is gay
and afraid of AIDS. Still, he spends most evenings and weekends
in bars. He can't remember how many men he's had sex with in
the past year, but guesses somewhere around 100.
And those are
just some of the faces -- because according to experts, six to
10 percent of the American public experiences real problems with
sexual compulsivity or inappropriate sexual expression.
and patterns change, but one thing stays the same. For addicts,
sex isn't an expression of love or a pleasurable pastime, but
an obsessive force that causes trance-like states of arousal
and overpowering urges to act out sexual fantasies.
way it is for millions of people -- but it doesn't have to stay
grip of sex addiction is possible, and starts with recognizing
it as a problem and identifying the factors that keep it in place.
And if its
your problem, it starts where you are now.
..What is sexual addiction?
is like most other compulsive behaviors, including eating disorders
and drug and alcohol abuse: a potentially-destructive twist on
a normal life-enhancing activity.
sex addiction depends less on the behavior itself than on the
motivations of the person.
even though each involves often-unacceptable activities, the
person given to sexual flings or an interest in pornography is
not necessarily a sexual addict.
lies in the ability to control or postpone sexual feelings and
actions. Sex addicts can't -- or don't realize they can -- for
trying to satisfy their sexuality, they ritualize sex instead,
even constructing elaborate scenarios that result in a constant
state of sexual arousal and need.
It's the need
for arousal that replaces the need for intimacy in sex addicts.
Eventually, thrill-seeking becomes more important than family,
career, even personal health and safety.
..How can sex be addictive?
In the same
way other things are addictive -- in the brain and central nervous
In fact, researchers
have begun to unravel much of the mystery of sexual attraction
and compulsion through the study of the brain's internal chemistry.
On a biochemical
level, sexual arousal lights up the central nervous system and
triggers powerful physiological changes. Hormone levels soar,
boosting heart rate and blood pressure and increasing overall
don't end there.
the brain also plays a big role in romance and sexual arousal.
In fact, the
so-called "chemistry of love" seems to be just that
-- chemical chain-reactions in the brain. Researchers have even
identified a specific chemical in the brain (called phenylethylamine
or PEA) which they believe is implicated in the thrill and general
euphoria that comes with falling in love.
PEA is a
built-in "love drug." It has stimulant properties like
cocaine and amphetamine. Levels of the chemical appear to rise
with feelings of infatuation which, in turn, boosts euphoria
then, may not be addicted to sex so much as they're dependent
upon the physical and psychological arousal triggered by constant
"doses" of PEA and stress-related neurotransmitters.
..If love is addicting, why isn't everyone
a sex addict?
For the same
reason that everyone who drinks a beer isn't an alcoholic and
everyone who ever popped a pill or smoked a joint isn't an addict.
shaped to a great extent by learning, particularly within the
family. In fact, therapists say the family plays a key role in
the development of sexual compulsion.
Many sex addicts
report some form of abuse or neglect as children and frequently
see themselves as diminished or damaged in the process. The long-term
emotional fallout can involve chronic feelings of inadequacy
and low self-esteem. Their parents, often sex addicts themselves,
may attempt to compensate by raising their children with inflexible
attitudes about sexuality.
circumstances, normal forms of youthful sexual behavior, such
as masturbation, can become compulsive and ritualized, blunting
feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, but just as easily triggering
guilt and shame over "bad" behavior.
The cycle can
repeat itself into adulthood. Sexual compulsion is often accompanied
by complex, competing feelings of arousal and shame, excitation
and embarrassment. Continued compulsive sexual experiences may
offer a short-term relief from psychological pain, but eventually
feed back into the shame-blame cycle.
plays a part in fueling compulsive sexual behavior. Demands on
the job and in the home can trigger sexual compulsion by feeding
the addict's need for withdrawal and fantasy.
sexual control are usually victimizing - both to the addict,
who feels powerless to stop, and others, who serve only as objects
of his or her arousal.
..What are signs of sex addiction?
controlling sexual behavior usually reveal themselves in four
- Preoccupation: The person continually fantasizes about
sexual prospects or situations. Constant sexual focus results
in a high level of arousal which can trigger an episode of sexual
Ritualization: A preferred sexual activity or situation
is often stereotyped and repetitive, and may include a wide variety
of activities intended to keep arousal at a high pitch, rather
than being aimed at sexual release.
- Compulsion: The person continues to engage in sexual
activity despite negative consequences and a sincere desire to
stop. A sex addict can feel as powerless as an alcoholic or drug
addict over his or her addiction.
- Despair: Sex addicts experience guilt or shame, often
intensely, over their inability to control their behavior or
feel remorse for pain they've caused others. The psychological
fallout is equally crippling. Addicts may suffer other behavioral
problems, particularly chemical dependency and eating disorders.
also frequently suffer from intense depression and anxiety, often
fueled by the fear of discovery. Suicide rates also tend to be
higher among those with problems of sexual control.
The toll that
compulsive sexuality takes is often seen in a loss of intimacy
with loved ones, including problems in family functioning, communication,
and marital sex life.
the way out of sexual addiction often centers on renewing and
strengthening the same relationships most affected by the problem.
fallen in and out of love. And virtually everyone's had sexual
experiences at one time or another that they felt powerless to
resist. Feelings of love and sexual excitement are part of being
For sex addicts,
though, arousal is a self-reinforcing habit, no less than alcohol,
drugs, and other pursuits are to other addicts.
life back together again after a period of sexual addiction first
rests on seeing compulsive sexuality for what it is: an addiction
-- and a problem.
it's important to cut yourself off from compulsive sexual behavior,
as surely as it's necessary for an alcoholic to avoid the next
drink and a cocaine addict the next line or rock, in order to
rediscover the role of sexuality -- and of others -- in our lives.
missing from a sex addict's life can't be found in repeating
the same old patterns.
But it can
be discovered if we look close enough into the lives of others,
and see more there than potential sex partners or impulse objects,
and instead glimpse the deeper, ultimate love that connects and
binds us all.
..Sidebar | Other
addiction is often seen as just one of three common and sometimes
overlapping processes that involve "addictions" to
The other two
-- labelled "love" and "relationship" addictions
-- can be just as disruptive to the those involved and every
bit as self-defeating as sex addiction.
are both clear-cut and subtle.
live in endless anticipation of perfect love, and not finding
it with one lover, immediately begin searching for it with another.
A common result is a landscape littered with broken hearts and
addicts fix their attention on a particular individual and act
out their dependency needs with that person, typically becoming
obsessed, isolated, and manipulating in the process.
author Anne Wilson Schaef describes the differences this way:
Sex addicts "come on," she says, while romance addicts
"move on," and relationship addicts "hang on."
The one thing
they tend not to do, without a giant jolt of self-awareness,
though, is "get on" with their lives, free of the need
to control and manipulate others.
..Sidebar | Breaking
the Spell: Getting Past Sex Addiction
sexual compulsivity and addiction starts with recognizing that
you are out of control sexually, at least some of the time. Getting
to that point requires taking a hard look at yourself and the
problems -- emotional, physical, or financial -- caused by your
next depends on you, but should probably involve at least some
of the following:
to abstinence. It's impossible to move beyond compulsive sexuality
if you continue to act out sexual impulses. That's why most treatment
programs recommend an initial period of abstinence for newly-recovering
Rebuilding relationships. Rediscovering and rehabilitating relationships
with others, often through family or individual counseling, can
help reduce the isolation and loss of intimacy common among sex
addicts.Managing stress. Since stress often serves as a trigger
for periods of compulsive sexual activity, it's a good idea to
learn new ways to control life stress.
Self-help. A number of support groups based on the AA model have
emerged in recent years in all areas of the country. Examples,
which include Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sex and Love Addicts
Anonymous (SLAA), can be found in your local phone book's white