It seems that everyone today is affected by a brother-in-law, a neighbor, a spouse, a favorite celebrity . . . or their very own problematic sexual behavior. I’d like to help you understand more clearly, not only the problem itself, but the people who are involved. Many of those people have profound impact on us.
As a licensed psychotherapist specializing in sex addiction (not sex therapy), I’ve helped many individuals and couples navigate their way out of problematic use of pornography and other sex-related behavior. You see, after I began seeing clients, I received more and more calls from clergy asking me to help their congregants who were losing their marriages and sometimes their jobs because of compulsive pornography viewing. What was going on?
As I met with these individuals (most of them men), I began to participate in specialized training and research on the matter. I became fascinated by the way addiction works in the brain, and I found that behavior alone could be just as addictive as a substance.
When I modified my profile on an online therapy directory to indicate my specialty with “problem sexual behavior,” my phone began to ring more. The majority of those calls were from happily married men who were caught up in different levels of sexual behavior ranging from compulsive pornography viewing to “gentleman’s clubs” and prostitutes.
Are these behaviors always problematic?
I often get asked, “Is he addicted to pornography?” or “Do I have a sex addiction?” A simple definition of sex addiction I use is “any repeated sexual behavior that leads to trouble or difficulty in one’s social, emotional, professional, or legal status, especially when it goes against ones’ values or idea of acceptable behavior.” I typically don’t focus much on labels or diagnoses, though. If someone has repeated problems in any of the above areas because of their sexual behavior, I want them to get help. This is something that rarely goes away when left alone. Most people cannot overcome this problem on their own. Focusing on whether a specific label of “addict” fits someone is not helpful in my experience.
This is why most people tend to gloss over articles and reports about sex addiction
Sexuality is such an uncomfortable subject for many people that they don’t want to consider it to be a problem for someone they care about, much less for themselves. This is why a wife comes to me when things have hit a crisis level. This is why men call me as a last resort. This is why most people tend to gloss over articles and reports about sex addiction. And this is specifically why I have become so comfortable talking about sex and sexual matters in my office—because when clients sense my matter-of-fact comfort with the subject, they quickly relax. Sexuality is a big part of life, and it’s an important, beautiful part. Communication in this shared experience we call “life” is then very important as we navigate it together. And communication about sexuality and its attendant questions, feelings, enjoyment, and difficulty must be addressed in a healthy, frank, and respectful manner. That’s what people learn in my sessions—how to have such communication with me and then with people who are important to them.
Why do you think problematic sexual behavior is increasing? I’d love to have you weigh in on this conversation below in the comments section.
Someone you know is in trouble because of problematic sexual behavior
So far we’ve talked about how everywhere you turn, whether it’s the nightly news, or your co-worker’s brother-in-law, or your own sister’s sudden news of divorce, someone you know is in trouble because of problematic sexual behavior.
How would it be if we could better understand what’s going on behind all these random stories of sexual inappropriateness, infidelity, or downright deviancy? It’s easy to dismiss the politicians and sports figures who mess up. But how do you deal with this subject when it’s your son or best friend or spouse? I recently had a client come in saying he had just told his wife that he’d been secretly hiring prostitutes for years while publicly pastoring their church. I want to help you (and his wife) understand this secret compulsive behavior because it is simply rampant. And the secrets are coming to light more and more. And it’s hitting closer and closer to home. Are you supposed to disown your son when something like this is revealed? Do you cut off your best friend? Do you divorce your husband? I hope not. I want to help you understand what’s happening so that you can support your loved ones, so that they don’t have to keep it hidden any longer, and so you don’t have to turn the T.V. channel because of discomfort. Or worse, so that you don’t have to hate someone in disgust or anger.
My experience with people who open up to me in ways they’ve never shared with another human being enables me to speak on their behalf and help you understand what’s happening. I never want you to condone hurtful, dangerous, or self-damaging behavior. I just draw here upon my research and psychological training in order to help you learn how to understand those you love (and who you might even hate at the moment).
Why sex addicts DON’T have a problem with sex.
The answer may surprise you.
So just what IS the sex addict’s real problem—which isn’t sex. On the surface, that sounds ridiculous, I know. The alcoholic is a problem drinker. The cocaine addict has a serious problem with cocaine. And while the sex addict’s use of hurtful, dangerous, or self-damaging sexual activity is clearly a problem, his or her problem is really with intimacy.
Many people use the term “intimacy” as another word for sex. But if you drew a large circle to represent intimacy, only a single pie slice in that circle would represent sexual intimacy. The rest is the interaction we have with other people. And that includes the intimacy we have with our children, which is different from the intimacy we have with our co-workers, which is different from the intimacy we have with a best friend. To a much lesser degree, we even have intimacy with the checker at the grocery store when we respond to, “Hi, how are you today?”
A man stuck on pornography experiences no intimacy . . . because there is nobody present to be intimate with! It’s just sexual behavior. And the degree to which someone experiences repeated sexual behavior that is void of intimacy is directly proportional to the difficulty they will experience enjoying real intimacy with a partner. Over and over again, I have seen adult men like Brad who don’t even know what intimacy is, much less how to experience it with his wife of ten years. And this is usually because, like Brad, they were exposed to sexuality too early in life.
Before We Were Sexual Beings
Between the approximate ages of 3 and 12, humans are asexual beings. Their natural development is focused on physical growth, brain processing, social skills, and a sense of right and wrong. Brad was 9 when he first found the older boys in his small town looking at pornographic magazines and engaging in sexual play and exploring their own and each other’s bodies. He felt privileged to be included with several boys who were 13, 14, and 15. Soon they invited certain girls in the town, and Brad’s first sexual experiences were more than his developmental capacity could process. In addition, those first forays into sexuality were strictly focused on physical gratification rather than bonding with someone. And it continued that way throughout his teen years, even when he paired off with “girlfriends.” His sexual encounters continued to be merely self-gratification with other bodies, devoid of intimacy.
Is it any wonder then that Brad’s relationship with his wife today cannot satisfy his hunger for a physical fix? Too often, the intimacy with his wife is a distraction and a delay of the intense sexual sensations he now depends on to deal with stress, boredom, fear, worry, or any other uncomfortable emotion. It’s just how his brain has developed. He’s never learned what intimacy even is.
Excuse Poor Behavior?
So do we just excuse all of Brad’s behavior and pat him on the head and move on? That is not what I’m suggesting. By understanding why Brad has acted the way he has, we can better support him without hating or hurting him. That will increase his chances of taking responsibility, accepting help, and finding recovery. We all make the very best decisions we can with the resources we presently have. In recovery, we teach people to take responsibility for their choices and move forward making even better decisions with the new resources they’re developing.
But why should YOU have to deal with this awkward subject? You’re not the one who did something wrong!
Please know that you DON’T have to “deal” with someone else’s behavior. It’s for them to deal with it. And their behavior usually has nothing to do with you—it started long before they ever met you. I enjoy teaching partners how they don’t have to take someone’s behavior personally—even when it’s a partner’s infidelity.
“But this subject is just too dark, upsetting, or awkward!” Yes, it is. And the more we avoid or run from something, the scarier and more insistent it becomes. The great sexual revolution was positive in many ways, and this sexually compulsive behavior also grew out of it. It’s among us. And I enjoy helping people take their heads out of the sand and comfortably help and support others who deal with this now-all-too-common problem.
Does this whole subject make you mad? What about fearful? Maybe concerned for someone?
What Can Be Done?
Let’s now talk about what someone who is stuck in compulsive sexual behavior can most effectively DO about the problem and why it goes against their best common sense. Hint: it’s the main theme of the first book I wrote, and it applies to every one of us, whether we struggle with addiction or not. Many of you are as interested as I am about nailing this ubiquitous topic of sexual compulsion and its accompanying behavior that is causing heartache for so many.
As a licensed therapist and one who’s researched and studied impulsive and compulsive sexual behavior, I’m laying out some key points to help you feel more comfortable with a subject most people want to shy away from. Too often it’s forced onto the most innocent bystanders. And sometimes it’s the person himself who is too uncomfortable, afraid, or in too much denial to look at the matter. My experience with clients (including couples) moves me to share this valuable and necessary information.
Let me tell you about Paul (all names, situations, and identifying details are always changed for confidentiality whenever I talk about clients). Paul couldn’t stay away from his phone—from the dating apps and carrying on virtual affairs with women. Sometimes three or four women at a time. And Paul was married. With two children. Shortly after Paul’s second session with me, his wife announced to him over dinner that she was divorcing him. She packed up the kids and left the next day for Colorado to live with her parents. She knew Paul had a porn addiction when she married him four and a half years earlier, but she didn’t stay long enough to learn why Paul was doing this. Or until he could learn how to change. Or how to make their marriage stronger (and safer) than it ever had been.
Sexual problems are not a comfortable subject, and most people prefer not to advertise that they’re struggling (or that a husband, son, or brother may be dealing with this). I believe that whether it’s awkward or not, we as adults have an obligation to confront the issue head on because it’s all around us. Each one of us knows someone who struggles with sexual misbehavior. And if you don’t, you really do and it’s simply hidden.
I’ve had women in my office ready to give up on dating altogether because of how many times they’ve run into it. “Is there ANY man who’s not a sex addict??” I don’t want anyone to resign themselves to a lonely life just because they can’t find someone who doesn’t struggle with a sexual problem. That’s why I’m so passionate about teaching everyone just exactly what is going on in society, how to face it, and how to prevent the next generation from becoming even more messed up than this one. That’s why I have to talk about this. We all have to talk about this so we know how to talk to the rising generation and warn them away from the pitfalls and nurture their delicate development.
Imagine being the support for your best friend whose wife is ready to leave him. Imagine knowing what to say when the next celebrity or politician is busted for sexual misconduct. Or imagine knowing (finally) how to manage your own sexual behavior and how to experience a level of healthy intimacy that you didn’t even know existed. Whether you struggle first hand or not, look out into the future—your marriage could be stronger than it ever was. Your children might be saved from untold heartache and suffering. Your confidence could be more solid than you ever imagined!
I care about the people who come to me for help. I love what I do because this work consistently makes a difference in people’s lives. That’s why I held a four-week teleseminar in which I talked about what kind of person struggles with sex addiction, how it developed, how you can support their return to a healthy life, whether you should stay (as a spouse, parent, friend, therapist, attorney, employer, etc.), and much more than I can cover in this article. Let me know in the comments section if another seminar is needed. For now, here’s what I can share here.
You can access one resource immediately. I was interviewed by Ty Harmon for nearly 60 minutes on the hugely popular podcast, ESCAPE VELOCITY. You can listen by clicking right here: http://www.escapevelocityblog.com/episode29
Just a Male Problem?
One subject that was brought up in discussion when I first wrote about all this was how I don’t discuss women’s involvement with compulsive sexual behavior. I actually do address this topic (hear my interview on the ESCAPE VELOCITY podcast). It just doesn’t seem like I talk about it because most all of my examples involve men. By far the vast majority of pornography viewers, strip-club patrons, and erotic massage clients are men. Most all sex addicts are men—and that’s because women who struggle with this problem act out in far fewer ways and ways that are simply different from men’s behavior.
As I mentioned to Ty Harmon, although the majority of porn users are still men, the percentage of women using porn is actually rising. That’s because of the increased availability of pornography over the Internet, on game consoles, and on smart phones. Male sexual nature is much more visually oriented than female sexual nature. Yet, because of the increased presence of pornography (and its increased use), we’re seeing women’s use of porn increase. This indicates a gradual masculinization of women’s behavior and sexual nature.
Sarah’s situation represents how women most typically act out. For her, it’s not naked pictures of men she secretly looks at—it’s her collection of racy (some would call pornographic) romance novels on her Kindle. Her husband doesn’t like it, but Sarah shuts him down any time he brings it up by saying it’s just reading. The explicit passages in Sarah’s books are as graphic as the hardcore videos that so many men look at online. Women’s consumption of these books have become acceptable as Fifty Shades of Grey is now a woman’s turn to get back at men. We’re seeing more and more of this “turnabout is fair play” role reversal with big box office movies like Magic Mike, which is all about male strippers (although this visual medium is still patronized by many gay men—males are still more visually aroused than women).
And that’s why women who act out are typically going to sleep with someone at the office or with a high school fling they reconnect with on Facebook. The relationship aspect was much more important to Vanessa than an anonymous hookup. She was drawn to the idea that someone was interested in her and the connection she felt. Her affair with a coworker didn’t start because she wanted out of her marriage or because she was starving for sex—it started on a business trip when she felt alone, and the sexual advances made her feel valued and interesting. The affair ended when it became too obvious to Vanessa that the other party was simply enjoying a regular arrangement for sexual release.
Vanessa is the norm for women who act out compulsively, and, of course, there are still others who act out like men do. Sex addiction numbers for women are rising, though, just like their behaviors are becoming more like men’s behaviors. Another development in sexual behavior is the overall average age for first-time exposure to hardcore pornography (which today is down to age 11 thanks to its increased availability and reticence of adults to discuss the topic).
But that’s another subject for another time.