Drug addiction is heavily covered all over media as the country tackles a major opioid crisis. It’s a problem that touches millions of Americans, taking thousands of lives via overdose and accidents, while putting a major dent on the country’s healthcare system. Yet while substance abuse is a deathly serious issue, addiction comes in many different forms.
Behavioral addiction, in the sense that a person can be addicted to doing something rather than taking something, works very differently from substance use. Yet behavioral disorders are still very damaging conditions that cause much suffering, and they can be treated through proper treatment. Sex addiction is one form of behavioral addiction wherein a person compulsively seeks out sex and sexual gratification to cope with stress, or sometimes just to function at all.
Explaining Sex Addiction
Sex, food, and gambling are common examples of addictions that exist separately from our typical definitions of substance dependence. For example, when a person snorts cocaine, the drug enters the bloodstream and makes its way into the brain. There, it blocks the brain’s cells ability to recycle dopamine, causing a flood of this “happy” neurotransmitter to build up in the nerve cells. This is what creates the high feeling of euphoria, but eventually leads to a chemical dependence. The brain reacts to this sudden influx of dopamine by trying to adapt to it, leading to cravings, tolerance, withdrawal, and addiction.
Sex and food, predominantly, are different dependences but very similar in addictive patterns. A food addiction is actually a form of disordered eating, wherein a person utilizes the mind’s natural inclination to reward us for eating (as a survival mechanism) in order to cope with stress – by seeking out instant gratification. Some people eat far too much, binge eating and stress eating to feel better, which leads to self-esteem issues, health problems, and a repeating cycle.
Sexual gratification works the same way but is much more nuanced. Sex addiction is an intimacy issue wherein a person fears close relationships and real emotional interaction, and trades these for a quick release through porn, masturbation, hookups, or cheating.
Sex addiction is not a label to shame people who have lots of sex. It’s not used to describe people who consensually engage in polygamy. Sex addiction isn’t an explanation of any number of legal kinks, including safe bondage. People express themselves sexually in many ways – it only becomes a mental health concern when their sexual activity gets in the way of healthy human interaction: wrecking relationships, causing trouble at work, and leading to a downward spiral mentally and physically.
Sex Addiction Treatment
Sex addiction is treatable, but not in the same way as alcoholism or drug abuse. Drugs are inherently addictive, and an important step of recovery is finding a sober lifestyle that allows a patient to remain abstinent.
Sex is not something sex addicts are meant to abstain from forever, although they are free to choose celibacy if they consider it to be the only way. Instead, therapists work with sex addicts on a one-on-one basis or through couple’s therapy to get to the bottom of their addiction and figure out why they turned to sex in the first place. Like people who self-medicate, sex addiction is rooted in the need to cope, and the inability to do so in a healthy way.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is important in helping a recovering sex addict realize why they use sex to feel better. From there, rules and exercises are used to help establish a better concept of sex and the role it should play. The difference between healthy and disordered sex is the effect it has on a person’s life outside the bedroom, and therapy aims to address and eliminate the negative effects.
Gender-separated or sexual-preference-based sober living can be a good way to focus on therapy by forcing celibacy during initial treatment. Sober living environments aim to help recovering addicts learn how to interact in normal society, maintain responsibilities, remain accountable towards one another, and form lasting and meaningful friendships, while removing all sources of temptation and promoting a completely drug-free living space.
Dating and Relationships after Recovery
It’s about more than sex. To understand why a recovering sex addict might have great difficulties with dating and relationships after treatment, it’s important to understand that sex addiction is more than just a proclivity for getting off, or a lifestyle choice. Sex addiction is an intimacy disorder.
That means people who struggle with sex addiction often struggle with truth, transparency, and with being open, honest and vulnerable. They fear these things because they are potentially hurtful and can cause great pain if exploited.
Sex is fun, sex is easy, sex is instantly gratifying and for all its messiness and potential problems, sex remains simple and straightforward. For individuals who fear real emotional closeness but crave the physical intimacy of another human being, sex is perfect – and dangerously addicting.
And wanting sexual pleasure doesn’t go away. While you can eventually stop craving drugs and can learn to live without them, many people cannot realistically remain celibate or force themselves to forget and ignore their own natural lust and desire. Curing a sex addiction isn’t a matter of abstinence and self-control – it’s a matter of unraveling a person’s intimacy issues and making them face their own fear of commitment, integrity, and reality. Therapists who help individuals with sex addiction often note that a sex addict uses sex to interact with people while avoiding neglect, abuse, or abandonment. They fear loneliness but cannot be in long-term relationships. They’ve learned to be satisfied with the immediate and the short-term, when what they really want is slow and difficult.
To overcome sex addiction and return to dating, a recovering sex addict has to learn to love themselves. They have to learn to trust themselves. And they have to learn to trust others, even complete strangers, and accept the risk of getting hurt in exchange for the possibility of a beautiful and blossoming relationship, and a chance at real and meaningful love. It can take a while to find the right person, especially if you have no experience with real and concrete relationships.
You may find yourself emotionally hurt, which can be difficult to stomach without reverting to your old ways, but you have to remember that it takes time to learn what kind of person you should be looking for, and it takes just as long to learn to look past a person’s sex appeal and focus on creating and fostering a long-term relationship.
If you’ve gone through treatment and have a better grasp of who you are and why sex was a problem for you, you may want to start dating again. Before you engage in a relationship, try to make sure that:
- You have a sturdy and reliable support system in place.
- You’re regularly engaging in therapy and are tackling codependent issues, from self-esteem problems to other possible addictions.
- You’ve been cleared by a medical doctor and are clean from any possible infectious diseases.
- You feel emotionally ready to be honest and open with another human being and aren’t seeking a relationship purely for physical gratification.
If you can give each point on this list a check, then you may be ready. Just remember that you could get hurt, and make sure to ask for help from friends and therapists if or when you do.