Each word evokes complex thoughts, images, and responses. Put the two together and there is the possibility for controversy and confusion. Is sex addiction real or is it just the latest cop-out for bad behavior?
Dr. David Ley is garnering attention investigating precisely that question. He’s advocating that sex addiction is a myth. Unfortunately for many who are impacted by sexual compulsivity, his classification of sex addiction as a myth registers as a dismissal of the struggle.
I am married to a sex addict. My husband, George Collins, as a successfully recovering sex addict has made it his life’s work to help people, generally men, find their way out of a cycle of the suffering that he knows as sex addiction. George counsels sex addicts and I provide support for the wives and partners of these men whose sexual expression has veered away from the path that leads to greater connectedness and intimacy.
For the guys that come to our practice, the pleasure of sexual activity, the moment of orgasm is eclipsed by desire, shame, and often a sense that something fundamental is missing. These men are caught in what the American Society of Addictive Medicine calls the “pathological pursuit of rewards.” They never can get enough of what won’t satisfy them.
When the wife or partner comes to see me, she is generally at the end of her rope. She’s usually feeling that she very well might have to end the relationship. She often feels shocked or numb, hurt, ashamed, afraid, and/or angry. Or she may just feel confused. Then as she watches her guy pull himself out of his destructive cycle, she slowly begins to be able to see new possibilities of intimacy with her partner.
As he begins to share with her his discoveries about previously hidden influences, often propelled by unseen circumstances from the past, as he claims a new mastery over himself, she is the recipient of his deepening capacities to move intimately toward her, both emotionally and physically. This opening allows her to begin to also unravel her unseen influences. Understanding her partner’s actions as being driven by (yes, there’s that word again) addiction, allows her to more compassionately view his struggle. This is not an excuse to condone his actions in any way, but is a tool to put his struggle into some kind of perspective.
Is There Confusion in the Use of the Term Sex Addiction?
Given the facts above, one might imagine that Dr. Ley and I would conceptually sit at polar opposites. But there are fundamentals of his conclusions about the facts of this whatever-we-will call-it phenomenon where we (surprisingly) concur. I wonder if the heart of the disagreement rests in the languaging, with those seemingly inflammatory words — sex addiction.
I do recognize, as Dr. Ley points out, that there is no standard definition of sex addiction. For the purposes of our conversation here, when I use the words sex addiction I’m not referring to the quantity of sex someone is having, but rather to its effect on their life and on the lives of those around them.
The average person isn’t troubled by their interest in sex. They enjoy having sex. They don’t need to keep sexual thoughts, actions, and fantasies a secret. They are not ashamed of their sexual activities. They don’t wish that they could find a way to stop. For the sexually addicted person the pleasure that is inherently present in orgasm or in sexual activities with a partner gets hijacked and gets used as a balm, an escape, a distraction, rather than being enjoyed for what it does offer.
My husband and I encourage all our clients, and we encourage you, not to get stuck on any label either for yourself or for your partner. Whether you use the designation bad habit, compulsion, dependency, addiction or any other words, if your or your partner’s behavior is creating suffering, then it is vital that you both recognize that it is a problem — no matter which words you may use to label the problem.
Sex Is Not a Disease
Dr. Ley is absolutely correct when he asserts that sex is not a disease. We couldn’t agree more. In fact, one factor that is often in play for the guys who work with us at Compulsion Solutions is that even though they certainly are aware of the pleasure of orgasm, sometimes there is a sexually moral overlay. Usually these guys don’t know anything about the joys of connected, intimate sex. Often they equate having sex with their intimate partner as wrong (or even dangerous) in some way.
Dr. Ley is insightful in his assertion that “treating sex as evil leads to more secrets, less control and less responsibility.” Many times one of the unseen driving forces of behaving in a sexually addictive manner is the lack of awareness of the power and beauty of sex. As Dr. Ley points out, inhibiting a guy’s inherent sexual nature does indeed emasculate him. By the same token, such an inhibition also de-feminizes a woman.
Taking Responsibility — Compassionately
Dr. Ley seems to believe that adopting the term sex addiction implies a lack of taking responsibility. In his experience the label sex addict, viewing sex addiction as a disease, causes an individual to feel like a helpless puppet. This is certainly not true for my husband, George. I have watched him over the years gain more and more mastery over his life (including over his impulsive behaviors) by compassionately understanding the basic nature of how addictive tendencies operate.
The hundreds of men who have successfully worked with the therapists here at Compulsion Solutions also have not turned into helpless puppets by classifying their problem as sex addiction. Their wives and partners did not suddenly forgive and forget with the diagnosis of sex addiction. The use of the label sex addiction simply aids in recovery. The term supports the process of taking responsibility and gaining control. It helps more clearly identify what is going on, placing a corral around the issue so that it can be seen in a new light.
Gaining maturity and mastery of our lives requires recognizing, accepting, and taking responsibility for our behaviors. This is fundamental to success and happiness in all areas. Every one of us has the task of learning how to work with our instinctive survival responses of fear, anger, and pain that kick in faster than clock time, faster than the thinking, reasoning part of our brain.
Sex is instinctive and fundamentally pleasurable. It’s natural. We all instinctively want to get more of what feels good and get away from the bad stuff. The challenge of maturity calls us to grow our capacities to bear discomfort and delay gratification. In this way, we learn to compassionately gain greater control of our behaviors.
Show Up and Tell the Truth
Dealing successfully with any type of addiction (chemical or behavioral) requires an acceptance of responsibility. The path to taking responsibility can start wherever is best for you. If the term sex addict for you equates to helplessness or the lack of ability to gain control over your behaviors, then Dr. Ley’s take on viewing sexual addiction as a myth could possibly serve you. If the words sex addict turn you or your partner into an irresponsible oaf, then run away from that label sex addict as fast as you can.
If, however, grabbing onto these words helps to identify previously unseen motivations or triggering circumstances, if it helps build compassion and understanding, then milk the term for all it’s worth. I so appreciate how George speaks of this, “show up and tell the truth.”
If your or your partner’s sexual activities involve lying or shame, if they are selfish or self-destructive, please don’t kid yourself. Allow yourself to truly see what’s going on. Tell the truth, if only to yourself. Telling the truth supports gaining awareness, taking responsibility, and courageously seeking help.
If for you the label sex addict is an excuse to avoid responsibility or condone egregious behavior in your partner, then shun it. If however, the term sex addiction can be used as part of the healing process, then embrace the words. Do whatever it takes to foster a rewarding and intimate relationship with your beloved.