As the furore surrounding Steve McQueen’s film Shame dies down it is time to have a sober look at sex addiction and recovery.
McQueen’s film is a harsh, real account of the plight of sex addicts. It is cold and relentless. Having been involved in the treatment of addictive behaviour for the last decade, sex addiction is the area that I believe causes the most shame.
Sex addicts often report a core feeling of unease that they have known since childhood. The cause of the unease is not always known but often involves a form of neglect or disruption of attachment. For them, sex brings temporary relief from these feelings.
John, a 45 year old recovering addict describes it well. “I grew up in an unstable alcoholic household and I remember my parents arguing a lot…I was a frightened little boy and when I discovered masturbation it changed everything instantly. If I felt fear I knew I could do something that would take it away…for a moment.” That ‘moment’ John describes is a neurochemical cocktail of serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline, and like drugs it can be addictive.
“When I saw my first pornographic magazine it was like a shot in my arm…everything was so vivid and intense…I built relationships with the girls in my mind, romantic ones. I had always felt inadequate around the opposite sex and now I was able to attach to something without risk of rejection.” Attachment in the mind, and lack of it in real life, causes an isolation that prevents intimate relationships. This is a significant feature of sex addiction. What John describes is also referred to as ‘dissociation’. Dissociation is a process of disconnecting one’s feelings in order to alter reality.
The Illusion of Control
“When I went to university I found the whole environment intimidating. I was studying IT and felt a terrible unease around my fellow peers. Again the pressure to have a girlfriend or be seen to have a girlfriend came up. I had advanced my pornography into harder images and films. I remained a virgin and barely able to look a girl in the eye. To me women had become objects and it was difficult for me to see them without recalling the pornographic images and imagining them like that I felt more comfortable, more in control, like that… more powerful!” The sense of power that John lacked as a child began to be replaced by a feeling of control. Control or the illusion of control is a main feature in all addictions.
From Pornography to Prostitutes
“After graduating and getting a good job in an IT department with a large insurance company I started to have an increase in income. Images had stopped bring enough for me and I began to crave the touch of a woman. I had never been to a prostitute before but I felt the compulsion… After going once I knew that this was the perfect solution for my problems and I went again.” Sex addicts who use prostitutes enter an alternative reality where the insecurities or inadequacies are met with understanding as long as the fee is paid. “The experiences gave me confidence and helped me become more confident around women in general. I had interaction for the first time and I felt ‘normal’. I had to keep going.” Sex addiction is very expensive. Debt is often a major feature of the pathology and when the expenditure on the behaviors outstrips the income it can be the first time the sex addict realises there is a problem. Denial is very strong and the addict will often justify the expense and take out loans and credit cards to pay. “I became depressed because I couldn’t afford to go as much as I wanted anymore. I returned to pornography but it wasn’t enough. It dawned on me that there was a problem in my life but there was nothing I could do about it. This carried on for 10 years. I felt ashamed, lonely and ultimately suicidal… At my lowest point I entered rehabilitation.”
Sex Addiction Treatment
Recovery is based on redefining morals and values. A 12 Step self-help programme alongside Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) addresses the distorted thinking patterns. Trauma and Attachment Theory work is undertaken in order to heal the underlying issues propelling the behavior.
John has been in recovery from sex addiction for the last five years and is currently in a healthy relationship with a woman.