By Dr. Dawn Obrecht MD
Does the idea make you uncomfortable, make you laugh, make you say you want to meet one? Or does it make you wish for the capacity to have an emotionally intimate relationship, not dozens of superficial ones? Or perhaps you are concerned for the children and teenagers in your life, that they not become victims of sex crimes; or that they (or you) not become victims of someone unable to commit to and sustain a relationship, or spend their lives wondering why they cannot have a healthy relationship. No question, the term, "sex addict" definitely provokes something in all of us.
Like other addictions, sex addiction is a way to cover or change feelings. It is a substitute for dealing effectively with life. Non addicts or addicts truly in recovery are able to have healthy relationships, sexual and non sexual. Sex addicts often destroy their primary relationship by going elsewhere to pursue their addiction. They cannot relate normally as they are always looking for more or different. Really they are searching for something external, anything, a substance or a process, to "fix" them. An addict is simply NOT OK in his or her own skin.
Example: it is common for addicts to use pornography, especially computer porn or movies. The man who is involved in computer porn, or tuning in to "Adult Films" regularly, is not available for emotional intimacy with his primary sexual partner... he spends time and energy focused on the porn, not on his wife or girlfriend. He can use his addiction to isolate and avoid being vulnerable. He, and she, misses the benefits of an honest and emotionally present relationship. The computer has become his lover; he is having an affair, just as much as if he were involved with another woman.
Other destructive examples of sex addiction include the men and women who have multiple affairs with multiple partners, never feeling close to any of them. The addict is desperately lonely and yet unable to let anyone into his life; he is not able to allow anyone to really know him, living with a deep seated fear that he will be rejected or hurt. Everything and everyone is sexualized. Every trip to the gym is an opportunity to wear provocative clothing and covertly solicit. Every encounter with a member of the opposite sex is either overtly or covertly flirtatious. The "vibes" sent out by the sex addict are clearly detectable by anyone looking; they scream loud and clear, "I am available," "want to be with me," "let's have sex," and so on. After the initial rush, the gnawing loneliness returns.
Addicts can switch addictions easily (see Switching Addictions: Changing Seats on the Titanic), so it is not uncommon for an alcoholic to begin to use food, gambling, or sex, instead of, or in addition to alcohol. Sex addicts are attracted to each other like magnets. The progression of this disease, if left untreated, can be to sex crimes, including exposure and assault. The addiction will escalate as the need for the "drug" (sex) increases. There are treatment centers that specialize in the treatment of sex addicts, and many books on the disease and recovery. To read more about Sex Addiction, begin with Patrick Carnes, Out of the Shadows.
Recovery from this addiction allows the person to become available for other things in life, most importantly, for a relationship not contaminated by the dishonesty and shame of affairs, porn, or other behavior that takes away from closeness to one partner. Here's a test: are you doing anything you would not want your family (grandmother, children, and wife) to know about? Recovery is possible. It is not necessary to switch addictions from a substance or process to another substance or process; rather, it is possible to recover from the entire disease (dis-ease) of addiction, to be free to choose your own behavior, to not be bound by compulsions and obsessions.
Dr. Obrecht is an M.D. addiction medicine specialist, the only one on the western slope of Colorado. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Her office is in Steamboat Springs and she does consultations and referrals to anywhere in the country.