Every few nights, Steve stays late at work to watch pornography and drink. The porn is the escape portal. The alcohol helps him slip around his conscience and into denial.
On his cell phone, Steve taps a hookup app and scrolls. He sets a rendezvous in Spokane, clicks off, and heads out for sex with a stranger. A few hours later, driving home in the dark, he thinks about suicide.
And yes, he’s tried to stop. He’s broken promises to himself, to others, to God. Once he joined a men’s program at church. He’s bought books. Meanwhile the time and energy sucked into the porn, the planning and fantasizing, the drugs and alcohol – and the lies – affect his career, his health, his relationships, and his self-respect.
Is Steve a sex addict?
Loss of Choice
In his readable book, “Sex Addiction 101,” Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, defines sex addiction as “hypersexuality,” a harmful preoccupation with sexual fantasy or behavior. Typically, it plays out in non-intimate sex, porn, compulsive self-stimulation, romantic intensity, and objectified-partner sex.
Steve could tell you that what began as escape now has no exit. No longer is sex for him about the person or the pleasure of intimacy. He has to have it to maintain. And a statement true of 99 percent of sex addicts, or any addict, is that the obsessions begin as numbing agents, a solution to pain – typically pain from childhood or adolescence, often from abuse or neglect or a trauma.
By the time Steve comes into my office, however, he’s there not because he realizes he’s medicating his pain. He’s there because the secrets are winning. Like water swirling out of a bathtub, his income drains into drugs and hookups – and his excuses have grown soup thin. The double life and the gaslighting (“I stay late at work for us,” he says to his wife accusingly, “and you make it your drama!”) violate every value in him. He’s respected in the community, and exposure would cost him everything. His life has narrowed to a tightrope.
By the time Steve and I meet, he doesn’t care why he’s traded peace of mind or self-worth for anonymous sex, he just wants a path out of the helplessness. He tells me his story, and when I tell him there’s hope, his shoulders sag like a fist unclenching.
The Unseen Epidemic
As it happens, Steve is just one face of sex addiction. Straight or gay, male or female, the impulses take varied forms, but they hardly spring from evil. A typical sex addict is a good person who is going under as compulsions and complications pile on – hoarding money, working out, getting drugs, buying clothes, isolation, affairs . . .
In Steve’s daily life, the stimuli all but chase him down. For a sex addict, the triggers are as prevalent as porn, just as sex with a stranger is as close as a cell phone.
Most Steves, meanwhile, suffer in silence; if confronted, they would not admit to it. They live with the shame – and feeling ashamed – by the behavior and self-humiliation. And the gulf spreads between them and the people they love, and the lives they want.
So the first thing a sex addict needs to know – besides the truth of his addiction – is about the hope.
In his groundbreaking book, “Out of the Shadows,” Dr. Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the treatment and diagnosis of sex addiction, gives addicts a four-question reality check around the acronym SAFE: Secret, Abusive, Feelings, and Empty.
1. Is it a secret?
2. Is it abuse to you or others?
3. Is it used to avoid – or is it a source of painful feelings?
4. Is it empty of a caring, committed relationship?
Anything that cannot pass public scrutiny, Carnes says to men, will create a double life. And anything that exploits or harms others – or degrades you – will activate the addictive system. When sexuality is used to alter moods or when it results in painful mood shifts, it’s part of the addictive process.
Steve’s story can end better than this. Like every addiction, a path leads out of the chaos. He’ll have to choose for himself whether to trade this addiction for another one – or trade the lies and secrecy for honesty, discretion, and freedom.
Psychologists and researchers are paying attention. He’ll have to work, and freedom doesn’t happen overnight, but there’s hope – without shame, and without judgment.
Ed Dudding is a certified sexual addiction therapist based in Coeur d’Alene.