When the #MeToo Movement took off in October of 2017, one group of men immediately saw themselves in the stories women told. Whether personally guilty of sexual harassment or not, they recognized the underlying dynamic by which a human being reduces another human being to an object that meets his needs. They recognized such objectification, not just because they had done it themselves, but because they had held themselves accountable for doing it, explored why they had done it, and learned how not to do it any more. In that they form a vanguard of much-needed change in the way human beings relate to one another sexually.
They’re an unlikely vanguard: male sex addicts. No, that’s not a redundancy; there’s a large and growing number of female sex addicts, but men still form a three-to-one majority. The reasons for the asymmetry are many (and debated, like everything to do with sex and gender), but it’s safe to say that both nature and nurture play a role. Men are more sexually aggressive than women, especially in our culture. We wink at hypersexuality in men while condemning it in women and confer on men more of the entitlement that promotes sexual objectification. Add childhood trauma or early exposure to porn, and the result can be an addiction that damages, not just the addicts’ lives but the lives of the people around them.
Recently, a group of men I’ve been working with reflected on their own experience and what it could teach us all about applying the lessons of #MeToo. They shared the pain of living with sex addiction, as well as the challenges–and the gifts–of recovery. Perhaps most importantly, they explained how, in their day-to-day lives, they negotiated new ways of relating to other people, ways that rejected objectification and acknowledged the full humanity of both parties. But before I introduce these remarkable men, let me say a few quick words about sex addiction.
Sex addiction is a progressive relational disorder characterized by compulsive sexual activity despite adverse consequences. According to Patrick Carnes, who literally wrote the book on the subject, sex addiction involves obsession and fantasy, escalation, loss of control, and risky or self-destructive behavior. As the addiction progresses, it consumes more and more time and energy, interfering with work, relationships, and other activities. It takes a huge emotional toll, as the addict swings from euphoric anticipation to self-disgust and back again, each new low requiring a correspondingly greater high to offset it. To help people determine whether they suffer from sex addiction, Carnes devised a useful screening test.
The four men participating in this discussion have been in recovery for sex addiction for between one and four years, and three of the four are also in recovery for substance abuse. All are educated professionals ranging from mid-thirties to early sixties. Three are heterosexual; one is gay, and all are partnered or dating. As you’ll see, they’re unusually self-aware, articulate, and willing to share their insights. Let’s call them Joe, Charley, Benjamin, and Russ.
Part 1: The Experience of Sex Addiction
There are millions of ways to act out sexually. What all those ways have in common is that they allow people to avoid painful emotions such as fear, sadness, and shame, overriding them with sensations of excitement and pleasure. This emotional short-circuit has a powerful allure for men, who are socialized not to express–or even experience–feelings that indicate vulnerability. Charley spoke for everyone when he said, of his motives for acting out, “I didn’t want to feel what I didn’t want to feel.”
Sex is an effective short-circuit because it’s designed by nature to narrow a participant’s focus to a single, urgent goal. But many sex addicts also use drugs and alcohol to avoid unpleasant feelings, sometimes framing these avoidance strategies as a deliberate choice. For many years, Charley took this route: “I decided that hedonism was a reasonable philosophy and lifestyle, and I tried to live it the best I could.”
Others try desperately to hide their behavior beneath a facade of normalcy. Joe, for example, worked so hard at concealment that the effort drained him physically. “I remember how convoluted it got in my head trying to figure out what story to tell somebody,” he said. “I didn’t know what was true anymore because I lied about everything. I was constantly sick, just wiped out.”
Russ’s focus narrowed so profoundly that he lost interest in other kinds of interaction. He wanted a very specific mixture of drugs and sex “and that decreased the range I could have to the point where that was the only thing, so it was very exhausting and limiting and unsatisfying.” Sex specialists often remark this kind of narrowing in their patients, and it’s also visible in the histories of celebrity sex offenders such as Bill Cosby, who repeated the same pattern over and over with different women.
Benjamin reported an absolute split between sex and love with relationships either purely emotional or purely sexual. Describing his former beliefs, he said, “If I combine those two, then either you’re going to hurt me, or I’m going to hurt you.” Because sex is the primary way men seek closeness in our culture, divorcing it from emotion means sacrificing the intimacy all human beings need. Yet that split is characteristic of sex addiction. Russ divorced sex and emotion so radically that he rejected even the most rudimentary non-sexual overture from a sex partner. “If someone asked me my name, I was like ‘Get away. I’m not interested anymore.'”
At the heart of this split is objectification: the need to depersonalize any others involved in the addiction, whether they be willing partners, participants whose consent is compromised in some way, images on a screen, or pure fantasy. Much philosophical ink has been spilled on the nature and dynamics of objectification, but what’s important in sex addiction are three features:
- the other is reduced to his/her/their physical body;
- the other becomes solely an instrument of one’s own pleasure;
- the other’s subjectivity and boundary integrity become irrelevant.
Objectifying the partner not only protects the addict against vulnerability but creates and maintains a power asymmetry that soothes the vulnerabilities of the past–at least for a while.
The problem with objectification is that, at some level, addicts realize they’re exploiting and dehumanizing other people. They push that awareness away, along with the feelings of guilt it arouses, but the awareness always rebounds, stronger than ever. Also constantly rebounding are the other unacceptable feelings: pain, sorrow, loneliness, fear, and shame. Eventually, all of these feelings become overwhelming.
Over time, avoiding feelings and objectifying others dehumanizes the addict. Charley offers an explanation worth quoting in full:
In my acting out, there’s an imperceptible drain of my own humanity as I’m participating in the lifestyle, just getting high, numbing the feelings I don’t want to feel and using people as objects. Then all of a sudden, one day I’m empty, an empty shell of pain and shame and guilt, and the addictive behavior is the only thing that brings relief, followed immediately by an even worse emptiness, and that’s when the cycle drives me to the worst of the worst of my behavior. It really took me down hard and far. Welcome to hell.
The road to hell is different for everybody, but some common themes run through many men’s stories. Sex addicts may be born with slightly different circuitry than the rest of the population, and researchers are beginning to investigate the neurobiological basis of sexually compulsive behavior. What’s much better established is the role of childhood trauma–all forms of trauma, not just sexual abuse, though sex addiction can be a paradoxical attempt to assuage the pain of such abuse. Other primary causes include emotional abuse and/or neglect leading to developmental trauma and the maladaptive responses that produce the adult behavior we call codependency.
Such was the case with Benjamin. “Growing up,” he said, “I was either having to manage other people’s emotions or hide mine.” A family whose children learn to ignore their own feelings and take responsibility for the feelings of others is a training ground for all kinds of addiction, teaching shame for one’s own needs, a conviction of personal worthlessness, and the sense of other people’s feelings as, not a freely-chosen source of pleasure and connection, but an imperative. Escape into addiction comes as a relief, especially sex addiction, which provides the simulacrum of connection missing from other addictions, such as substance abuse or machine gambling.
Another common thread is training in easy pleasure, entitlement, and objectification through pornography. As a boy of only seven, Charley discovered a stack of Playboy magazines that his father had bought to “cure” his 13-year-old brother of his attraction to boys. Playboy may seem wholesome these days, with hard-core internet porn just a mouse click away, but they both light up the brain in the same way and convey the same message: that sex is a commodity, and you are a consumer. To this way of thinking, a partner’s desires are meaningless; you might as well ask a sandwich how it wants to be eaten. Such messages are covert; what registers consciously is pure delight: a vast world of pleasure into which a troubled boy can escape just by opening a magazine or logging on to a web site. “I thought they were the greatest thing ever,” said Charley of his brother’s Playboys. The effect was deep and lasting, he says, adding, “I’m a warped kid deep down inside.”
Such words are troubling in the era of internet porn. With children often more adept than their parents at gaining access to restricted material, Charley’s experience is doubtless replicated many times every day–with one dark modification: the ability to quickly ratchet up the level of stimulation. When porn circulated primarily as magazines, books, films, videotapes, and DVDs, there were many curbs on consumption. The path from Playboy to hard-core niche materials, sex workers, or a specialized scene was slow, requiring the gradual acquisition of cultural knowledge and physical access. Now, curbs on consumption consist of a web page asking “Are you 18 or older?” The journey from artfully-posed nudes to fringe paraphilias can take hours, rather than years, and we are already seeing alarming rates of internet porn addiction among younger and younger people.
One thing the internet fosters is a level of isolation that lets an addiction spiral out of control without anyone else knowing. ” I didn’t want to reveal what I found appealing,” said Russ, “so I found ways to do it on my own, and it just felt so normal. I didn’t realize that it was addictive behavior, and it got worse and worse and worse.” But, even when not physically isolated, sex addicts are isolated by secrecy and shame. “Lonely,” said Benjamin, pausing to remember the feeling. “I used to live in that. Even in a room full of people.”
Part 2: The Challenge of Recovery
Just as they take different roads to hell, so sex addicts take different paths to recovery. Sometimes a crisis is the catalyst: an arrest, a suicide attempt, public exposure, a partner’s ultimatum. Sometimes the addiction becomes unsustainable, interfering with too many goals, activities, and relationships. Sometimes the shame becomes unbearable. And paths of recovery are different, too, including inpatient treatment, cognitive-behavioral therapy, twelve-step therapy, interpersonal therapy, group therapy, and medication. Many sex addicts rely on more than one.
It’s often vital that long-term partners of sex addicts undertake treatment as well. Many unions don’t survive the revelation of a serious addiction; those that do require work, not just to rebuild trust, but to learn radically new ways of understanding, and relating to, one another. It’s often necessary to undergo a process known as disclosure, in which the addict comes clean about past behavior. Though some experts believe disclosure should be exhaustive, a complete history of every incident, every lie, even every errant thought, I believe that’s traumatizing for the partner and damaging to the relationship. Partners need just the information relevant to them or the relationship; if a revelation isn’t relevant, it shouldn’t be shared. In planning or carrying out a disclosure, a good therapist’s help is invaluable.
A therapist’s help is also invaluable in helping to discover and deal with the trauma underlying the addiction and the emotions arising from it. After years, even decades, fleeing from those emotions, male sex addicts may not even realize they exist. I sometimes joke that these men experience two emotions, anger and lust, but my joke is only funny because it’s true. Contemplating a standard list of emotions at the start of therapy, Joe concluded, “Well, those are all bad,” before adding, “Anger is okay.” Essential to his recovery has been learning to identify and cope with emotions as he feels them, rather than avoiding them or transforming them into anger. “I still struggle with that,” he admitted.
A major challenge in treating sex addiction, unlike most other addiction treatment, is that the ultimate goal is not to give up sex but to give up unhealthy, compulsive sex. That distinction sounds clear enough in theory, but sorting healthy from unhealthy sex can prove difficult for people whose sexual history is dominated by the latter. “What is normal sexuality?” said Russ. “That’s hard for me to figure out.” A period of celibacy may offer perspective, as well as an opportunity to break the momentum of the compulsion, but lifelong celibacy is rarely feasible–or desirable. Most addicts must struggle with Russ’s question over time and determine for themselves what constitutes healthy behavior and what doesn’t.
Some of their decisions may seem radical to outsiders: for example, Charley refrains from eyeballing women, not just in the company of his wife, but always. That brief appraising glance was once pure reflex, as it is for most men, but Charley recognized it as part of a larger impulse to objectify women, an impulse that fed his addiction. So, with effort and awareness, he broke the habit. Now, he revealed, “I’m really good about walking down the street today and not checking out women.”
Other changes prove more difficult, particularly in the realm of thoughts and fantasies. “There are certain behaviors that I do not engage in any more but I still struggle with inside my head,” said Russ. He uses the “three second rule” to help with such inner conflicts. Acknowledging that none of us can control the thoughts that pop into our minds, the three-second rule offers a way to cope with them: recognize that a thought or impulse is inappropriate then stop entertaining it, a process that should take no more than three seconds to complete.
Ways to stop entertaining an intrusive thought or craving are diverse. Russ describes his as “changing the channel,” or focusing on something different. Joe “poisons the fantasy” by imagining his wife and children deserting him, a likely prospect were he to resume active addiction. Alternatively, he recalls the overwhelming shame he experienced when his wife discovered his addiction, using the remembrance to contaminate, and thus disarm, the inappropriate thought.
Charley also relates an unwanted thought or impulse to his family but in a slightly different way. If he begins fantasizing about a woman other than his wife, he thinks “Oh, that’s somebody’s daughter” and makes the connection to his own daughter, whom he wants to protect from men like he once was. He also finds it useful to view himself through his daughter’s eyes. ” I don’t want her to be ashamed of me ’cause I’m that dirty old man who leers at her friends,” he explained. He takes that specific goal and makes it universal, not wanting to be that dirty old man who leers at anyone.
A second major challenge in treating sex addiction is the allure of “the hunt,” the search for partners or materials to fulfill the addict’s desires. Though all addictions are marked by dopamine-fueled excitement in the anticipatory or preparatory stages, the importance of these stages varies a lot. Few drug addicts relish the hunt for a good eight-ball; their search is a means to an end. For sex addicts, on the other hand, the hunt is primary, an end in itself, and difficult to give up.
“It’s the process,” said Joe. “Not just the acting out but whatever it took to get to that point. That’s the hard part to get out of your system.” Part of the problem is that, when flesh is your drug, reminders are everywhere. And there’s no respite in media, which are highly sexualized, not just porn, but advertising, music, film, and video. Moreover, sex addicts, depending on their particular histories, can be triggered by things that non-addicts would consider completely innocuous: a pair of shoes in a store window, for example, or the stacks of a library.
Or a picture of a young movie star. Charley has made enormous progress in recent years, but one of his earliest “hunts” still beckons occasionally: trying to track down revealing photos of women he sees on television. “It’s the last vestiges,” he explained, “but it was also the first bit, so I’m still trying to convince myself it’s wrong. I poison it by saying ‘It’s not ok to objectify a woman whether she’s present or not. And even if she posed to be objectified, it’s not okay for me to do it. I know that in my head; I know it in my heart; but my addict wants to do it, and I struggle.”
Charley’s struggle underscores an essential truth about recovery from sex addiction: it’s a phased process. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to unlearn–and adjustments to make along the way. Addicts must learn to recognize and cope with difficult emotions. They must learn to set–and respect–boundaries. They must unlearn maladaptive patterns, not just of behavior, but of thinking, feeling, even perceiving. They must adjust to life without extremes. It’s a tall order, but the gains are incalculable, not just for addicts, but for everyone around them.
Because sex addicts’ pattern of dehumanizing others and themselves to manage painful emotions rarely plays out in just one domain, recovery improves all social interactions, not just those related to sex or love. Russ gave an example from his workplace, where a colleague had criticized him in a meeting, exacerbating an already difficult situation. When he learned of the criticism, he spoke to its author, despite his fear of confrontation. He told her honestly, “I was embarrassed,” and her reaction was horror at the effect of her careless words. “I think I need to think about what I say,” she responded. In the end, a problem that would have generated anger and verbal retaliation in the past led to “respect and connection” instead. Such are the collateral benefits of recovery from sex addiction.
The transformation of primary relationships is more dramatic–and more difficult to achieve. Even small gains can be painful, and it’s crucial that the pain be felt and learned from, which often feels unnatural to a sex addict. Benjamin told a story about establishing a boundary with his partner that was difficult for both of them. Like many addicts, he grew up in a home where his boundaries were not respected; he was expected to take responsibility for other people’s feelings. That sense of obligation, a form of enmeshment, carried over to his adult relationships, where simply knowing about someone’s discomfort became an imperative to relieve it. On a recent hike, he established a boundary by telling his partner to inform him when her backpack became so heavy that she needed him to carry it. In other words, he would respect her autonomy by not hovering and his own by not assuming responsibility for her feelings.
The hike did not go well. Unpicking enmeshment is tricky, and Benjamin’s partner felt wounded when he didn’t notice her discomfort and offer to carry the pack. When later she told him it had ruined her evening, he felt even more callous than he had felt establishing the boundary in the first place, but he stood firm, having learned to “be okay when it’s not okay.” Eventually, they talked through the episode in minute detail and drew one step closer to a healthy relationship in which both parties take care of themselves, which means setting and maintaining their own boundaries. “It was exhausting,” said Benjamin, “but completely worth it.”
It takes time and effort to heal trauma in a relationship. Whether the addiction causes a dramatic rupture or a more gradual disintegration, it has effects that can reverberate for many years. Dealing skillfully with these effects means acknowledging and understanding them, rather than trying to fix them or bright-side them away. Joe, for example, felt “twinges of fear” when his wife became ill with a cold. Having learned in recovery not to fear negative emotions, he interrogated the feeling and realized he was really afraid she would withdraw as she had following her discovery of his addiction. “Every time she gets sick,” he explained, “I have fear that she’s going to go back to bed and not be present and available.” Just that recognition, however, is evidence of dramatic progress.
But progress is as often joyous as painful. This past Mother’s Day, Charley’s wife asked that he not make a fuss, just “be there, be present,” a request the old Charley would have ignored. “I never used to listen,” he explained. “I was always sure I had a better idea.” This time he did listen. He made her breakfast, bought some tulips and irises at the supermarket, and “wrote her a letter of gratitude and love.” Her response: “Thank you; this is exactly what I wanted.” Charley laughed to remember his initial efforts to honor his wife’s boundaries. “I sucked at it. Then I got a little better and a little better, and now I’m having some real success with it on a consistent basis.”
Recovery also means a much better relationship with oneself. “It’s interesting how having respect for other people builds respect for yourself,” said Joe. Charley agreed, adding, “My relationship with myself has changed. It’s a spiritual thing. I can now honestly say that I’m the guy who’s like the guy I want my daughter to date. I’m the guy I think my wife deserves to have as a husband, and it’s pretty easy to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning when that’s the way you feel about yourself.”
There’s a kind of ease in a life without secrets and shame, though it takes hard work to get there. Charley recalled thinking that one of his old counselors was crazy for not doing anything he wouldn’t want to see on the front page of his hometown newspaper. “All I could think: he’s lying or the most boring SOB who ever lived. But today, I wouldn’t want to do anything I wouldn’t want published on the front page of my hometown newspaper. Secrets were going to kill me.” When Joe began treatment, he was so overwhelmed by shame that he parked blocks from my office lest he be seen. Now he describes himself as a “healthy, present person.”
Part of being healthy and present involves recognizing the way personal struggles connect to larger cultural problems, such as those raised by the #MeToo Movement. By examining their own behavior, not just during active addiction, but in the process of healing, recovering sex addicts are showing other men the way forward–and they need showing, even after almost two years of revelations by their male and female victims. When the #MeToo Movement first gained prominence, sex addiction expert Robert Weiss publicly challenged men to stop pointing fingers at Harvey Weinstein and speak up about their own mistakes. The response: not a single man did. Instead they attacked Weiss for asking–and women for having raised the issue in the first place.
The men in this article are speaking up. “People in this room and in the “S” rooms are in the forefront of the reversal of the #MeToo movement,” said Charley. “We are the people who are saying ‘I’m guilty; I did it; I’m sorry; I don’t want to be like that.” I don’t see that as nearly as prevalent anywhere else as I see it in this room and some of the other recovery rooms.” Charley is right, and the honesty and courage of these men are an inspiration to us all.
Help with sex addiction may be found among the many resources on this web site and in the following twelve-step groups:
- Sexaholics Anonymous (SA)
- Sexual Addicts Anonymous (SAA)
- Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA)
- Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
- Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA)
 Though some of the dynamics of sex addiction apply to both men and women, the genesis, nature, and treatment of female sex addiction is different enough to warrant a separate article.