Sexual compulsives can have wildly different kinds and degrees of obsessions. I’ve helped men and women who were absolutely “Sexually addicted.” They urgently craved self-destructive sex like compulsive philandering, prostitutes, exhibitionism, and recklessly indulged to the point that their lives were falling apart. These people really benefited from addiction models.
But there are different forms of sexual compulsivity–including less extreme and distructive forms–and we can learn from all of them. To a certain extent, all drives, including sex and bonding, are compulsive. Think about it: Aren’t there significant differences in craziness between a guy who accesses porn for regular masturbation sessions, and a guy who secretly goes to prostitutes every week? How about a woman who has a secret affair for years, and a woman who has a brief fling on a business trip? Sex and bonding problems are too intricate and complicated to put into one framework like “sexual addiction.” I’m sure Patric Carnes—the father of the sex addiction and recovery movement—would agree that sex/intimacy problems additionally require broader, more developmentally-oriented, sexual understandings.
Abstinence sometimes can’t be the only answer.
Cocaine, alcohol, and gambling addictions can be resolved by abstinence—stop using the substance and get lots of support to stay away from them. Problems with drives such as hunger and lust can’t be dealt with using pure abstinence models. Stay away from an addictive substance long enough, and your body adjusts to not having it (unless it’s a nutrient like vitamin C, or chocolate—just kidding about the chocolate). We can see this in how the craving for substances diminishes markedly over time when you’re not pumping them into your body. In one set of studies, the relapse rate for alcoholics their first year of sobriety was 70%, their second year 50%, and their third year and onward 3%. Apparently people’s body/mind/brain systems can let go of urgently craving non-necessary-for-healthy-existence substances like alcohol. We aren’t genetically programmed to specifically need cocaine, alcohol, gambling, or drugs—they are not inherent human drives, but instead hijack human drives like desires for stimulation, pleasure seeking, affect regulation, or novely.
Drives are different.
Psychotherapy helps people organize and make sense of drives like dominance, hunger, thirst, lust, romantic infatuation, and attachment to other people—these are physiological imperatives. To consciously grow, we need to know and accept our drives into our larger Self in healthy ways. We can’t stop eating, drinking, or lusting, but we can learn to keep them in harmony with a healthy, fulfilling life.
The average twenty-something guy thinks about sex every 52 seconds—so are all twenty-something guys sexually obsessive? The average twenty-something woman thinks about sex daily and can easily have a love affair dominate her world—so are all women sex and love addicts? I don’t think so. I think drives are powerful, urgent forces that need attention and acceptance to be integrated into healthy lives.
Ask any sex therapist—they’ll tell you people want permission to be sexual, information about their masculine and feminine natures, and direction towards satisfying love. A good example of this is how many people relax when autoeroticism is normalized. Most of us are conditioned to be ashamed of masturbating. A friend of mine used to do an exercise with groups where she had them first imagine being walked in on while making love with a person, and then being walked in on while masturbating. Everybody felt more embarrassed and humiliated at the image of being caught masturbating than enthusiastically doing it with a partner.
Some guys just need their natural reactions normalized. I’ve seen countless men visibly relax in relief when I say some some version of, “It is perfectly normal to see a hot woman and want her right now.” Similarly, many women are relieved that their, “I want Mr. Hot to ravish me!” fantasies are shared by millions of other women around the world, and are based in evolutionary drives.
Lust, romantic infatuation, and intimate bonding are evolutionary forces that contribute heavily to the myths of our lives—the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re about. “I am lovable,” “I am not lovable,” “I am desirable,” “I am not desirable,” “I am erotically fulfilled,” or “I am erotically starved,” figure heavily into our personal myths. Such beliefs about ourselves contribute to individual archetypal narratives that can amp up craziness (over 25% of murders involve sexual jealousy or betrayal), or provide opportunities for deeper awakening (those couples we love who seem to embody the dream of long-term fulfillment).
How do we help children with all this complexity?
Sexual development, like social, moral, and cognitive development, happens from birth onward, and benefits from education. If a five-year-old likes to play looking/touching games with her best friends, what can Mom and Dad do to help her develop well? If your ten-year-old is sexually interested, don’t you want to help him be deeper and wiser about what’s happening, rather than teach him that he shouldn’t share his feelings or experiements with anyone? If your fourteen-year-old is wondering whether she should have oral sex with her boyfriend, shouldn’t she have mature guidance from someone she trusts?
Let’s face it, most people don’t want to have these conversations with their kids, avoid these conversations, and get outraged if other people have them with their kids. An occasional exception is that we sometimes allow our children to talk with their friends about sex, which relegates sex education to the least sexually educated among us.
OK, we don’t have to be good at everything. If you don’t want to discuss this stuff with your kids, we can find quality sex educators who can help our families keep all conversations open—even potentially disturbing ones that involve children’s emergent sexuality.
This last point reflects another colossal blind spot in American child-rearing—the fact that sex education is best delivered to families—not just kids. Healthy sexual development is best served as part of ongoing family dialogues that include conversations about physical development, academic development, and social development.
Some schools are meeting the challenge of upleveling family sex education in America. Just this week a woman told me that in her ten-year-old’s class, the parents all gave permission for a sex educator to teach a class about sex and relationships. The boys and girls were talked to as a group by a friendly, knowledgeable grown-up in terms that were understandable to them. The children were then asked to each write an important question anonymously and hand it in. All the questions were transcribed, answered, and send home with the kids for further discussion with parents. I find this to be a beautiful and inspiring story, and I confidently predict that such superior education will become a standard in the years to come.
I also predict that these children are less likely to develop sexual compulsive disorders than their less educated peers, and more likely to have fulfilling, healthy sexual relationships.
Let’s open up the conversations!
We can all benefit from more nuanced and pro-sexual attitudes towards sex, love, and other human drives. Denying them or guiltily suppressing them just causes problems. Openly discussing our wildly varying sexual orientations and practices gives us chances to help each other normalize our sexuality and grow. If we do have problems that interfere with living and happy sexual functioning, we can more easily seek and receive help when we and our friends and families have pro-sexual, pro-developmental, and pro-intimacy worldviews.