Unlike alcoholism or substance addiction, the term "sex addiction" doesn’t tell us much about what happens to the person struggling in its grip. Many people who seek treatment for sex addiction have never involved another person in their addictive behavior. For example, someone who compulsively watches pornography may never be unfaithful to their partner, but the behavior can be every bit as destructive to the relationship. Likewise, someone engaging in excessive, out-of-control objectification and fantasy may find it impossible to form close relationships with anyone they find remotely attractive. It makes more sense to think of sex addiction as addiction to a process, rather than addiction to a specific target like alcohol or heroin.
The process involves more than just the addictive behavior. For example, with sexually risky behaviors, the process may begin with pornography, or compulsively checking emails for responses to an online ad. It might unfold over a few hours or a few days. During the time that the process is active, getting to the next step is the singular goal. In the case of someone trying to find the “perfect” pornographic image, they will continue to do so even if it means being late for work, canceling social engagements, and ignoring obligations and responsibilities. The process doesn’t usually complete until it becomes very difficult to continue, either because of exhaustion, orgasm, or interference from the outside world.
There are two other ways that sex addiction is different from substance addiction. First, is the complicated role of secrecy. In general, secrecy is thought to interfere with recovery. However, with sex addiction the question of what and who to tell becomes more complicated. For example, our culture is generally supportive when someone is willing to admit they struggle with alcoholism. In marriages, this revelation often marks the beginning of recovery. With sex addiction, admitting to the struggle can often result in negative outcomes like the end of a relationship or the loss of child custody. There isn’t an easy solution for this problem, and each person must evaluate the cost of keeping the secret, versus the cost of disclosure.
The second special consideration with sex addiction is the need to reintegrate healthy sexual behavior. With substance addiction, it is generally the case that the foundation of sobriety is abstinence from the drug(s) of choice. This is not always so with sex addiction. Sure, if pornography was part of the addiction it probably makes sense to maintain a pornography-free life, but how about masturbation? Is it realistic to expect that someone also refrain from that? Likewise, if someone engages in objectification and fantasy as part of their addiction, is it realistic to expect that sexual fantasies will be avoided? Or even specific sexual acts that were arousing in the addiction – can they find a place within a healthy sex life?
Again, there are no easy answers to those questions. However, understanding the complexity of sexual addiction is helpful in preparing yourself for the recovery process. Achieving abstinence from the problem behaviors is the first step to reclaiming your healthy sexuality.