Do you have a secret life involving sexual fantasies and sexual behavior that you’ve gone to great lengths to keep hidden from others? Has your sexual behavior begun to interfere with your life, including your relationships at home, work, with friends and coworkers? Are you spending more and more time to satisfy your sexual desires? If so, you’re leading a double life that not only is bound to catch up with you, it’s also causing you a great deal of shame. The question is: what can you do to cope?
How sexual compulsivity starts
Sex is a normal part of life, and necessary for the survival of the species. Where, when and how appropriate sexual thoughts and behavior cross the line and become sexual compulsivity is a source of much debate among treatment professionals. The key seems to be when the individual recognizes he or she has a problem with the sexual behavior but is unable to stop, and continues the behavior despite the presence or likelihood of severe negative consequences.
Such sexual behaviors may begin innocently enough with the purchase of pornographic materials and progress to easily-accessible online pornography. But sexual fantasies only satisfy for a brief amount of time before the need becomes more immediate, more urgent.
The type of sexually compulsive behaviors and activities may involve some or many of the following: cybersex, chat rooms, online dating sites for the purposes of sexual activity, phone sex, pornographic materials (books, magazines, DVDs), multiple concurrent and/or anonymous sexual partners, multiple extramarital affairs, one-night stands, cruising public bath houses, parks and rest areas, voyeurism, compulsive masturbation, unsafe sex, use of sexual massage, escorts or prostitutes.
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., and author of numerous books on sexual compulsivity and addiction, including Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (1983), classifies sexual compulsivity into three levels. The first level includes all of the above (except voyeurism). Level two includes voyeurism, obscene phone calls, exhibitionism and indecent touching. Level three includes incest, rape, and child molestation.
Sexual compulsivity — Is it addiction or behavior disorder?
Here there is widespread difference of opinion, with some treatment professionals considering sexual compulsivity a type of behavior disorder, specifically a disorder of impulse control, while others see it as an addiction, much like addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, work or spending. Add to this the fact that many addicts have a co-occurring disorder — mental illness (such as mild to moderate anxiety or panic, depression, post-traumatic stress and mild to moderate diagnoses of schizophrenia) and drug or alcohol addiction — and the picture becomes more clouded.
Treatment philosophies and approaches also differ, not only from the perspective of whether sexual compulsivity and sexual addiction are behavior disorders or addictions, but also between treatment facilities.
Suffice to say, when you’re the one who’s living with sexual compulsivity, you don’t much care which philosophical approach is in vogue at the time. All you really want is an effective way to deal with your inappropriate sexual behaviors and to learn how to make new and more constructive behavior choices.
Fortunately, treatment for sexual compulsivity encompasses the kinds of things you need — regardless of whether it’s considered a behavior disorder or addiction.
What to do
The most important thing you can do is one you’re already doing. That is to begin to learn all you can about the subject of sexual compulsivity. To do this, research treatment options available to you in the state and community where you live. Begin on the Internet. Or, talk with a family physician, clergyman, and trusted friend or loved one and get a referral to a therapist. It’s best to look for a therapist that’s also a certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT). Check out the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) and use their therapist locator.
You may wish to look into a residential treatment center that specializes in treatment of sexual compulsion. There are also outpatient treatment facilities and intensive workshops that may be available.
What will help is most likely a combination of the following modalities:
- Individual counseling — Interacting with your personally-assigned therapist (in a treatment program), or a psychiatrist or psychologist that you select, you can work on ways to reduce the feelings of shame that you are experiencing, discover the origins of your sexual compulsions, resolve any past trauma, and learn new strategies for coping.
- Group therapy — Often provided in conjunction with your individual psychotherapist sessions, group psychotherapy continues the work of reduction of shame with a lot of group support, and incorporates practicing healthy interpersonal skills.
- Psychoeducational workshops and lectures — Sexual compulsivity is complex and little understood in the general society. As noted previously, theories, treatment philosophies and approaches vary as well. Through extensive reading and lectures, you will learn more about the dynamics of the recovery process for sexual compulsivity.
- Treatment for couples and/or family — You won’t be — or shouldn’t be — going through this alone. You’ve been hiding or attempting to hide your sexual behavior from your partner/significant other and/or family. Chances are they already know or suspect more than you think. But it won’t be easy to go back to a situation where only you have received treatment. Your partner and/or family need help as well — help so that they can be supportive of your recovery and help for them to understand and deal with their own feelings (anger, guilt, shame, sadness, betrayal, etc.). Couples and/or family treatment programs are usually held once per week, or on a week-end, or during an intensive multi-day session, depending on the treatment facility or professional.
- Medication — You may be experiencing mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression in connection with your sexual compulsivity. Some individuals have found medication helps them to avoid acting out behaviors while they are in treatment. Your treatment professional (psychiatrist) will be able to provide any appropriate antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications.
- 12 step groups — Almost every treatment program and professional dealing with sexual compulsivity recommends or includes participation in 12 step groups as part of the treatment plan. Once again, through peer support and understanding, you will be better able to overcome feelings of shame, as well as begin to understand the nature of truly intimate relationships, and build or renew your own spirituality. It’s in the 12 step group meetings that you really see how what you’ve learned in treatment begins to pay off. Here you will meet people just like you who have had the same types of experiences, have dealt with and overcome intense shame, guilt, sadness and even worse. Some have lost their families due to their sexually compulsive behavior. Some have been fired, spent time in jail, become bankrupt, or attempted suicide. They’ve emerged stronger, thanks to the fellowship of others in the group who are committed to helping the group members in recovery.
By this point, you may be wondering if there are any tips or practices that you can immediately use to overcome shame. It may take some time to find the right therapist or treatment program. Maybe finances are tight and you can’t afford a therapist right now, or your insurance plan (if you have one) won’t pay for it. By all means, don’t let this stop you from getting help. Look into the resources available at the 12 step groups. Many of them have online or phone meetings in addition to in-person, regularly scheduled meetings. There are books, tapes and online materials that can help you as you work through your feelings and try to curb your sexual compulsions.
Here is a list of the 12 step groups that provide fellowship and support for sexual compulsivity and sexual addiction. Attendance at all is free. There is no membership fee.
- Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA)
- Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
- Sexaholics Anonymous (SA)
- Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)
- Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA)
Above all, keep this in mind: you are a human being and you deserve to find a way out of your pain, your loneliness, and your fear. You may have tried on your own to stop your sexual behavior – and failed. You may have beat yourself up over that, rather than recognizing it for the strong signal that you needed professional help. Consider the fact that you’re reading this now as an impetus to finally get the help you need. Knowing that you are unable to manage your sexual thoughts and behaviors on your own, that things just keep getting progressively worse, you are finally taking the much-needed next step.
Through reaching out, asking for help, taking the sometimes-tough steps required, you will be able to regain a balance in your life, make healthy choices in your sexual behavior and achieve true intimacy. Will it be easy? No. Will it take a long time? The answer to that depends on you. When you consider that you’re talking about the rest of your life, however long it takes is how long it takes. Recovery is always a work in progress. But the goal here is not abstinence from sex. Rather, it is healthy sex and true intimacy. Certainly this is a goal worth working for — however long it takes.
What can you do about the shame you feel right now? Although it may seem small and somewhat insignificant, the fact is that every sexually compulsive or sexually addicted individual who has gone through treatment and attends 12 step meetings has felt the same shame at one point or another. You are not alone. You don’t ever have to suffer alone and in silence again. Take advantage of the support that’s available to you. Look into these resources today and start feeling better about yourself and your future.