Before I came out as a gay man, Internet porn was a relatively new thing. And when I found it, I was thrilled. Since my early teens, I’d tried to hide my sexual orientation because I didn’t want anyone to know, which did not make for a happy sexual/romantic life. But suddenly, thanks to the Internet, I could explore my sexuality in total privacy. I could go online for 15 or 20 minutes – longer if I wanted – and in that time I could satisfy both my curiosity and my sexual urges. Internet porn seemed like the greatest invention ever.
A year later, I was drowning in a sea of sexual imagery – going online for hours every night and even downloading porn onto the desktop computer at my office. Even worse, many of the things that had previously mattered to me – my job, my friends, my family – had fallen by the wayside. In the space of a year, I’d transformed from a relatively happy and productive (albeit sexually frustrated) young man into an isolated, anxious and painfully depressed shell of my former self.
A Life Focused on Sex
Unfortunately, rather than seeking help for my problem, I chose to self-medicate by escaping even further into pornography. I spent more and more of my time online and I found myself looking at increasingly more intense/outré imagery. Suddenly, I was getting off on things that would have disgusted me a year earlier. Plus, my online fantasies had leaked into the real world; I found myself brazenly pursuing sex, sex and more sex. Basically, every guy I met was passed through my relentless carnal filter, which stripped away everything but his sexual body parts. For me, men were no longer people, they were objects. Because of this, friendships were impossible, as were meaningful romantic relationships. This, of course, caused me to become even more isolated, anxious and depressed.
Within a few years, my entire life focused on sex. Sex was all I thought about. Yes, I kept up appearances by going to work, paying bills and occasionally socializing. But these things were annoyances rather than sources of pleasure and accomplishment. This double life continued unabated for a decade, with my isolation, anxiety and depression intensifying almost by the day. Once in a great while I would try to stop what I was doing, but within a few days I was always right back at it, usually worse than before, spiraling ever more deeply into the cesspool of my sexual addiction.
Eventually, after an obvious addiction-related consequence, my family intervened and insisted I see a therapist. Although this particular clinician did not specialize in sexual addiction, he was familiar with the concept and he pointed me toward the assistance I desperately needed, thus beginning my lengthy and somewhat arduous journey of sexual recovery and healing.
Not So Different from Drugs
Sadly, my story is hardly unique among sex addicts. In truth, almost every sex addict starts out relatively small, with behaviors that seem fun and exciting at the time. As the months and years progress, however, we experience what is known as tolerance. With tolerance, our brains adjust to the mood-altering effects of our sexual behaviors, and, as a result, these activities no longer induce the same intense reaction. To compensate, we find ourselves spending more time in our addiction and/or increasing the intensity of our sexual fantasies and actions.
If you’re struggling to understand this concept, think about substance addictions. For instance, almost nobody injects cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine right out of the gate. More often, drug abusers start out with marijuana, maybe a prescription painkiller stolen from a family member’s medicine cabinet. Over time, they develop a tolerance, so they adjust their habits. They start to smoke pot around the clock or they start popping pills by the handful or they find a more efficient delivery method (such as crushing pills and snorting them rather than simply swallowing them). They also tend to experiment with “harder” drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth. Eventually, without ever making a conscious decision to do so, they find themselves cooking and injecting their new drug of choice.
Sexual addiction escalates in similar fashion. For me, occasionally viewing and masturbating to relatively straightforward pornography for a few minutes here and there turned into hours-long sessions, more intense versions of pornography and all sorts of real-world sexual activities – many of which were highly problematic for me.
Some of the more common “escalation destinations” for sex addicts are as follows:
- Hours, sometimes even days, lost to sexual fantasies and behaviors
- Compulsive use of hookup apps
- Multiple casual and/or anonymous sexual partners
- Multiple affairs or serial affairs
- Sex with people who may be dangerous, or in dangerous locales
- Prostitution (hiring or providing)
- Unprotected sex
- Viewing sexual imagery that is illegal or that goes against one’s moral beliefs
- Exhibitionism (either online or in person)
- Voyeurism (either online or in person)
- Co-occurring alcohol and/or drug abuse
As is the case with other addictions, sex addiction almost always escalates in terms of time spent and/or the intensity level of the activity. And sooner or later, without an intervention of some sort, a sex addict’s escalating behaviors will lead to adverse consequences. At best, sex addicts neglect important people (family, friends, employers), responsibilities (work, school, bills) and self-care (exercise, hobbies, spiritual life). As their addiction escalates, they invariably become more isolated, more anxious and more depressed. They may even find themselves crossing long-held moral boundaries, creating a deeply internalized sense of shame, which of course feeds into their pre-existing anxiety and depression, kicking off the addictive cycle once again.