Understanding and Defining Sexual Sobriety

With many addictions – alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive gambling and the like – the people who seek treatment do so knowing that long-term abstinence will likely be the goal. Conversely, sex addicts often enter treatment wanting to know if sexual sobriety means they have to give up sex permanently, because if it does they’re not interested. The good news for these individuals is that healing from sexual addiction does not require permanent abstinence. Instead, recovering sex addicts seek to eliminate the sexual activities that are causing problems in their lives, and to then develop a sex life that is healthy, enjoyable and life-affirming. In this respect, the treatment of sexual addiction is similar to the treatment of an eating disorder; the individual can’t permanently abstain from eating, so he/she works on learning how to eat in healthy, enjoyable and non-problematic ways.

Understanding and Defining Sexual SobrietyThough long-term abstinence is not an ultimate goal of sex addiction treatment, those new to the healing process are often asked to take a 30-, 60- or 90-day break from all sexual activity, including masturbation. This is because sex addicts are usually so deep in the denial about their addiction that they have temporarily lost the ability to determine which of their behaviors are destructive and which are OK. During this timeout from sex, sex addicts, working with a treatment specialist and/or a supportive and knowledgeable 12-step sponsor, can regain a sense of perspective that allows them to more easily distinguish between healthy and addictive sexual behaviors. This break from sex also provides a timeframe in which sex addicts can develop healthier coping mechanisms to implement when they are triggered to act out sexually. Furthermore, as sex addicts struggle to maintain total abstinence during this timeout period they begin to see how utterly dependent on sex they’ve actually become – turning to it time and time again, automatically and without forethought, as a way to “numb out” and escape from stress, emotional discomfort and the vicissitudes of life.

As sex addicts gain a better understanding of their addiction, they then work, in conjunction with a treatment specialist and/or a knowledgeable and experienced 12-step sponsor, to create a sexual sobriety plan. In this plan, sex addicts self-define the sexual activities that do and don’t compromise/destroy their values, relationships and lives. They then commit in a written and signed sexual sobriety contract to abstain from the problem behaviors and to engage in healthy sexual behaviors moderately and appropriately. As long as their sexual activities remain within the bottom-line boundaries of this carefully constructed contract, they are sexually sober.

Sexual sobriety plans are often called “boundary plans” or “circle plans,” depending on the treatment specialist and/or the 12-step program. I tend to use the boundary plan language, but if clients prefer to call theirs a circle plan, that is perfectly fine. Whatever the name, the concepts are the same. These plans are always created based on the addict’s individual goals and unique life history. As such, no two plans are the same. Behaviors that may be incredibly problematic for one sex addict may be fine for another, and it is important that treatment specialists, 12-step sponsors and sex addicts who are looking to heal from their disorder all understand this.

Boundary plans are broken down into three parts (or three circles, if you prefer that language). They are as follows:

Inner Boundary (Inner Circle)

This is the addict’s bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety – the sexual behaviors that are causing problems in his or her life and that go against his or her values (fidelity, not hurting others, etc.) If the addict engages in these activities, he or she is not sexually sober. A few typical inner boundary behaviors (remember, these will vary depending on the addict’s goals and particular life circumstances) include: paying for sex, having sex with an ex, casual sex, anonymous sex, Webcam sex, virtual reality sex, looking at porn, exchanging sexts with anyone other than a spouse, etc.

Middle Boundary (Middle Circle)

The middle boundary lists slippery emotions, people, places and activities that might trigger the sex addict and lead to relapse. Again, these vary widely depending on the sex addict’s goals and life circumstances. Some typical middle boundary items include: skipping therapy sessions and/or 12-step meetings, overworking, going online when home alone, unstructured free time, not eating right, lack of exercise, poor sleep habits, arguing with a spouse or boss (or anyone else), driving through a certain neighborhood, looking at social media profiles of old flames, etc.

Outer Boundary (Outer Circle)

The outer boundary is a vision of life to come. It lists healthy coping mechanisms and activities the individual can turn to instead of acting out sexually, along with short- and long-term goals for a better life. The items on this list may be concrete and immediate (spending more “fun time” with my spouse and kids) or long-term and less tangible (developing an understanding of my career goals). Outer boundary listings should always include a healthy mix of recovery, work, family and fun. (All work and no play raises the risk of relapse!) Some typical outer boundary items include: going to therapy once per week and 12-step meetings at least three times per week, going on dates with my spouse, coaching my kid’s soccer team, reconnecting with my higher power, getting in shape, going back to school so I can get a better job, developing a hobby, etc. Yet again, outer boundary listings vary widely, depending on the addict and his or her unique life goals and circumstances.

The Masturbation Question

One question that nearly every sex addict in treatment/recovery asks is: What about masturbation? What boundary does that fall into? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. For porn addicts and compulsive masturbators, the decision is usually clear – masturbation is an inner boundary behavior. For other sex addicts, masturbation may be an inner boundary behavior, a slippery but still-sober (middle boundary) behavior, or even an outer boundary activity that the addict uses non-compulsively as a way to encourage appropriate intimacy and an overall sense of sexual health and well-being. So, once again, every sex addict is different, and where masturbation falls into an addict’s sexual sobriety plan depends on the addict.


Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.


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