So, you have been through so called treatment of “sex addiction” and now you realize not only didn’t it work, it left you feeling worse about your sexual self and your relationship.
Regular readers of my books or blogs may know that I once was deeply committed to the idea and practice of sex addiction therapy. Like many therapists, I was seeking to understand my own behavior, which I thought was at times out of control, and the sex addiction model seemed to provide some answers in my younger years. I clung to them for a long time.
However, when I began to encounter other respected therapists who were exploring sex-positive ideas to help people with sexual dysregulation rather than the sex-negative approach of sex addiction therapy, the foundations of my beliefs quickly began to crumble.
Like the story of the man with a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail, I had been encouraging clients to do what seemed to be working for other types of addicts, such as abstaining from sex (like an alcoholic abstaining from drink); coming to therapy alone (as if their partner didn’t need to be a part of the healing process); confessing and seeking forgiveness for betraying and harming a partner (one of the 12 steps in AA); and denying their own core erotic impulses (as if by doing so these urges would somehow wither and die by themselves).
Sex addiction treatment is today’s conversion therapy.
I would see the same clients week after week, feel their suffering and see no improvement. Finally, I came to understand what Jack Morin, author of the book, Erotic Mind, so eloquently revealed: “If you go to war with your sexuality you will lose and cause more chaos than you started.” The scale of harm done to the many thousands of sex-addiction clients is, to me now, appalling. Relationships have been torn apart; some have come to eschew all sex because they haven’t been able to live up to the ideals of sex addiction therapy; people have been saddled with guilt, shame and remorse; valuable time and money has been wasted; and some have even taken their own lives in despair.
These results are much like those found in so-called “conversion therapy” in which gays, bisexuals, lesbians and transgenders are subjected to grueling attempts to turn them away from their very core eroticism and gender identities. The practice has now widely been shown to be psychologically traumatic and ineffective and has been banned in many states.
As I recently discussed with the well-known British psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist, Silva Neves, there is a growing and urgent need to develop treatment recovery from sex addiction therapy. I spoke with Neves on my recent podcast about his thoughts on how to recover from sex addiction treatment. Neves insists, “Sex addiction therapy is today’s conversion therapy.” I agree with him.
Pulling back from a therapy I had practiced for years was, to say the least, one of the most painful and difficult decisions I ever made as a therapist. Painful because I realized how sex addiction treatment had failed to really help so many clients, and difficult because for the most part I was left floating out there, philosophically untethered and alone.
It was a personal experience for me as well as I had identified as a sex addict and was in my own “recovery” as are most sex addiction therapists.
Being sex-positive means recognizing that one sees that eroticism is a healthy and essential part of every human’s life and is as varied and nuanced for each individual as are our imaginations. It means becoming comfortable exploring and understanding one’s body and their partners’ body and exploring sexuality and eroticism without shame. It means accepting how critical it is to understand the physical, emotional and psychological aspects of sexual and erotic intimacy.
It took a while, but eventually I did discover a supportive community and regained my footing called AASECT. Subsequently I’ve helped many couples recover from long-term sex addiction treatment, heal from betrayal and misunderstanding, and regain their intimacy.
What I’ve learned is that healing from sex addiction treatment (as well as dealing with infidelity) requires a number of different and helpful approaches:
Couples therapy is imperative during the entire process of sexual recovery.
First, sex addiction therapy requires couples to be in separate treatment in which one partner is pathologized for their sexual interests and the other is seen as the victim. However, part of what often has happened here is a failure of partners understanding and communicating each other’s erotic needs. Intimacy requires openness and talking about uncomfortable subjects. It is important that they learn about each other’s eroticism even if they don’t like it. In couples’ therapy I often hear, “I thought I knew you, but you’re a different person.” No, the partner isn’t really different, it’s just that you’re learning more about them. Not to make light of a serious subject, but it’s sort of like learning that for 30 years the partner has been sharing pizzas topped with anchovies, but now reveals they only did so to please the other, and really doesn’t like anchovies at all. A partner doesn’t say, “I thought I knew you and now I don’t even know who you are anymore.” My point is that it’s imperative for couples do therapy together and begin to develop what psychotherapist Amanda Luterman calls erotic empathy. Erotic empathy is understanding, validating your partner’s and your own erotic and sexual self even when you don’t agree or have a disgust response. The journey here is for the partners to communicate and find their own sexual style and erotic interests together and not shame each other.
Sexual abstinence is not always possible or necessary.
In sex addiction therapy, the supposed "addict" is required to abstain from sex, but there is absolutely no research showing that a period of abstinence is going to be helpful. In fact, sex addiction therapy can lead to what has been called “sexual anorexia.” You’re being taught that you can never again do what you like sexually because you felt it was getting out of control. People are even sometimes led to believe that if they can’t overcome their sex addiction, it will lead to non-consensual sex, as in “Eventually you’re going to want to harm a child or rape someone.” So, in order to avoid such a danger, some react by having no sex at all. This very much resembles conversion therapy that says, “You like men but you’re supposed to like women, so stop having sex with men and start thinking about women, and you’ll get better.” As you might imagine, that’s not going to happen, and so perhaps the only solution someone can see is to abstain. Realistically, there’s nothing wrong with your erotic orientation — the thing that brings you to a sexual high — as long as it is consensual and non-exploitative. It is never going to go away. You just need to learn how to better manage it.
Couples need to continue having sexual health conversations.
Being sexual is quite often an important part of staying connected. It makes sense that initially the injured party doesn’t want to. They are experiencing a difficult response in learning about their partners sexual self. Therapy needs to help couples in opening the gateway to them having positive and honest conversations. Therefore, sex needs to be reintegrated into the relationship as soon as it can be. In infidelity treatment, we don’t say stop having sex. The problems in the relationship may have overtly been caused by one partner, but the solution needs to be arrived at by both partners. Solutions, both sexual and non-sexual, must be created as a couple. If the couple has been doing separate therapy, they may continue but they also are going to need to bridge that gap in couples’ therapy. This is crucial in getting past the rupture. The behavior has ruptured the relationship, and the relationship must heal the rupture.
Both partners need to become educated and informed about sexual health. They need to discover and acknowledge what sexual health is for themselves, for their partner and for the relationship. There are many books out there about sexual health that can help, and I encourage clients to seek them out. And because they have spent years around sex-negative people and education, I strongly suggest they find a community of sex-positive people, those who can talk openly and without shame about sex.
Anger over the failure of sex addiction treatment.
Recovering from sex addiction treatment also can mean getting past the anger and grief over the years and money lost pursuing something that didn’t work. As a therapist, I feel it is important to validate that anger. One of the goals in SA recovery must be to forgive yourself and relieve yourself of the label “sex addict.” I’ve even had clients who set up an appointment with their original sex addiction therapist in order to tell them how much it harmed them and how upset they were with that therapist.
Perhaps the most important step in recovering from sex addiction treatment is living in your own erotic tension. By this I mean, your eroticism might not fit in your marriage, your religion or your culture, and you must sit with this and work this through. SA treatment would say, “Your partner or your religion is upset with this, so you have a problem, so let’s fix you.” Then you’re in service to your partner or religion, and I want you to be in service to yourself. You may choose to be in service to your partner or your religion, and then that’s your choice. But instead of saying and believing something is wrong with me, consider that something is wrong with the world, religion or relationship I’m in. This is the tension that leads to the asking that question, “If I’m not a sex addict, then what am I?” and finally, “Well, what am I going to do about this?”
The heart of the matter is that this really is a coming-out process. You are coming out of the closet erotically, and it may entail all the struggle and self-examination as those who are coming out as gay or lesbian.
“Sex addiction” is a term still being thrown around like confetti.
Unfortunately for many people, it has become ingrained in the culture, something of a psychotherapeutic urban myth even though the World Health Organization and ICD-11 (the International Classification of Disease, used as a coding manual in healthcare) have said that sexual dysregulation is under compulsive behaviors, not addiction. Instead, these organizations label it as an impulse-control problem. In SA treatment you may be being told that your behavior is out of control, but in reality, you just feel out of control because you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
The label of "sex addict" may make you feel better at first, but in the long run have lasting negative effects for you and your relationships and sex addiction treatment may be worse. Therefore, it’s important to find out what is going on with your out-of-control sexual behaviors without labeling it pejoratively. You can do this by entering treatment with therapists who are trained in sex therapy and sexual health. Therapists and counselors trained in sexual health can be found at the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists AASECT.
That is the road to sexual health.
Originally posted on Psychology Today.