Straight / Male / 28–32 / North America / Single
“My name is Jordan, and I’m a sex addict.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like a total impostor.
The men and women seated around me, legs crossed and arms folded, draped over orange plastic chairs, would see right through me any second now. Even though I was staring down at the floor, I could feel their eyes burning into me.
These people had real addictions… my problems felt so entry-level by comparison. They had serious problems, not me.
I mean, sure, I’d slept with countless women who I felt no emotional connection to.
Sure, I’ve felt a deeply permeating sense of shame at the core of my being after compulsively acting out sexually.
And, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ve probably cumulatively spent weeks of my life watching porn, scanning sex ads, and frequenting massage parlours and sex workers in multiple countries.
Fuck. Who am I kidding?
The more I listened to the stories of the people around me, the more I realized that I was in the right place.
I think human beings have a brilliant capacity for bullshitting themselves.
It seems like it can take years of spinning our wheels in the mud before we realize that we aren’t making any progress in a certain area of our lives.
Some people think that sex addiction isn’t a ‘real’ addiction. Some people say dismissive things like, “Well, if that’s what sex addiction is, then every guy I know is a sex addict.” As with many process addictions, sexual addiction is a commonly misunderstood one.
So what is sex addiction, and why is it so frequently misunderstood?
I’d say the biggest thing that most people don’t understand about sex addiction is that sex addiction isn’t about sex. The way that I see it, sex addiction is more about shame, isolation, and unworthiness than it is about chasing after sexual experiences.
Or, as one SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) member once so eloquently put it in a meeting that I attended, “When I act out with sex workers, I’m not thinking to myself ‘Oh boy, this is going to be super fun!’. But rather, I’m thinking ‘I have such a tornado of pain inside of me that I either have to kill myself or compulsively act out to numb the pain.’”
Compulsive sexual behaviour is what sex addicts use to numb out their emotions, just like alcoholics often use staying drunk to avoid feeling their underlying difficult emotions.
Sex addiction, just like any drug addiction, can have a sliding scale of symptoms — ranging in severity. For some people, sex addiction looks like chronic masturbation to porn, where they don’t feel like they can function in society without climaxing at least seven times a day. For others, sex addiction could look like occasional flare ups of wanting to ‘use’ or ‘act out’ with sex workers only when they’re going through emotionally trying times (breakups, divorces, losing their jobs, death of a friend or family member, etc.).
The consequences can be fatal. I know sex addicts who have knowingly had unprotected sex with people who had HIV. I’ve met other addicts who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on sex workers, going further and further into debt to fund their compulsive behaviour.
I’ve met hundreds of sex addicts as clients (yep, I’m a sex and relationship coach) and in Sex Addicts Anonymous group meetings. I’ve noticed no singular unifying theme that connects all addicts — at least not in terms of how they like to act out sexually.
With sex addiction, each addict defines what their acting out looks like and what sexual sobriety means to them. If a person masturbates a few times per week to porn and they have no moral obligations with it and it doesn’t interfere with their lives, then they’re fine. It’s only when the addict admits that their lives had become unmanageable that they will commit to making a real lasting change in their habits.
In fact, any addictive or compulsive behaviour could be easily categorized with one simple litmus test… do you find yourself consistently doing something that you do not want to do?
As in, you don’t want to gamble anymore but you find yourself at a slot machine yet again. You decided to give up drinking and here you are, alone in your bedroom, half way through a bottle of vodka. You decided to give up having anonymous sex and here you are putting on your pants after a quickie with a total stranger.
If the behaviour has control over you, then it has likely become a problem in your life.
I think sex addiction is one of the most challenging addictions to overcome.
With substance addictions, like alcoholism or drug addiction, it is possible (and often recommended) to simply discontinue the use of the substance entirely. But with process addictions like sex addiction and eating disorders, it’s impossible to just give up food or sex for life. They are interwoven into the fabric of our being and so the goal is to integrate them into our lives in a healthier way.
But because sex addiction and compulsive sexual behaviour is just the mechanism that numbs out the difficult emotions that addicts are unwilling to face and heal their way through, the most sustainable way that a sex addict can overcome their addiction is to work through their underlying emotional turmoil that keeps them stuck.
Now that I’ve indulged you with some of the facts, let’s get back to my story.
After a certain amount of feeling out of control with my behaviour, I felt like I would never be able to get out of it. I worried that I would be a slave to my compulsion for the rest of my life. Ultimately, I knew that the only way out of this pattern was to feel my underlying emotional wounds.
And, as fate would have it, as soon as I set the intention of wanting to dig into my past wounds, my answers were revealed to me in the form of a dream.
I woke up sobbing in the middle of the night, lying next to my girlfriend at the time, and the memories of how isolated and unwanted I felt in my childhood came flooding back to me.
It took months of journaling, private therapy, 12-step groups, late night conversations with my girlfriend, and the support of others to come to terms with the pain that I felt. As cliche as it sounds, I had to learn to fully love and accept my wounded inner child.
The behavioural antidote, for me, was to reach out to people for help and allow them to be there for me. And, once again, as soon as I set the intention to do so, a rush of new friendship and community came pouring into my life.
Obviously, healing past emotional wounds is something that must be done on an individual basis. There is no one-size-fits-all model.
The 3 Biggest Things That Helped Me Overcome My Sex Addiction
I recognize that I am still relatively early on in my process (having only been going to SAA meetings for just over two years, on and off), but I feel like I’ve gained some valuable insights that I wish someone had passed on to me at the beginning of my journey. Here are those insights.
1. Tell the full truth to a trusted person
“You are only as sick as your secrets” goes the saying that originated in Alcoholics Anonymous.
The more I pull myself away from others, the more I suffer. The more I suffer, the more I downward spiral into a pattern of shame and isolation.
One of the best things that I did for myself throughout my journey was to find a trusted person (friend, family member, significant other, fellow addict in a 12-step program, etc.) to tell my secrets to. The more I could verbalize the thoughts, fears, and desires in my head that kept me feeling stuck, the more free I could be of them.
2. I went to meetings and got support
12-step meetings helped me a lot throughout my journey of accepting my addiction. Hearing other people’s stories (that helped me feel less alone in my addiction) was extremely healing for me. This, in my opinion, is the underlying benefit of any 12-step group… you get to feel less alone.
I also felt an added layer of accountability that came with going to meetings. Once I’d told a group of strangers about the ways in which I acted out sexually, I felt less likely to repeat those same behaviours because I had neutralized them to a large degree. It was terrifying for me to muster up the courage to go to my first SAA meeting, but I’m so glad that I did. I only wish I had gone sooner.
3. I cultivated new habits when I was about to act out
I think one of the core components of personal growth is coming to the fork in the road when you’ve always done one thing, and doing something different.
If, whenever I felt stressed/anxious/depressed/isolated, I would start to go into my psychological acting out bubble, and instead of loading up porn/cruising ads/searching for anonymous sex, I would pick up the phone and call a trusted friend instead. Understanding that feelings of unworthiness and isolation are at the root of my desire to act out, the best thing I could do in that moment is connect with someone who cares about me.
It was essential for me to have two or three trusted friends on speed dial for when I was going into the psychological rabbit hole of my suffering. As I was approaching the moment of truth, I would simply reach out to one of those people instead of acting out.
If reaching out for support was too challenging for those moments when I felt like acting out, another thing that worked well for me was intentionally inducing crying.
I know that emotional stress, ultimately, is just a culmination of compounded unfelt feelings. If I felt those unfelt feelings (by releasing my sadness, anger, grief, or whatever else was present for me) then there wouldn’t be any underlying emotional turmoil for me to try to numb out. By feeling my feelings, I knew that I would set myself free from the pattern.
It is well understood that addiction is a brain disease. Therefore, I don’t think that recovery means that I will never have addictive/compulsive thoughts for the rest of my life, but rather that I will know how to manage them and not adhere to their unhealthy desires. This is the same reason that alcoholics will still identify as being alcoholics years after they last had a drink… they know that the substance has a power over them and that it affects them differently than it affects most other people.
I went through an emotionally trying time this year and, during a phase when I would have historically acted out the most frequently, I refrained entirely from my most compulsive behaviours… which was a huge turning point for me. I no longer felt like I was at the mercy of my addiction. Does this mean that I think I’m ‘cured’ forever? No. Just like any addiction, I believe it is something that I’ll have to be aware of and continue to manage for a long time to come (just like alcoholics are alcoholics for life, they’re just wired a bit differently and can’t indulge in a casual drink).
For me personally, the biggest tools I have available to me are self-awareness, self-compassion, and the courage that it takes to reach out to a friend for help (aka embracing community). Self-awareness to realize when my mind is leading me in an unhealthy direction, and self-compassion for being able to be gentle with myself when I find myself feeling stressed, anxious, or any other negative feeling that I would historically want to numb out.
My end goal of recovery is to be sexual when I’m feeling sexual feelings with a committed partner and to stop acting out sexually as a means to numb out my difficult emotions. I have confidence that I’ll get there.
Jordan Gray is an author, blogger, and sex & relationship coach. You can see more of his best writing at JordanGrayConsulting.com.
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