I have seen this phrase, or some form of it, many times, written on blogs, in articles, and even in books. I have heard it spoken, by sex addiction deniers, by partners, and by therapists. I understand. Those two words, separate or together, seem to harbor feelings that take us to places like fear, trauma, denial, suppression, confusion, and disgust. We tend to want to disrespect and pass judgment on things, behaviors, or frankly people, we don’t understand. We don’t want to associate with a diagnosis that has a negative reputation. We live in a society in which the press and social media would have us believe it is okay to judge everything and everyone without knowing them, without having much more than a titillating headline or a controversial selfie.
Sex addict is a label. There are other words and phrases to describe a person who compulsively uses sex as a way to deal with thoughts, feelings, and emotions instead of facing them head on. Sexual compulsivity can be driven by feelings of abandonment, entitlement, shame, loneliness, and on and on and on. Often times people who act out sexually, hide sexual behavior, deny sexual behavior, suffer damaged self esteem due to serious family dysfunction when they were young including emotional abandonment or sexual molestation, amongst many other pathologies.
The important factor here is not how others judge us, or even whether others judge us, but in fact the key to overcoming sexual compulsivity is bringing it out into the light, acknowledging when we need to change our behavior, stop hurting people we love, and stop hurting ourselves, and get help. Help can be therapy, it can be rehab for repeated behaviors we have trouble controlling on our own, it can be a spiritually based recovery program through a church or other religious organization. Many people choose the 12 step recovery route. The nice thing about 12 step is that recovery is adaptable. Those that fully embrace a 12 step group that works for them understand how versatile the program is. And for the record, 12 step is not about placing blame, it is about accepting responsibility. I have heard so many strange things about 12 step from people who have never been to a meeting, or who somehow convinced themselves that “they’re not like THOSE people.” If the program is to work, people need to make it their own and not use excuses for why it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because the person who needs it didn’t work it. And that applies to all forms of recovery.
The biggest obstacle to healing, in my mind, is denial. Denial comes with the territory. The person with the compulsive sexual behaviors has most likely been denying to themselves that they have a real problem, or they believe they have control over their behavior. They can stop whenever they want. That’s denial. Control is a big deal to most addicts. Having control over compulsive behaviors, however, is the definition of being out of control.
Control is acknowledging we have a problem. How we decide to deal with that problem is an individual journey. We don’t have to accept a label, but we do need to get help. And passing judgment on someone else’s healing doesn’t really help the situation for us or for anyone else. Partners of people with compulsive sexual behaviors have said to me that their husband was hiding behind the sex addiction label and they weren’t really an addict. That they were using it as an excuse, or attending meetings because someone was “forcing” them to, a therapist, a spouse, a family member, whatever. Well, we all know people cannot be forced into changing. We have to want to change and if we have done regrettable things and hurt ourselves, our families, friends, others… any avenue that will wake us up, help us to understand the whys of our behavior and the hows of transforming destructive behavior into positive, life affirming, and loving actions towards ourselves and others, is a good thing.
One of my least favorite sayings is that 12 step is for addicts and assholes. Recovery, in all of its forms, is for people who want to change. So if we, our partners, family members, neighbors, children, whomever, wants to change maybe we should stop judging and in fact embrace recovery in all its forms. We are all fallible human beings shaped by everything in our life that preceded today. It’s okay. We can make mistakes and learn from them.
I ran across this poem the other day and it spoke to me.
I’m breathing deep today, my friends, and embracing the beauty that surrounds me.