While sex addiction functions very similarly to other addictions there are several things that make it a unique issue for individuals to deal with. For starters, sex addiction is a process addiction. Other process addictions include food addiction, money addictions (such as gambling or compulsive spending/debting) and workaholism. The difference between these addictions and a substance addiction like drug or alcohol dependency is that with a substance addiction you can put the substance (alcohol, cocaine) down and never pick it up again.
Recovery from a process addiction is different from a substance addiction because the addictive behavior revolves around good and necessary parts of life (i.e. food, sex, money). Rather than total sobriety from the abused substance, sobriety is instead centered on a commitment to abstain from certain compulsive behaviors and attitudes. Once it is clear what behaviors will be abstained from, then the primary focus of recovery is learning to identify what sexual health is for you and to develop a healthy relationship with sex.
A second factor that makes sex addiction unique, is that our sexuality is an innately powerful part of our identity as human beings. Everything about who we are is informed by our sexuality. What this means for sex addicts is that their compulsive sexual behaviors are not only creating profound physiological responses, but also a profound emotional, psychological and spiritual response as sex is often used to affirm their sense of identity, self-worth, desirability and lovability.
Sexual experiences can be very powerful because they not only alter mood and feeling states (medicating painful or unwanted emotions) but sex can also serve as a temporary healing balm for deep psychological, emotional and spiritual wounds. Recovery from sexual addiction requires individuals to explore their sense of identity and to examine and work with the wounds that they may have been trying to heal with sex.
A third unique aspect of sex addiction is that the source is always available. For a person dependent on alcohol or drugs, they must go get the drug or drink and ingest it. For a sex addict, while there is an element of going and finding the porn or the person to act out with, there is also an ever-ready supply of sexual stimulus retained in the mind through rehearsing past memories of acting out or fantasizing about future episodes. For many sex addicts, this is like trying to get sober with a needle attached to your arm and makes things particularly challenging.
The constant availability of a ‘hit’ means that individuals struggling with sex addiction not only have to work on sobriety around their external behaviors but they must work on mental and emotional sobriety as well.
While these factors make sexual addiction recovery challenging, they also provide some hidden opportunities. Because the addictive behavior is wrapped around the person’s sexuality and sexuality is so often attached to one’s identity and sense of self-worth, recovery offers far more than just putting a stop to the acting out behaviors. Recovery offers the gift of learning self-compassion, grounding self-identity in inherent worth as a human being, and learning to honor one’s truest self by living in the integrity of wholeness.