Understanding the Roots of Sexual Addiction
A Thoughtful Examination of the Sexual Addiction Cycle
By Ramon Ivey, MS, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Sexual addiction and compulsive sexuality is the fastest growing addiction in the world, according to many of the top experts in the field. There are many reasons for this including, but not limited to, the ease of access, perceived anonymity, and affordability associated with the rise of the internet.
Most people have someone in their life that they can reference who has had their relationships and families torn apart due to their sexually compulsive behaviors. In fact, statistics suggest that forty percent of married couples have experienced conflict in their marriage directly related to the viewing of pornography. In addition to those we may know personally, there are a host of celebrities who have been exposed and suffered great consequences for their sexual exposés. Due to the public nature of many of the people impacted, sexual addiction and its remedies have become a regular part of public discourse. As such, I have heard these conversations everywhere from the local pub to the local church. From the local news to AM talk radio. No matter where I hear these topics being discussed, it often seems that they are presented with the utmost of authority, intensity and dogma as if the speaker was in the throws of defending their dissertation on the subject. Not surprisingly, the “solutions” presented in those conversations seem to be just as varied as the host of characters who are imparting their “wisdom.”
Some of the “solutions” that stand out in my mind as the most memorable are: “There is no such thing as sexual addiction;” “If that’s an addiction that’s the one I want;” “They just need to have more sex with their partner;” “They just need to stop!;” “They need to seek God and get their spiritual life in order;” “They need to pray harder;” or, my personal favorite, “You can’t expect the human species to be faithful to one partner!” Although some of these arguments have more merit than others, none of them really grasp how dark, lonely, divisive and destructive sexual addiction can be to the one entrapped in its clutches. Nor do they understand the complexity of the addiction and what it takes to get free from it.
Sexual addiction impacts the one entrapped on an emotional, relational, and spiritual level. The most common experience of the addict, no matter the consequences of their actions, is a “pull,” back towards their compulsive behaviors. The sexual addict finds themselves in a cycle that is commonly known as the “Addiction Cycle.” This cycle begins with the addict’s faulty belief system, which often has its origins in experiences that greatly pre-date the behavior that is currently being engaged in. The beliefs the addict often holds deep within their psyche are: personal beliefs, such as, “I am flawed and unworthy of love;” relational beliefs, such as, “If people knew me they would not love me;” beliefs about needs, such as, “My needs will never be met if I have to rely on others;” and sexual beliefs, such as, “Sex is my highest need.”
This belief system feeds into the next stage of the cycle, impaired thinking. A common, impaired thought, could be, “I can’t tell of who I am so I need to rely on myself to get my needs met.” The faulty belief system and impaired thinking send the addict into the throws of the addiction cycle, which is the addiction itself. The steps involved are preoccupation (with sexually compulsive behavior), ritualization, compulsive behavior and despair. The despair often comes from not living up to one’s own value system and realizing the addictive behavior did not meet the needs that the person struggling with addiction had hoped it would. This leads to an increased level of shame. And, as the addict stays stuck in this cycle, over time, it leads to increasing unmanageability in their life and, thus, sinking further into the addictive behavior.
As you can see from the above cycle, sexual addiction is a multi-faceted problem that impacts every aspect of the human experience; emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual and relational. I, like others, wish there was a quick fix but to espouse to that idea is not only misinformed but also helps keep the addict stuck in the very cycle they need help getting out of. Thankfully, there is hope and help through qualified clinicians and a community of people ready to embrace those struggling with the darkness of sexual addiction.