By Greg Bodin, MFT
Greg is a therapist at the Gay Therapy Center who specializes in sexual compulsion and addiction. He sees clients at the Union Square Gay Therapy Center in San Francisco, and worldwide by phone and Skype.
It’s getting easier to get laid. Geolocating social apps, messaging apps, and videoconferencing have made finding and having sex easier than it used to be. For some, this has been a great improvement – a faster way to meet new people, explore fantasies, and have lots of sex. For others the sexual digital age has started or worsened a problematic relationship to sex. Here’s an example:
John (not a real person) arrives at work, plows through his email, becomes stressed by an upcoming project meeting, and decides he’ll get to it in 15 minutes. He pulls out his phone and looks at Tinder, Grindr, Blendr, Growlr or one of the many other available apps, depending on his preferences. Minutes turn into hours as John searches for the right person, maybe someone downtown for a lunch hookup. He doesn’t notice the time and soon the 1pm meeting approaches. John’s anxiety skyrockets as he realizes that he hasn’t addressed the project and the meeting is fast approaching. He also feels guilty for wasting his whole morning. After the meeting John thinks about what a loser he is and how he can’t seem to get it together.
There is no moral judgment about John looking for sex with his phone. In fact, this isn’t about sex. It is about avoiding and numbing difficult feelings, and, for better or worse, technology has made it easier for people to do so.
How do you define sex vs. sex addiction?
Sex is a tricky thing. How can you have too much? I find it most helpful to not think of it as an addiction to a substance like cocaine or alcohol, but rather as more akin to an eating disorder. Both sex and food are good, healthy, and pleasurable. But it is possible to have an unhealthy relationship to food and for this relationship to have a negative impact on your life. Sex works the same way.
So, how do you know if sex is a problem?
You’re preoccupied with the pursuit.
I’m not talking about sexual fantasies that can float in and out of your consciousness throughout the day. I mean obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors that you find difficult to control. You have a compulsive need to pull out your phone, search the hookup apps for something new or check your messages. You get a sense of panic if you hear a message come through and you can’t stop what you’re doing to check it.
You try to quit a behavior but you can’t.
You’ve thought about deleting the app from your phone but just can’t seem to do it. You notice that you can’t stop looking, cutting back, or changing a sexual behavior that you find problematic. Sometimes it feels like a trance –you can’t stop the behavior even though part of your mind tells you to stop or at least take a break.
Other parts of your life are affected.
You may or may not realize it, but the time and effort you’re spending on your device seeking out sex is having a negative effect. Maybe you’re skipping out of work looking for sex like John. Or you might have dinner with a friend but then need a quick exit because there is the possibility of sex with somewhere else. You’re not getting enough sleep, not eating well, or not hitting the gym because of the time you’re spending seeking and getting sex. You could also be having more serious legal, financial, or health issues because of your behavior.
It’s not really about sex.
It’s not about sex. It’s about filling a hole. That hole could be feelings of sadness, loneliness, shame, or worthlessness or perhaps the result of past traumatic events. Maybe it’s a way to avoid unpleasant feelings or manage after a really tough day at work or a fight with you partner.
You may be OK sometimes but then the hole opens and you need to avoid dealing with it. So you pull out your phone, start your pursuit, and forget your feelings for a moment. In fact, there can be a sense of euphoria or numbing from searching a hookup app that seems more pleasurable than the sex itself. Maybe you find the hookup, or the Skype session. And then you’re faced with the hole again, or feelings of guilt, loneliness, or disappointment.
So what can you do? It isn’t just about deleting an app.
Start with self-compassion.
Shame is often part of this compulsive/addictive cycle. In fact, self-criticism can often start the cycle up again. Take a gentle approach with yourself if you can as you begin to seek out some help.
Get some support.
Working with an LGBTQ affirming therapist is a good place to start. Often the first and most important work is to come up with a behavioral plan to slow down, stop, or change the compulsive behavior, including how you interact with your devices. Learning how to introduce healthy sexual behaviors back into your life is also part of this process.
12-step support groups can be a very important and helpful way to get support from others who face similar issues. There are also outpatient and inpatient treatment centers that offer more intensive services.
Address the hole.
What’s motivating this in the first place? This is the longer, deeper and important work of therapy. Making contact with the painful feelings, thoughts and other internal experiences, dealing with past traumas, and addressing these on a deeper level will lead to a different relationship to sex and a different way of dealing with pain.
Technology will continue to evolve. Sex is here to stay. For some these emerging technologies may bring about more satisfying sexual lives, and for others, a more complicated and problematic one. What is constant is the opportunity to address deeper and more challenging aspects of the self so we may enjoy new, creative and innovative ways of interacting with others.
Originally published at Psyched in San Francisco.