As one of the least understood addictions, there is very little common understanding for what sex addiction actually is, how it impacts life, and how it is treated. To help clear up the misconceptions and dive deeper into what it actually means to have a sex addiction, we spoke with Dominic Valdes, LCSW, CSAT and a therapist at the Los Angeles location of the Gay Therapy Center.
As a recovering addict himself, Dominic initially came into the field of therapy to help others struggling with substance abuse. Through his work, he noticed that a significant portion of his clients struggled not only with substance abuse, but sex addiction as well.
“I noticed that there was a large portion [of clients] struggling with sexual compulsive behaviors. So I just started researching–because I had been in treatment, and had been going to my own meetings for substance abuse and sex addiction. But I wanted to strengthen my understanding of the research, and how to clinically help them. Then I discovered CSAT, which is a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist.”
How is sex addiction diagnosed?
Sex addiction is not about the frequency with which one has sex, or the number of partners one has sex with. It is about the feelings associated with sex, the control one has over their sexual compulsions, and the ways sexual behaviors interact with other aspects of life.
If someone feels a lack of control over when and how often they have sex, if their feelings associated with sex are devoid of pleasure, if their sex life remains a secret part of their life–completely separate from the rest of their life–and if they cannot stop engaging in these behaviors, it is likely a sex addiction.
“Sex addiction includes feelings of guilt, shame. It creates the severe compartmentalization of one’s life. When I see sex addicts they tend to have this secret life of sexual engagement and they feel so sad because they’re unable to stop. And they’ve tried many times in the past to stop or to control or cut back their behavior, but there’s this sense of compulsion and inability to stop.”
Major strides have been taken in the understanding and education around sex addiction. For the first time ever, the World Health Organization added sex addiction to their listed of recognized diseases in 2018. As they define it sex addiction is “a persistent pattern of failure to control intense, repetitive sexual impulses or urges, resulting in repetitive sexual behavior.”
Why is this so important?
There is a lot of controversy around the legitimacy of sex addiction. Many people believe that it doesn’t exist, or that it is not a true addiction. This recognition from the World Health Organization helps to give credibility to those struggling with it as well as those treating it. On top of this, recognition from a major organization such as the W.H.O. helps to reduce the shame and stigma that is attached to sex addiction–which often holds people back from seeking treatment.
“There’s this idea that [calling it an addiction] is taking responsibility off of oneself and placing it on a disorder,” Dominic says. “The other thing is the controversy around the misunderstanding that it’s shaming our natural drive to have sex, which is not the case.”
In truth, the diagnosis has nothing to do with shaming someone for their sex drive, or placing stigma on human’s natural drive to seek out sexual intimacy. Quite the opposite, in fact. “The goal of a certified sex addiction therapist is not to shame somebody’s sexual behavior,” Dominic tells us, “or to shame their frequency at which they’re having sex, the type of porn or the type of sex they enjoy. That is not the goal.” Instead, the goal of sex addiction treatment is to help those struggling with sex addiction move away from those feelings of shame, regain control over their sexual behaviors, and find ways to reduce the isolation they may feel as a result of their compulsive sexual behavior.
Being “sex-positive” is healthy. Having lots of sex is good if you are enjoying it and not hurting others. However, compulsions and addictions are painful and not fun. When sexual activity shifts from a natural behavior to an addiction, it takes up valuable space in a person’s life without any sort of return benefit. And the longer it goes untreated, the longer the guilt and shame linger after each time.
How does sex addition show up differently for queer folks?
“The LGBTQ community worked really, really hard to be sexually free and open, we did so much work to be honest about who we are without shame, and to just be ourselves,” Dominic explains. “So there is a culture there. And it’s not bad or good it’s just like, this is like our culture, yes, go and have sex, we’re not tied down to any particular traditions.”
Within this culture, LGBTQ sex addiction shows up, often through anonymous sex–made even easier by the countless dating & sex apps available. These apps themselves are designed to be addictive, which only exacerbates the issue.
How can you begin to treat sex addiction?
“So the first step you want to take is to find a community through the different 12-step meetings,” Dominic says, regarding getting started with sex addiction treatment. “It’s the gold standard to help get out of the cycle of compulsive sexual behaviors.” 12-step meetings should be done in conjunction with individual therapy where a blend of cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic approaches can be implemented. Sex addiction is oftentimes a type of intimacy disorder, so exploring and resolving past traumas, replacing distorted beliefs of self, and practicing ways to meet one’s own emotional and physical needs is necessary in the treatment of sex addiction.
Dominic tells us there are three main 12 step programs for sex addiction treatment: SCA (Sex Compulsives Anonymous), SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous), and SA (Sexaholics Anonymous).
In SCA–which is geared mainly toward gay men–attendees go to the meetings and choose what sort of behavior it is that they want to stop. This is called the bottom line. And it varies from member to member–it’s all about their own individual goals in regards to their addiction. It can be anything from not watching porn anymore to not having sex outside of their relationship.
In SAA, the idea of the bottom line is still there, but rather than being geared only toward gay men, it is open to everyone. “It’s not really focused on a certain demographic,” Dominic says. “Anybody who wants to control sexual behaviors is welcome.”
SA, he tells us, is the most strict of the three. “They tell you what the bottom line behavior is,” Dominic explains. “So their belief is absolutely no sex outside of marriage, and when they say sex, they mean anything and everything. No masturbation, no porn, nothing outside of sex with your partner.”
These types of groups serve many different purposes for sex addicts. First, they help to reduce the shame and stigma felt by those working toward their recovery, no matter what step of the process they are on. Being in a room of people who also struggle with compulsive sexual behaviors helps to reaffirm them that they are not completely isolated, that they have support, and that they do not have to go through this alone.
It also helps to shift their interactions with others away from the transactional nature of their sexual behaviors, which is an important part of the recovery process.
If you have experienced sex addiction or you think this might be an area of concern for you, you’re not alone. The resources for helping folks through sex addiction treatment are growing every day. Come talk to us at the Gay Therapy Center for support.