Shackled by Lust?
Out of the many reasons that people seek out a psychologist, it is often because they find themselves at odds with their own behaviour. We live in a society where, thankfully, our relationships with our own desires are changing: where masturbation is considered a healthy aspect of sexual development; homosexuality is no longer considered a perversion or disorder; and there is open public discourse about sex. We are living in a society where lust is becoming less understood as one of the seven deadly sins of man and more as a celebrated human longing. However, it is possible that ‘lust’, if gone completely un-checked, can cause us to be at odds with ourselves. As the contemporary philosopher Simon Blackburn writes, “Living with lust is like living shackled to a lunatic”. This ‘lunatic’ is often named “Sex Addiction”. Although there is much debate about the appropriateness of associating sex (a normal part of human behaviour) with “addiction” (a destructive affliction), the term can be a very helpful when trying to grapple with sexual behaviour that we have very little control over.
Sex Addiction is a rather sticky problem that slowly creeps up on you, keeping itself secret in your life – out of shame and denial refusing to be addressed. Although it is by no means a strictly male problem, the popular understanding that “men are just like this” is a convenient excuse for the problem not to be effectively addressed. The internet has become its ideal breading ground, allowing the sexual behaviour to live hidden and separate from the rest of your life. With a double-click you have access to an abundance of explicit pictures, videos, and chat lines. Much like a lunatic, it has little control over itself and even less insight into the consequences of what it is doing to you. It can be called an addiction because of certain key traits: it has a way of overcoming one, taking priority over other things that need to be done, causing one to neglect the things that would ordinarily be important to you. It lures one into an escape from the things that need to be faced in life. It becomes an anaesthetic that induces a gradual numbness for everyday reality. It can look quite tame and could take the guise of watching “just a bit” of porn everyday. It could evolve to compulsive masturbation several times a day, maybe even paying for sex, continual secret affairs or simply unusual preoccupation with sexual pleasure. Unfortunately, despite its destructive nature, most people only seek help after they have been caught out.
Sex can definitely be a mood altering experience and medical researchers suspect that we have neurological pleasure pathways that provide for this experience. Sex addiction might, therefore, feed on a neurological “fix” and over time these pathways develop an increased sensitivity to experiences that promise this “fix”. The need for this fix can get so strong that you will put your work, family or self-respect at jeopardy in order to get it. Ironically, the outcome is normally not as pleasurable as you would have liked, leading to the need for more. However, to think of the problem as simply “looking for pleasure” is a limited view – the “fix” varies for each person, but could be allowing for an escape from anxiety or frustration with aspects of your life, a fantasy life that comes with the false promise of fulfilment, or simply a form of relaxation. One significant pattern appears to be the correlation between ADHD and sex addiction and the need for constant stimulation of certain dopamine areas in the brain.
Despite the promises of fulfilment that sex addiction lures you with, in the end it tends to only leave you with increased shame, guilt, frustration and disappointment.
So here are a few tips:
It is, perhaps, more than just “a good sexual appetite” when:
- It becomes increasingly less controllable and interferes with your daily life.
- It gets worse over time, becoming habitual, even though less pleasurable.
- Despite periods of respite and promises to control it, looking back it plays an ongoing role in the background of your life.
- It tends to be hidden and separate from the rest of your life, promising to go away “tomorrow”. There is always that enticing of “just one last time”.
Steps to dealing with it:
- Acknowledge the hold it has over you
- “Map out” how it started, what it does for you and what makes it worse.
- Realise that it is not separate from the rest of your life. Even if you manage to hide it, it has an effect on your everyday life.
- Consider the person that it causes you to be rather than the one that you would like to be. i.e. Selfish versus Giving, or Deceitful versus Honest.
- Consider serious measures to avoid opportunities to get your “fix”, i.e. a “net-nanny”, disclosing the addiction to your partner or close friends, implimenting periods of celibacy.
- Try and see the problem through your partner’s eyes. The impact it has on them. The way that they would view it in terms of your role in their lives. The impact it may have had on your sexual relationship and their experience of their own bodies.
- Disclosing the addiction to your partner can be risky but can also help in many circumstances.
- Honesty is the only way forward. Sexual addiction thrives on secrecy.
- Disclosure might help to explain behaviour that he/she is already concerned about. It could help them realise that they have not been the problem all along: That it is not him/her that is not good enough but the addiction that has been disrupting your sex lives.
- Disclosure might be an opportunity to address related problems in the relationship, i.e. a lack of intimacy or unusual pressure to be intimate.
- Sex addiction can, ironically, lead to a lack of pleasure in your sex life.
- You will need support in dealing with the hold that the addiction has over you.
Ultimately, your sexual behaviour could be an addiction when there are habitual times when it is out of your control and times when the consequences simply don’t matter. Increasingly you will reluctantly sacrifice more just for that fix. Sex addiction is like an invisible shackle that slowly and secretly grabs a tighter grip on your life. Fortunately, it is more common than you would ever imagine and the key to unlocking those shackles lies in open and honest conversation about it.