173

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Title: Addicted to Love: Sex, Love & Compulsion
Author: Lisa Turney
Publisher: Do It Now Foundation
Publication Date: May 2007
Catalog Number: 173


..Pleasure and Pain

Their faces
are the faces of addicts. See if any look familiar.

  • Ben is a successful
    attorney. Married with three children, his life looks exemplary
    and he seems destined for great public achievement. But Ben also
    leads a secret life, revolving around visits to prostitutes and
    adult book stores. Lately, he’s taken to cruising the World Wide
    Web, downloading porn and searching for partners in electronic
    chat rooms and online hook-up sites.
  • Susan is
    a mid-level administrator and a single mother. Every few weeks
    or months she goes on a sexual binge, dressing provocatively
    and acting out exhibitionistic fantasies in local bars. She has
    sex with at least one man each night, and sometimes more.
  • Charles spends
    hours each day driving between retail outlets as head of regional
    sales for a publisher. Between clients, he often stops at shopping
    malls and supermarkets, fantasizing about sex with women he sees
    and masturbating. Increasingly, he spends his days cruising,
    rather than working.
  • Paul is gay
    and afraid of AIDS. Still, he spends most evenings and weekends
    in bars. He can’t remember how many men he’s had sex with in
    the past year, but guesses somewhere around 100.

And those are
just some of the faces — because according to experts, six to
10 percent of the American public experiences real problems with
sexual compulsivity or inappropriate sexual expression.

The personalities
and patterns change, but one thing stays the same. For addicts,
sex isn’t an expression of love or a pleasurable pastime, but
an obsessive force that causes trance-like states of arousal
and overpowering urges to act out sexual fantasies.

That’s the
way it is for millions of people — but it doesn’t have to stay
that way.

Loosening the
grip of sex addiction is possible, and starts with recognizing
it as a problem and identifying the factors that keep it in place.

And if its
your problem, it starts where you are now.


..What is sexual addiction?

Addictive sexuality
is like most other compulsive behaviors, including eating disorders
and drug and alcohol abuse: a potentially-destructive twist on
a normal life-enhancing activity.

Still, defining
sex addiction depends less on the behavior itself than on the
motivations of the person.

That’s why
even though each involves often-unacceptable activities, the
person given to sexual flings or an interest in pornography is
not necessarily a sexual addict.

The difference
lies in the ability to control or postpone sexual feelings and
actions. Sex addicts can’t — or don’t realize they can — for
long.

Rather than
trying to satisfy their sexuality, they ritualize sex instead,
even constructing elaborate scenarios that result in a constant
state of sexual arousal and need.

It’s the need
for arousal that replaces the need for intimacy in sex addicts.
Eventually, thrill-seeking becomes more important than family,
career, even personal health and safety.


..How can sex be addictive?

In the same
way other things are addictive — in the brain and central nervous
system.

In fact, researchers
have begun to unravel much of the mystery of sexual attraction
and compulsion through the study of the brain’s internal chemistry.

On a biochemical
level, sexual arousal lights up the central nervous system and
triggers powerful physiological changes. Hormone levels soar,
boosting heart rate and blood pressure and increasing overall
physical sensitivity.

But things
don’t end there.

That’s because
the brain also plays a big role in romance and sexual arousal.

In fact, the
so-called “chemistry of love” seems to be just that
— chemical chain-reactions in the brain. Researchers have even
identified a specific chemical in the brain (called phenylethylamine
or PEA) which they believe is implicated in the thrill and general
euphoria that comes with falling in love.

PEA is a
built-in “love drug.” It has stimulant properties like
cocaine and amphetamine. Levels of the chemical appear to rise
with feelings of infatuation which, in turn, boosts euphoria
and excitement.

Sex addicts,
then, may not be addicted to sex so much as they’re dependent
upon the physical and psychological arousal triggered by constant
“doses” of PEA and stress-related neurotransmitters.


..If love is addicting, why isn’t everyone
a sex addict?

For the same
reason that everyone who drinks a beer isn’t an alcoholic and
everyone who ever popped a pill or smoked a joint isn’t an addict.

Sexuality is
shaped to a great extent by learning, particularly within the
family. In fact, therapists say the family plays a key role in
the development of sexual compulsion.

Many sex addicts
report some form of abuse or neglect as children and frequently
see themselves as diminished or damaged in the process. The long-term
emotional fallout can involve chronic feelings of inadequacy
and low self-esteem. Their parents, often sex addicts themselves,
may attempt to compensate by raising their children with inflexible
attitudes about sexuality.

Under such
circumstances, normal forms of youthful sexual behavior, such
as masturbation, can become compulsive and ritualized, blunting
feelings of inadequacy, perhaps, but just as easily triggering
guilt and shame over “bad” behavior.

The cycle can
repeat itself into adulthood. Sexual compulsion is often accompanied
by complex, competing feelings of arousal and shame, excitation
and embarrassment. Continued compulsive sexual experiences may
offer a short-term relief from psychological pain, but eventually
feed back into the shame-blame cycle.

Stress also
plays a part in fueling compulsive sexual behavior. Demands on
the job and in the home can trigger sexual compulsion by feeding
the addict’s need for withdrawal and fantasy.

Problems of
sexual control are usually victimizing – both to the addict,
who feels powerless to stop, and others, who serve only as objects
of his or her arousal.


..What are signs of sex addiction?

Problems in
controlling sexual behavior usually reveal themselves in four
distinct stages:

  • Preoccupation: The person continually fantasizes about
    sexual prospects or situations. Constant sexual focus results
    in a high level of arousal which can trigger an episode of sexual
    “acting-out.”
    Ritualization: A preferred sexual activity or situation
    is often stereotyped and repetitive, and may include a wide variety
    of activities intended to keep arousal at a high pitch, rather
    than being aimed at sexual release.
  • Compulsion: The person continues to engage in sexual
    activity despite negative consequences and a sincere desire to
    stop. A sex addict can feel as powerless as an alcoholic or drug
    addict over his or her addiction.
  • Despair: Sex addicts experience guilt or shame, often
    intensely, over their inability to control their behavior or
    feel remorse for pain they’ve caused others. The psychological
    fallout is equally crippling. Addicts may suffer other behavioral
    problems, particularly chemical dependency and eating disorders.

Sex addicts
also frequently suffer from intense depression and anxiety, often
fueled by the fear of discovery. Suicide rates also tend to be
higher among those with problems of sexual control.

The toll that
compulsive sexuality takes is often seen in a loss of intimacy
with loved ones, including problems in family functioning, communication,
and marital sex life.

Ironically,
the way out of sexual addiction often centers on renewing and
strengthening the same relationships most affected by the problem.


..Regaining Control

Everyone’s
fallen in and out of love. And virtually everyone’s had sexual
experiences at one time or another that they felt powerless to
resist. Feelings of love and sexual excitement are part of being
human.

For sex addicts,
though, arousal is a self-reinforcing habit, no less than alcohol,
drugs, and other pursuits are to other addicts.

Putting your
life back together again after a period of sexual addiction first
rests on seeing compulsive sexuality for what it is: an addiction
— and a problem.

From there,
it’s important to cut yourself off from compulsive sexual behavior,
as surely as it’s necessary for an alcoholic to avoid the next
drink and a cocaine addict the next line or rock, in order to
rediscover the role of sexuality — and of others — in our lives.

Because what’s
missing from a sex addict’s life can’t be found in repeating
the same old patterns.

But it can
be discovered if we look close enough into the lives of others,
and see more there than potential sex partners or impulse objects,
and instead glimpse the deeper, ultimate love that connects and
binds us all.


..Sidebar | Other
‘Love’ Addictions

Today, sexual
addiction is often seen as just one of three common and sometimes
overlapping processes that involve “addictions” to
other people.

The other two
— labelled “love” and “relationship” addictions
— can be just as disruptive to the those involved and every
bit as self-defeating as sex addiction.

Differences
are both clear-cut and subtle.

Love addicts
live in endless anticipation of perfect love, and not finding
it with one lover, immediately begin searching for it with another.
A common result is a landscape littered with broken hearts and
homes.

Relationship
addicts fix their attention on a particular individual and act
out their dependency needs with that person, typically becoming
obsessed, isolated, and manipulating in the process.

Therapist and
author Anne Wilson Schaef describes the differences this way:
Sex addicts “come on,” she says, while romance addicts
“move on,” and relationship addicts “hang on.”

The one thing
they tend not to do, without a giant jolt of self-awareness,
though, is “get on” with their lives, free of the need
to control and manipulate others.


..Sidebar | Breaking
the Spell: Getting Past Sex Addiction

Overcoming
sexual compulsivity and addiction starts with recognizing that
you are out of control sexually, at least some of the time. Getting
to that point requires taking a hard look at yourself and the
problems — emotional, physical, or financial — caused by your
sexual behavior.

What comes
next depends on you, but should probably involve at least some
of the following:

A commitment
to abstinence. It’s impossible to move beyond compulsive sexuality
if you continue to act out sexual impulses. That’s why most treatment
programs recommend an initial period of abstinence for newly-recovering
members.

Rebuilding relationships. Rediscovering and rehabilitating relationships
with others, often through family or individual counseling, can
help reduce the isolation and loss of intimacy common among sex
addicts.Managing stress. Since stress often serves as a trigger
for periods of compulsive sexual activity, it’s a good idea to
learn new ways to control life stress.
Self-help. A number of support groups based on the AA model have
emerged in recent years in all areas of the country. Examples,
which include Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and Sex and Love Addicts
Anonymous (SLAA), can be found in your local phone book’s white
pages.


This is one in a series of publications
on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
Please call or write for a complete list of available titles,
or check us out online at
www.doitnow.org.


 

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