I am not a mental health professional. Nonetheless, having lived with a man who has been diagnosed as a sex addict by not one but two medical professionals on opposite ends of our country (including one who is far from being fully on the sex addiction bandwagon – but that’s a whole other post), and having read as much sex addiction literature (scholarly and otherwise) as the internet and Amazon can provide, I feel like I may have something small to offer here. Maybe.
The World Health Organization’s recent decision to include compulsive sexual behavior as a mental health condition on its International Classification of Diseases list (the ICD-11) has brought the sex addiction deniers out of the woodwork. To be clear, whether you call it “sex addiction” or you call it “compulsive sexual behavior” is mere semantics. The nature of the conduct at issue is indistinguishable.
On DDay #2, I learned that at this time last Summer Handsome was juggling me PLUS four other women, PLUS he was involved in pic collecting, voyeurism, pornography, and a laundry list of other sexual behaviors. It was instantly clear to me that something was very, very wrong. This was more than just casual pleasure-seeking and random self-indulgence. Why? Because Handsome was clearly miserable, distraught, and depressed. He wasn’t just sad he got caught (although there was likely a bunch of that going on). He did these things compulsively and rather than bringing him pleasure, they were literally destroying him. His drinking had escalated. His anger management was abysmal. He was alienating our family. He jeopardized his job to the point that I am still amazed he managed to keep that job. He looked unwell. It was like he was being poisoned from the inside out. I see this in hindsight. At the time, the day-to-day destruction was almost imperceptible – kind of like how you might not notice a parent aging and declining if you see them every day.
Imagine that you are throwing a birthday party for a friend. All the guests arrive and you head to the kitchen to put candles on the cake and you find that your spouse has cut a piece of the cake and eaten it. You might think “Wow, what a jerk.” Maybe you could write it off as a misunderstanding or a bout of selfishness or poor judgment. You would be mad and perhaps hurt, but not alarmed. Now imagine that instead you walk into the kitchen to find that your spouse has eaten the entire cake, all of the appetizers, the entirety of the main course, and that he/ she had started eating their way through the refrigerator and freezer. You would instantly realize that something was terribly, terribly wrong and that help was needed. That’s exactly what I felt like on DDay #2.
In those early days I would read voraciously and clip out text that spoke to me or that I found really helpful to my understanding of what was going on… what I was dealing with. I wanted to understand what Handsome was feeling and experiencing during the time he did these things. I was also skeptical about the legitimacy of sex addiction and yet I intuitively knew that Handsome wasn’t exactly enjoying himself… that he seemed caught up in something he couldn’t break free of. He wasn’t living like a happy man. He was using others and being used by them and, on some deep, dark level, he knew that sad fact. It just took a few months of therapy to surface.
I wanted answers to my questions. How could he risk everything? Why did it continue even though it made him miserable? I found the following text on a now defunct blog written by the wife of a sex addict [note: I just had these lines copied into my notebook without citation, but thanks to Maggie for her comment below with the correct reference to the now inactive blog “Living with a Sex Addict.” http://livingwithasexaddict.com/ and the post “Sex Addiction as a Fantasy Addiction.”] The following paragraphs are about intercourse, but they could just as easily describe the pursuit of a voyeuristic encounter or sexting or pic collecting or the use of pornography. Handsome says that this is remarkably what it was like for him:
“…[s]ex addiction may not be exactly what it sounds like. He isn’t addicted to good sex or sex with beautiful women. This isn’t a case of him wanting “better” sex. I know this only because he wasn’t getting better sex when he acted out. He was getting terrible sex with whomever he could find or pay. The important thing for the addict is the fantasy that accompanies the act, rather than the act itself, which is often disappointing. Fantasy transports him from his real life. Sex blots out what is really happening inside him. And what is happening inside him is terrible, debilitating shame.
Why does the distinction between being addicted to sex and being addicted to sex fantasy matter? Perhaps it doesn’t. But it helps to understand the fantasy component because then it makes sense that he’d engage in sex even when his physical sex drive is low, even if he can’t get an erection while doing so, or even when he’s getting plenty of sex at home.
…The rituals that come before an episode of sexual “acting out” have been observed to be very similar to those used by narcotics addicts before taking a drug. A state of hyper-arrousal (not sexual arousal, as such, but a kind of awakened excitement of the addict’s entire being) precedes the event, and sex addicts enter a state they often refer to as “the bubble” in which they are completely consumed by the planning and execution of their next sexual encounter.
The addict then does everything he can to elongate the time that sex occupies in his mind, to stay in the fantasy. His experience of addiction begins with these first moments of anticipation. He may or may not have any specific partner in mind or any specific act, but this preamble to sex pulls him away from negative feelings about himself and his life at least for a while.
Once the act is completed (the fantasy being dashed ultimately by the awful reality) the addict despairs. First, because the act was so fruitless—he’s back where he started, the same as last time. The sex [if any] almost certainly wasn’t what he’d hoped for, and didn’t accomplish whatever he’d imagined it might (yet again). And now he’s opened the possibility that you will find out and the only real love in his life will be taken away. He regrets what he’s done. He’s deeply sorry; he has almost unbearable shame.
Even worse, he knows he is likely to do it all again.”
I would only add to this description to emphasize again that for many who engage in compulsive sexual behavior, if not perhaps most, actual intercourse is neither the goal nor the point, and not even necessarily desired. Handsome was addicted to sexual attention and fantasy. He got his hits from showering the OW with attention (texts, sexts) and to receiving attention in return. If that attention was sexual, all the better. Bonus points if it was explicit. The intercourse he did have with the Whore was short and unsatisfying, and even all the unprotected oral ultimately wasn’t worth continuing (for her at least). Would he have slept with the others if he could have? Maybe, but he also seems to have passed up multiple opportunities to do just that. Regardless, the end result would have been the same… unsatisfying, impersonal rutting followed by deep shame. On some level, I think Handsome knew that and so his developing addiction focused on attention, fantasy, and self-pleasure instead.
There are, without a doubt, serial philanderers and folks who simply love as much strange as they can possibly get. That doesn’t make them addicts. I don’t believe that they experience what is described above. For them, it is a pleasurable process and there is no shame because, well, they just don’t feel bad about what they’re doing. They enjoy themselves and find pleasure beyond the encounter in their actions. They aren’t embarrassed and, while they might not want to get caught, that’s due more to their concern about consequences than to any deep internal shame. That certainly doesn’t describe Handsome or the other men he has encountered in his recovery.
Did Handsome enjoy driving by the Whore’s house to see her flash her boobs at him? In that singular moment, yes. And then sometimes minutes later he would be screaming at himself in frustration because the hit had passed, the momentary high had gone, and the shame train came barreling into the station. He’d resume texting her and sexting to try to stave off that bad feeling for as long as he could. In those fleeting moments he felt wanted, or at least special enough for a trashy married mother of three to stand topless in the dirty window of her dilapidated house and play with her nipples for him and the neighborhood to see. Now, in hindsight and after months of therapy, he sees it for what it was: desperate, pathetic, and just like a heroin addict chasing the proverbial dragon no matter the costs.
While there was a part of Handsome that hated having to come (partially) clean on DDay #1, there is another part of him that felt abject relief. He was exhausted, literally, trying to keep all of the pins he was juggling up in the air. (With my dark sense of humor I occasionally joke that most guys can’t deal well with one woman, let alone FIVE, on a daily basis, so what guy in his right mind would even try.) A part of him wanted desperately to just stop doing what he was doing, but he lacked the fortitude to make the break on his own. As with other addictions, he would make a mental decision to stop, only to slide back down the slope into the compulsive behavior. Having Fire Dude “out” his affair with the Whore to me was the shove he needed to end everything. It was his NARCAN revival moment – a second chance at life. It still took him several more months to come clean with his disclosures and he made a half-hearted effort to cling to a few last vestiges (saying goodbye to Angel Baby, dragging his feet on the letter to the Flame, etc.), but he says that he has had zero contact – other than sending the no contact letter to the Flame – in almost 9 months and maintained sexual sobriety throughout that entire time, and I believe that to be true.
Sex addiction deniers spend a lot of time on the issue of withdrawal, but I think, again, that this misunderstands the nature of the addiction. Does Handsome miss the skanks? He says not and I don’t think he does. I believe he does, however, miss being fawned over throughout the day, each and every day. He misses that attention factory. He misses the constant “hits” throughout his day. How can I tell? He is more obviously emotionally needy. (Something I never, ever detected previously over our 15+ years together.) Early on we also had to focus a bit on gratuitous touching versus that which is timely, appropriate, and mutually pleasurable. There are clearly some gaps where the addictive, compulsive behavior used to reside, and we are working on filling those gaps with healthy, positive thoughts and behaviors. It is a work in progress.
Will Handsome’s world end if sex addiction/ sexually compulsive behavior doesn’t gain further traction as being “real” in the sphere beyond the WHO? No. Handsome is more than his diagnosis. He is making strides in his recovery. It is, however, an added challenge to conquer a problem when you start behind the 8-ball because others deny that your problem even exists.