4 Strategies for Sex Addicts in Recovery to Avoid Relapsing

FOR SEX ADDICTS, LIFE can be a seemingly never-ending quest to fulfill their sexual compulsions. Some male sex addicts, straight and gay, frequent prostitutes and seek anonymous liaisons through dating apps despite worries about contracting AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Some women sex addicts engage in a series of loveless encounters with partners they meet in bars and nightclubs. For some, the compulsion means spurning family events to spend hours watching pornography.

Though they know their compulsion is wrecking their life, active sex addicts can’t stop unless they embark on a recovery program that could include therapy, a stay in a rehabilitation center and participation in support-group meetings, clinicians say. Nationwide, about 12 million people in the U.S. are afflicted with sex addiction, an intimacy disorder characterized by “persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior despite increasing negative consequences to one’s self or others,” according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, a professional association for marriage and family therapists.

A Chronic Condition

The chronic condition, which some clinicians refer to as a hypersexual or intimacy disorder, is marked by compulsive behavior, unsuccessful efforts to stop the activity, risky actions and an inordinate amount of time spent seeking sexual gratification, says Stefanie Carnes, president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals in Carefree, Arizona. In addition to participating in compulsive sexual encounters and watching pornography, some sex addicts act out by engaging in risky and inappropriate online activity, such as sending sexually-provocative texts and photos, she says. The condition afflicts people of all social classes, including wealthy and famous people, Carnes says.

Among the well-known people who’ve reportedly struggled with sexual compulsion are pro golfer Tiger Woods, one of the best-known athletes in the world. In a 2010 statement, Woods apologized for a series of extramarital affairs. “Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security,” Woods said at the time. “It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught.” Several news agencies reported at the time that Woods had checked into a Mississippi clinic for treatment of sex addiction.

“All addictions, sex addiction included, are diseases that do not discriminate. Clinicians see clients from all socio-economic backgrounds, races, religions and cultures,” says Holly Daniels, the clinical outreach director at Sober College, a substance abuse rehabilitation facility for young adults with treatment centers in San Diego and Woodland Hills, California. About 8 to 10 percent of her substance abuse clients have intimacy disorders, Daniels says.

“Sex addiction is a compulsive behavior that helps the addict escape from emotional pain and intensity and self-medicate, in this case with compulsive sexual behavior,” she says. “Although there is a higher incidence of men struggling with sex addiction than women, that may be because women are more prone to seek different kinds of self-medicating behaviors. For example, eating disorders are much more prevalent in women than in men.” By a ratio of about 3 to 1, more men than women struggle with sex addictions, which affects people from all walks of life, including public figures, clinicians say.

More Research Needed

Therapists would probably know more about why sex addiction afflicts more men than women if there were more clinical studies on the disorder, Daniels says. There isn’t much research on the condition, possibly because the American Psychiatric Association’s latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders guide for consumers, called “Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide to DSM-5,” doesn’t list sex addiction as a mental disorder. That may make it more difficult for researchers to obtain funding, Daniels says. She hopes the APA will eventually include sex addiction in the DSM-5.

Despite the dearth of research, clinicians know plenty about sex addiction and what kinds of situations can trigger addicts to act on their compulsion. Here are common relapse triggers for sex addicts in recovery and coping strategies:

Visual Stimulation

Many sex addicts have a “sexual template” of the type of person that arouses them, says Anita Gahdia-Smith, a psychotherapist who practices in the District of Columbia and Bethesda, Maryland. Some of her sexually compulsive patients can be prompted to act out if they see someone who is their “type” on the street, in a social setting or even in a magazine photo, she says. “This can trigger a sexual impulse and the desire to act out sexually,” she says. The addict may feel a compulsion to find a partner for a quick hookup on a dating app or to find a prostitute.

To avoid acting on such an impulse sex addicts can learn how to let such images “starve and die,” Gahdia-Smith says. “Don’t linger on the image, divert your mind to other things,” she says. Calling a good friend, reading a book or focusing on a radio program can take you away from the illusion. “If you’re wired to engage in these fantasies, you probably will if your mind is in a vacuum. The more you think about it, the more you’re feeding the addiction,” she says. “Think of what you’re risking, what the consequences of a quick sexual encounter or hiring a prostitute could be.”

Social Events

Business-related gatherings and parties where there will be plenty of attractive people can be dicey for some sex addicts, particularly if a former sexual partner is there, Daniels says. Such people can prompt intense feelings of sexual longing that activate a sex addict’s compulsion. “Bookending” is a good strategy to deal with such situations, Carnes says. That’s a strategy in which a sex addict calls a friend who’s part of his or her network to talk before and after the gathering. Bookending provides the addict support and accountability. Sex addicts can build a network by attending meetings with groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous, support groups that encourage the 12-step model of recovery similar to one that’s helped millions of alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery.

Traveling Alone

For the sex addict, traveling, especially alone, can trigger a compulsion, Gahdia-Smith says. On a trip, a sex addict is away from his or her support and accountability network and, especially on a business foray, surrounded by strangers who are potential anonymous sex partners. In addition to being surrounded by strangers, being alone in a hotel room can be a relapse trigger for some sex addicts. That’s because many sex addicts use filters to block themselves from watching pornography on their cell phones and laptops, but could watch it on the TV in their hotel. When they’re physically away from their network, sex addicts can stay in contact through texts, emails and phone calls, and can quickly connect with support group meetings and fellow recovering sex addicts in whatever city or town they travel to, Gahdia-Smith says. As for pornography in their room, travelers can also ask hotel employees to disable whatever pornography channels are available.

Someone You Love Dies

Learning that someone you love has died or is facing a potentially fatal medical condition can provoke intense feelings in a sex addict that prompt him or her to self-medicate by acting on a sexual compulsion, Daniels says. To avoid responding to bad news in a self-destructive way, an addict can increase the number of support group meetings he or she attends and stay in touch with fellow addicts in recovery with emails, phone calls and texts. This can be a standing program for difficult times. “Recovery is a life-long process,” she says. “You have to have a plan in place for the rest of your life.”