Sex addiction: symptoms, causes and solutions with Stu Fenton
Hi Stu, let’s start with an introduction.
I’m Stu Fenton, I’m Gestalt therapist and I currently manage a drug rehab or therapeutic community in Ballarat [Victoria, Australia]. I work predominantly with addictions. Initially, alcohol and drug addictions but more recently love addiction, sex addiction, love avoidance and
co-dependence. I’ve been working in treatment facilities and in my private practice for about 14 years.
Can you explain what sex addiction is?
I work mainly in line with the Patrick Carnes definition which is that sex addiction is defined as any sexually related, compulsive behaviour which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.
Sex addiction is defined as any sexually related, compulsive behaviour which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.
It is also referred to as sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. It’s represented in most cases as compulsive behaviour that completely dominates a person’s life. Sex addicts make sex in what whatever activity they engage in a priority more important than family, friends, and work.
How do you identify sex addiction?
Sex addicts are people who experience negative consequences when they engage with sex. They may spend inordinate amounts of time acting out with it, or they’ve lost a lot of money, or lost their job or their partner, and even access to their children. So, wherever something negative has happened, you could potentially identify sex addiction. Another thing to look out for is when you make a commitment to yourself that you’re not going to ‘act in’ a certain way again, but you continue to do it against your will. I think that it’s up to the individual to identify. I’ve met alcoholics, and I’ve met people who drink alcohol every day, and the latter say they don’t have any negative consequences. So, I wouldn’t call them an alcoholic necessarily – that’s the distinction.
So, you know you have an addiction when it starts to impact your life negatively?
Exactly. If you want to keep it simple, that’s when someone might want to take some steps to addressing sex addiction, when they’re not happy with it.
And is addict the right term, I know that some people are moving away from the term?
I use the term. There are people in this industry who think that you shouldn’t use the word addict in any way shape or form because they assume that there are negative connotations attached to it. If I go for job interviews, I have to consciously use the word drug user, not addict. But in my work, mostly in treatment facilities, they will use the word addict. So, it’s a bit of a bone of contention and I have a problem with it.
I have an interesting history in that I have an English Literature degree and a lot of what I studied talked about how we endow words with meaning and so for me, the word addict is completely neutral. It just means a person who consistently goes back and uses something that has negative impacts on their life. Now, I don’t see that as a negative thing. I see that as a fact. But I think a lot of people who don’t like the word addict, have endowed it with all this is a person putting needles in their arms running around the streets doing crime. And that’s the kind of negative connotation they give it, but I don’t.
For me, the word addict is completely neutral. It just means a person who consistently goes back and uses something that has negative impacts on their life. Now, I don’t see that as a negative thing. I see that as a fact.
Are there symptoms to look out for?
In my experience, sex addiction takes about 12 different forms, some people are addicted to pornography, some people might be having an affair with someone outside their marriage or primary relationship. For another it might be exhibitionism or going to brothels and seeing sex workers. So, the symptoms can vary a bit. If we look at someone who’s addicted to porn, they might not actually have a withdrawal, but what they do have is a sort of internal ethical battle with themselves. Let’s say they have a wife and a young daughter who’ve gone to bed and they’re up jerking off to porn – it’s the amount of shame and guilt they feel each night as they do that. So, this type of person is going to feel emotionally depleted over time.
Let’s talk about causes, do you see common triggers in your patients?
A lot of the conferences I’ve been to, and the literature that I’ve read, tend to suggest that trauma can be a trigger or cause. In sex addiction literature, there’s a concept called ‘the arousal template’. This forms when a person is growing up, usually somewhere in their childhood, teens or early 20s. Something traumatic happens to them and the way they act out sexually mimics that trauma.
In sex addiction literature, there’s a concept called ‘the arousal template’. This forms when a person is growing up, usually somewhere in their childhood, teens or early 20s. Something traumatic happens to them and the way they act out sexually mimics that trauma.
So, I worked with a client once whose parents let them wait with a worker in their business after they got home from school until their parents got home. The story is quite shocking as they were about 7 or 8 years old. The worker was inviting this person to give them oral sex every day, which went on for years. So, when this person was older there was a fixation on giving oral sex to men and doing it on a regular basis, which fit with the arousal template that had been created.
I worked with another male whose mother died when he was really young. He and his father were both very impacted by the death. His father started to bring home a whole lot of women, probably unconsciously to cope with his grief. So, while my client was grieving his mother’s death, he saw his father coping by having sex with a lot of random women. Then when he got older his sex addiction took the form of going and seeing female sex workers, basically seeing a lot of women randomly, just as he had witnessed his father do at a time in his life where he had experienced something traumatic.
What does a typical recovery journey look like?
There are about six different models of approaches to sex addiction worldwide – most have evolved in the USA. I work with the Patrick Carnes model. His model suggests that you must commit to a celibacy contract which takes out all ‘feel good’ options that trigger the reward system in the brain. So, for the first 90 days, I’d ask a client to not have any sex, not to masturbate, eat sugar, eat processed foods, not watch pornography. . . You basically make their life bland and boring. The whole point of that is that the reward system in our brains has a pilot light and the minute that you put any of this stimulating activity like in front of it, it lights up very quickly. When you have a craving, you go from A to B to C very quickly, but if you spend 90 days cooling, cooling right down with no stimulus at all, then you’re not as inclined to go from A to B to C when you have a craving, or when you’re triggered by something.
So, for the first 90 days, I’d ask a client to not have any sex, not to masturbate, eat sugar, eat processed foods, not watch pornography. . . You basically make their life bland and boring. The whole point of that is that the reward system in our brains has a pilot light and the minute that you put any of this stimulating activity like in front of it, it lights up very quickly.
It’s very complicated work in terms of the model that Patrick Carnes created, and it will be different for every individual. There’s two workbooks, and a number of tasks that you have to go to – so the next task is creating an inner zone, middle zone and outer zone plan for the client, based on pattern or behaviours they’re trying to break. It’s called the three-zone plan and it has to be co-created with myself and the client because everyone’s bottom lines are different.
It would also be strongly advocated that the client goes to some sort of 12 Step group to get a lot of support and get a Sponsor and a Mentor. Any addiction requires you to have a massive amount of support around you while you get sober. And then when the person has achieved sobriety, then you have to start looking at the underlying issues, like what was the template or trauma? And you start to heal that.
What does life look like for someone who’s been through that process?
What I’ve noticed with sex addiction is that people will have slip ups. And when they do, they use the program to get back on track again, which is the same for drug addiction. Some people go for five years, have a slip up, and get back on the plan. That’s why in every single kind of area with addiction, there’s a reframing of relapse and failure that needs to happen. Relapse is a part of the cycle. So, when it happens, you don’t go into a shame spiral and get stuck feeling like you have failed but you get up and get going again.
That’s why in every single kind of area with addiction, there’s a reframing of relapse and failure that needs to happen. Relapse is a part of the cycle.
Do you have any tips for people who think they might have a sex addiction?
The first step would be to make an appointment and go and see a sex addiction therapist, even if you just want to talk for an hour about your thoughts and feelings and concerns. Recently I worked with a person who came to me thinking they were a sex addict. I worked with him for a few months, but I concluded after a period of time that they were not a sex addict. They were acting out in certain ways that were leading to feelings of shame and guilt, so we worked through why that was happening and what was leading them to do that and then, as it turned out, they were then able to do some couples/relationship work around the particular issue which led to greater self-awareness and healing for that person and his partner.
So, this person is (by definition) not a sex addict, although I think a good way to explain his situation is by looking at how we have drug users, drug abusers and drug addicts. It’s the same with sex. There’s sex users, then there’s people who have sex with some problems – sex abusers, and then sex addicts. This client ultimately fell into the middle category, which is ‘I’m doing something sexually at the moment that’s impacting me and impacting how I feel about myself and my marriage negatively’. So, we worked together and explored why he was acting out in this specific way. The conclusion was that he was feeling left out of the family and distanced from his partner. There were specific issues that the two of them needed to face about the relationship and change. They needed to communicate better about this situation. These discoveries were incredibly important. As they communicated and worked through these issues, she was also able to look at the situation from a different perspective as did he, which lead to changes and a more functional relationship – now things are back on track.
We have drug users, drug abusers and drug addicts. It’s the same with sex. There’s sex users, then there’s people who have sex with some problems – sex abusers, and then sex addicts.
What about if they aren’t ready to see a professional yet?
I would suggest reading a text by Patrick Carnes. He has a book called Out of the Shadows, and another one called Facing the Shadow, which will be helpful. There’s quite a lot of literature out there, America is exploding with sex addiction literature and therapists because it’s the fastest growing addiction in the world. So, if you go to Amazon or Book Depository and do a search for sex addiction resources, you’ll get pages of suggestions. Alexandra Katehakis is another one of the big writers over there at the moment. Rob Weiss has a number of books, Out of the Doghouse and Sex Addiction 101, and he’s also written one for LGBTQI+ people called Cruise Control.
I think that’s the best thing you could do if you didn’t want to get treatment. The other thing would be talking to someone you can trust, which can help because it’s usually shame and guilt that makes a person feel ‘bad’ and when you share with someone else that’s able to hear you it takes away a lot of the intensity of those emotions.
The other thing would be talking to someone you can trust, which can help because it’s usually shame and guilt that makes a person feel ‘bad’ and when you share with someone else that’s able to hear you it takes away a lot of the intensity of those emotions.
Can you give us some tips for people who want to support someone in their life that has a sex addiction?
Don’t give them ‘armchair psychotherapy’, because a lot of people who don’t know anything about addiction will say things like, ‘why don’t you just stop doing that?’ Or ‘Why do you have to do that?’ None of these comments are helpful. These people are looking at person who is struggling through the lens of their own personal experience. So, I think the best thing a friend can do is to listen and try not to appear too shocked if they hear stories that are shocking. You might say, ‘I feel a little bit uncomfortable listening to this, however I want you to know that I’m able to be here for you because you’re my friend and I want to support you in any way I can’. But most of all, just being there and being able to support them and be available. Encourage them if they say they want to go and get support or see a therapist.
Can you tell us a bit more about the support programs available to sex addicts?
In Australia, we’ve only got a few 12 step support fellowships; SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) and SLAA (which has a more general focus because it’s for Love Addicts, Love Avoidance, Sex Addicts and Anorectics). So, I’d recommend going to SAA.
Thanks Stu, do you have a sex hack you can leave us with?
Mine is about sexuality. I grew up in a very homophobic family which had a massive impact on my identity and how I felt about myself for a long time. Fortunately, we live in a world today where people are coming out as pansexual and non-binary and gender fluid and gay and lesbian and bisexual and you know, it’s such a beautiful thing. The bottom line for me is as long as I’m not hurting myself or someone else, then whatever sex I’m having is fine.
It really pays to be aware of yourself in any given situation that you’re really enjoying sex. I read a great piece of writing the other day on an LGBTIQ+ website. I can’t remember the exact words but the most beautiful thing about it was that it was basically saying ‘Do you really think God, if there was a God, would create sex so that it was available for the heterosexual people only and not for the LGBTQI+ people?’ No, they would want you to have sex and enjoy it. And I really believe that 100%. I think that things like religion and Victorian attitudes etc have toxified sex, and the way people judge it and see it. And I think we have to stop doing that.