GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2004
Sexual AddictionBy Lynn Phillips
“Getting involved sexually with a man at work was like picking up a drink for me. I descended into a fog. When I was sexually acting out, I was oblivious to how my behavior was affecting other people and me. It made me susceptible to all the negativity in the office. I threw away my self-esteem. I discarded any hope for positive self-talk.”
—An alcoholic sex addict in recoveryThe line between an active and healthy sex life and “compulsive sexuality,” “sexual acting-out,” or “sexual addiction” seems like it should be quite wide and clear. Unfortunately, as many lawyers have discovered, it is not. Why? In part, the answer lies in the nature of addiction itself.
The Nature of AddictionThroughout this “Bumps in the Road” issue of GPSolo, addiction is described as a progressive disease, in which the main features are preoccupation, continued use or involvement as the consequences rise, and loss of control. Over time, the frequency of use, amount, cost (in terms of money, time, and other consequences), and sense of being owned by the addiction, rather than owning it, all increase. The addictive substance or process becomes the giver of all good things—stress reduction, escape, reward, excitement, comfort. It changes the mood. It must be present to make an activity worthwhile. At times, an individual may question this dependence as suspect, alarming, or—as the addiction gets worse—downright scary. The addict takes risks that no lawyer, thinking clearly, would take, risks that could endanger one’s reputation, family, friendships, and even the right to practice.The two brain centers involved in addiction are the more primitive midbrain (or limbic system) and the more evolved frontal cortex. The midbrain is home to the pleasure/reward center and is in charge of survival; its only concerns are those that ensure the organism will live and produce offspring. The frontal cortex is home to reason, judgment, morality, and other higher-level functions. In the brains of addicts, the midbrain mutes, shuts down, or otherwise impairs the frontal cortex. Without the frontal cortex to restrain it, the midbrain takes over.Addictive substances and processes work in the midbrain by causing a biochemical surge (specifically, dopamine). The midbrain equates the addictive substance/process with survival. To the midbrain, it’s the best thing ever, the surest way to produce the desired biochemical surge; as the addiction progresses, it’s the only way.
What Is Sexual Addiction?So how does something as innate as sex become an addiction? And what is a sexual addiction anyhow? A sexual addiction is a compulsive dependence on any sexual behavior that preoccupies the addict, who continues to act compulsively as the consequences mount and who experiences the compulsion as beyond his or her ability to resist, control, or stop it. As the addiction develops, the addict needs to engage in more frequent or riskier behaviors to produce the same biochemical rush. The actual act may differ from addict to addict; the preoccupation, persistence, and compulsive need to continue do not.
For information about sexual addiction written by professionals:
For self-help groups (additional sites are listed at the professionally written sites as well):
Seeking RecoveryThe sexually addicted person usually does not “just stop.” Rather, a near miss of exposure, a partner finding out, or an arrest caused by risky behavior might present the addict with an opportunity to seek recovery. The intervention of concerned colleagues or friends might also serve as a catalyst for seeking help. Occasionally, and fortunately more frequently now that sexual addiction is better understood, sexually addicted persons may themselves come to the conclusion that they need to find a way out. Maybe they identified with a magazine article about sexual addiction, or perhaps their efforts to recover from another addiction produced a window of clarity about their sexual compulsions.Luckily, today there are many roads away from sexual addiction. A number of excellent residential treatment programs exist, some individual therapists have specialized training in sexual addiction, and a number of 12-step programs are available. The road is not easy: The sexual addict may experience withdrawal when first abstaining from the behaviors associated with the addiction. (Here’s the midbrain again, demanding its proven method of “survival.”) Most successful recovery is a mix of finding other ways to sooth the midbrain and reactivating the frontal cortex, re-engaging it in the business of living life.If, after reading this article, you have a concern about your own sexual behavior or that of a colleague, please contact your local lawyer assistance program. The staff will know where you can find help.Lynn Phillips is director of the District of Columbia Bar Lawyer Counseling Program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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