Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003


What If the Substance Is Sex?

By Chris Frey

Several years ago I was presenting on the topic of sexual addiction to a group of attorneys in substance abuse recovery, most with many years of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sobriety. Early in the presentation one participant raised his hand and, in all sincerity, asked, "So what's wrong with having a lot of sex?" My response was, "Absolutely nothing. In fact, I recommend many people have a lot of sex."

I went on to say that sexual addiction is not about frequency of sex any more than alcoholism is simply about frequency of alcohol intake. Sexual addiction leads to dysfunction and despair in all major life areas. Estimates are that one-third of the active members of AA are also sexually addicted. This addiction, like chemical dependency, crosses boundaries of age, profession, and gender. As I spoke, heads began to nod affirmative; these folks understood the beast. They also understood the good news: There is an excellent program of recovery available to sex addicts.

How Much Is Too Much?
Sexual addiction has many "drugs of choice": pornography, serial sexual or emotional affairs, anonymous sex, compulsive masturbation, sex with prostitutes, phone sex, and the rapidly growing problem of secret online acting out. The results can be devastating. In pursuit of the sexual high, risks are taken with physical health, family, career, and emotional well-being. Arrests and near arrests become common for sexual addicts.

As stated, sexual addiction is not an issue of too much sex; it is an issue of too little intimacy. The addict substitutes more exciting, more frequent, more dangerous sex for relationships, emotional connections, and love. Peak physical moments are rapidly replaced by guilt, shame, and sexual withdrawal, blended with a hunger for more risk. The gap between the addict's public self and an increasingly out-of-control secret life creates escalating feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.

Even in its early stages (usually in early adolescence) sexual addiction can be identified by the presence of preoccupation and compulsion. Preoccupation can take form in:

-obsessive, intrusive thoughts about sex or preparing for sex;
-increasing amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences;
-giving up or limiting work, family, and social activities in pursuit of sex; and
-a pattern of failed attempts to stop, reduce, or control sexual thoughts and behaviors.

Compulsion is identified by:
-a recurrent failure to resist impulses to engage in sexual behaviors;
-a pattern of choosing sex at the expense of fulfilling other responsibilities;
-frustration, anxiety, or other distress if unable to engage in sex;
-the continuation of behaviors despite legal, financial, emotional, family, health, or career costs that increase over time; and
-diminishing satisfaction from sex, often combined with more intense and risky behaviors.

Why Do I Need This Information?
First, sexual addicts find themselves, in large numbers, interacting with attorneys and judges daily: exhibitionists, voyeurs, clients arrested in prostitution or porn stings, and clients needing representation in divorce or custody disputes. These sex addicts are repeat offenders; without appropriate consequences and treatment, they will find their way back into the legal system, at increasing costs to themselves and others. Attorneys are often in the position to become first-line referral sources.

Second, sexual addiction can and does find its way into the personal lives of lawyers, with significant costs to career and family. For the past six years I have served as a referral source for the Missouri Lawyer's Assistance Program, counseling attorneys who have spent secret hours online and in adult bookstores, video arcades, and motels-hours they had intended for the practice of law. I have treated several attorneys who themselves needed legal representation because of illegal sexual acts, divorce and custody disputes, and financial reversals all directly correlated with addictive behavior. This may be your story or the story of someone you work closely beside.
Third, the boundaries of appropriate sexual conduct between professionals and clients-including those for the legal profession-have become increasingly defined during the past decade. Understanding and respecting the imbalance of power in the lawyer-client relationship is an awareness that will escape many sexual addicts without outside assistance.

Getting Help
A growing number of therapists are available with expertise in this addiction. The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (NCSAC) keeps a listing of qualified clinicians and treatment centers in each state. These professionals can assist in assessment, along with providing treatment and referral to other community services. Psychotherapy is essential for many sexual addicts:

-the origins of the addiction are often in childhood sexual or emotional trauma that must be resolved for a stable program of sobriety;
-the addict's marital and other relationships are deeply distressed and require therapy;
-sexual addicts often struggle with other primary issues requiring treatment and referral, such as depression and chemical dependency; and
-unlike alcoholics, most sexual addicts will not abstain from their substance for a lifetime, creating a need for new models of healthy sexual behavior.

Many communities now have 12-step meetings for sexual addicts: Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA), and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Meetings are also available for co-addicts: Co-Dependents of Sex Addicts (COSA) and S-Anon, attended by spouses and life partners. Drawing from the steps and principles of AA, these meetings offer support in an addict's attempt to end a life of secrecy and abstain from compulsive sex. Meetings can be located by contacting the local 12-step community or the NCSAC (770/541-9912).

There is a wealth of literature on sexual addiction. Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction and Contrary to Love: Helping the Sexual Addict by Patrick Carnes are excellent beginning resources for lay and professional readers. Often, clients come to me having self-diagnosed their addiction while reading one of these books.

Finally, lawyer's assistance programs can be a vital contact point for attorneys, both for the lawyer who is voluntarily seeking assistance and for the professional reported for sexual misconduct. It is essential that program staff understand this addiction.
There is hope.

Chris Frey, LCSW, is in private practice in St. Louis, Missouri, and is the author of Men At Work: An Action Guide to Masculine Healing and Father Time: Stories on the Heart and Soul of Fathering. He can be reached at freyeagle@prodigy.net.

Back to Top