Is Sex or Porn Addiction Real?

After people learn that I am a therapist that specializes in sexuality and addictions they often ask me if I think sex addiction is real.  It’s now in the media pretty frequently and many folks wonder if it’s just an excuse for cheating behaviors.  There is a big difference between infidelity or cheating and truly sexually-addicted acting out behaviors.  Both are very real.  At the worst, I’ve seen sex addiction ruin lives and, at the least, temporarily ruin “normal” sexual functioning and deeply scar relationships.  What we call it doesn’t matter one bit.  I tell clients rather inelegantly, “A problem is a problem.  If you know it’s a problem, it doesn’t matter what we call it, you have a problem, let’s deal with it.”  Addictions hijack the rational brain.  Something that is addictive is something you’ve tried to stop, made many promises to yourself that you would indeed stop, and, for one reason or another, you’ve been totally unable to stop on your own.  You find yourself back online, scrolling sexual message boards, back at that “massage” place or the strip club, back on the webcam after your partner has gone to sleep… Your rational self wants you to stop this madness.  Your addicted brain proves powerless.  This is a problem.  You don’t want to or physically can’t seem to have decent sex with your partner anymore.  You’d much rather have the kind of sex you have in your private, secret life.

 

Food can be addictive in the same way sex can be.  Food can be misused, abused, something you are dependent on (used in a binging way to numb yourself) and finally, used addictively – something you use to self-soothe even though you promise yourself you will indeed stop.  Food and sex are what we therapists sometimes call process addictions.  They are complicated because you need to figure out a way to have a healthy relationship with them.  You can become sexually abstinate but that won’t really provide you the most well-rounded, healthy life.  If you can’t figure out a way to have a healthy relationship with food, that can be lethal.  People that really wind up with problematic sexual behaviors can ultimately put themselves in potentially lethal situations too.  They can contract sexually transmitted diseases, be the victim of blackmail or violent sexual crimes.  They can disrupt their families, children and relationships in devastatingly traumatic ways.  Yes, problematic sexual behavior can be a huge problem.  For some, it is an addiction.  It hijacks the brain and very similarly to cocaine.  Just like a cocaine addict experiences withdrawal symptoms once quitting, there are often many physical withdrawal symptoms when stopping a sexual addiction.  There can be headaches, body aches, intense irritability, depression, anxiety, even stomach upset.  And just like quitting any other drug, huge positive shifts are noticed physically and mentally at the 30 day, 60 day and 90 day markers.  Sex addiction lights up the same areas of the brain as does opiate addiction.  Somehow the neurochemicals activated by these two “substances” are encoded by the brain very similarly.  An active cocaine user shows a very different brain scan from a healthy brain using MRI technology.  A sexually-addicted brain looks similar to the cocaine addicted brain.  When that same cocaine addict hits 90 days of sobriety, his or her brain scan once again resembles a healthy, non-addicted brain.  My clients sober from their sexual acting out behavior similarly feel a huge shift at 90 days of sobriety.  Yet, now comes the truly tough part — maintaining healthy sobriety and gaining recovery…
  • Dr. Suzanne Pelka