The Cycle of Compulsive Sexual Behavior

What makes an individual’s normal sexual impulses become compulsive? And why can’t they hide or control these compulsions? Why can’t some people seem to stop themselves from doing things that are damaging, dangerous, or illegal? Mark Robinett, a marriage and family therapist in San Francisco, California, summarized the six steps that typically lead to a sexual compulsion:

  1. Pain: The cycle begins when a person experiences something unpleasant. He or she may be stressed, nervous, angry, lonely, or even just bored. The person becomes upset and looks for ways to feel better but doesn’t know how. He or she doesn’t feel comfortable going to friends and loved ones for support, but also feels unable to let go of the problem.

  2. Dissociation: Dissociation happens when people aren’t comfortable with the feelings they are having or the way they are handling an event, so they mentally and emotionally separate their identity from their behavior. People who dissociate may actually get to the point where they are having unpleasant or anxiety-producing thoughts. They may begin to imagine that they are another person. They ignore their feelings and the stress in order not to feel guilty or disgusted by their behavior.

  3. Altered state: Once the person dissociates, he or she continues doing things but does them in what is called an altered state. This means that the person isn’t acting as he or she usually would; they are behaving in a way that lets them deny their problems. Their desire to act out sexually becomes a way for them to feel better without actually addressing whatever the real problem is. For example, someone in an altered state who has had a fight with a girlfriend or boyfriend might cheat instead of apologizing or seeking to resolve the argument. The individual would momentarily feel better while cheating, even though he or she had actually done nothing to improve the relationship and, in fact, most likely harmed it further.

  4. Pursuing: At this point, the person has decided on a form of sexual release to handle whatever the problem is and makes an effort to begin the act. Pursuing refers to any action taken that helps a person find what they think they are looking for, from spying on neighbors to finding on-line pornographic images, to cruising for prostitutes, to going to a party to find a stranger to have sex with.

  5. Behavior: This is the actual sexual act itself. Whatever momentary release of tension or anxiety is achieved is often followed by feelings of guilt, shame, disappointment, emptiness, and regret.

  6. Repetition: Up to this point, whatever sex act the person has engaged in remains potentially just a one-time thing. It may have been dysfunctional act, in that it does not deal with whatever the real problem is directly, but it is still an isolated incident at this point. What makes the behavior compulsive, however, is that it begins to happen repeatedly and regularly. Whether it is an hour later or six months later, the person will go through the same process the next time there is a situation that he or she feels incapable of handling. When the person continually and consistently reacts to situations with the particular behavior, he or she can be said to have compulsive sexual behavior or a sex addiction.

Sometimes the sexual behavior is a quick activity that makes the person feel only a little bit better. More often, a sex addict will repeat their behavior more and more frequently or in increasingly extreme ways. Dr. Carnes found that 89 percent of sexual addicts “binge to exhaustion”—meaning that they commit their acts with such energy and emotion that they wind up too exhausted to deal with anything else going on in their lives including the problems that lie at the source of their compulsive behavior.

Why Can’t People Stop?

Why don’t people just stop as soon as they realize that they are reenacting the same pattern? Robinett explains that breaking the cycle is not as easy as it may sound. Many people do not realize they are acting out sexually until they have reached step three, an altered state.

Once they feel divorced from their feelings, the next step is usually to act out. Because they are not in a normal frame of mind, however, they aren’t able to make a decision to stop the process. Instead, they go ahead with the behavior, feeling guilty and awful during it— but also not feeling that they have any alternative.

Sexual addiction also involves behaviors that stimulate brain chemistry, releasing neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins. With compulsive behaviors, you can create an addiction to your own brain chemicals, similar to the way you can develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. This addiction follows the same patterns as, for example, an addiction to cocaine. The person develops tolerance, needing the behavior either more frequently, more intensely, or in greater quantity. The person then experiences a coming down or rebound effect, which is characterized by feelings of depression, self-hatred, guilt, and shame. Feeling that kind of low can then set up a craving to engage in the behavior again, in order to get the relief and high through the release of dopamine or other neurotransmitters.

How Can the Cycle Be Broken?

In order to change compulsive behavior, people have to realize at stages one or two that they are beginning the process. This requires sufferers to be self-aware. They must first figure out what triggers their behavior—whether it is sadness, loneliness, rejection, anger, frustration, or something else. Then the next time they experience one of these emotions, they must make a conscious effort to express their feelings in a different way, such as talking to a friend, exercising, having a good cry, or making an appointment with their therapist. Many people, though, instead dissociate without realizing it. Once they reach that point, it becomes much harder to stop the process.

The challenge in overcoming compulsive sexual behavior is changing the way that a person handles life and the problems and tensions that crop up. A professional therapist is the best person to help you identify your problems and explore ways to confront them in a more safe, healthy, and effective way.

Could Compulsive Behavior Be Chemical in Nature?

Some psychologists theorize that sexual addiction is actually a chemical addiction to adrenaline, dopamine, or endorphins, all hormones made in the body. During a sex act, the excitement causes these chemicals to be released. The combination of the body’s own biological rush and the psychological thrill of committing an illicit act can temporarily make people feel powerful, sexy, and in control. The high from getting away with hiring a prostitute or watching someone undress gives the person a strange sense of self-congratulation. According to this theory, the person then gets addicted to this chemical and the behavioral rush it causes and will continually aim for bigger and better highs.

The Effects of Sexual Addiction

Whatever the mechanisms of sex addiction, experts do agree that sexually compulsive behavior has a series of negative effects on an individual’s life. The person will start to organize his or her life around the next sexual release, constantly planning for or worrying about his or her next act. A porn addict might hoard certain magazines and live in constant anxiety about them being discovered. A compulsive masturbator will schedule the day so that he or she can be in a bathroom every two hours, greatly disrupting his or her school or workday. A man who goes to prostitutes regularly will spend large amounts of his income and lie often about where he was and what he was doing. And a woman who wants to have sex with different guys will spend money on clothes and makeup and meticulously plot her night’s activities so that she has the best chance of meeting new people.

As fantasizing about the sexual behavior takes up more and more of the person’s time, the behavior itself becomes ritualized. This means that the individual will have an exact idea of how, when, and where the behavior will take place. It may always occur at a certain time of day or after every stressful conversation. But one thing is certain: It is definitely not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Addicts prepare for the act and know exactly how it will happen, even if they don’t know why they’re driven to do it.

Many addicts finish the act feeling guilty or ashamed, then soon find themselves wanting to do it “just one more time”—which, of course, repeats itself endlessly. Soon they are living a double life—the half that everyone knows about, and the other half, which indulges in the secret, hidden habits of sexual release.

Questions Your Therapist May Ask You

The following are some questions frequently used by therapists to determine whether someone has a sexual addiction. Someone who answers yes to several of the following questions may be at risk for a sexual addiction.

  1. Were you abused as a child?

  2. Have you recently purchased or viewed pornographic materials?

  3. Are you preoccupied with sexual thoughts?

  4. Are your friends or loved ones worried about your behavior? Have they complained about you being preoccupied with sex?

  5. Do you think you could stop your sexual behavior if you tried?

  6. Has your sexual behavior created any problems for you at home, school, or work, or with your boyfriend or girlfriend?

  7. Do you worry about people finding out about the nature or frequency of your sexual behavior?

  8. Has your behavior emotionally hurt you or someone else?

  9. Have you ever broken the law?

  10. Do you feel bad about your sexual behavior?

  11. Have you ever felt degraded by your sexual behavior?

  12. Are you often depressed?

  13. Do you have sexual relationships with people much older or much younger than you?

  14. Do you feel like you’re living a double or secret life?

  15. Do you avoid sex?

  16. After a sex act, do you want to get away from the person? Do you feel guilty, remorseful, or ashamed?

  17. Have you ever tried to stop how frequently you masturbate, where you do it, or your fantasies?

  18. Do you feel asexual or worry that you have no sexual feelings?

  19. Do you feel like you’re not a whole person if you’re not having sex or in a relationship?

  20. Do you pursue your sexual behavior so much that you don’t pursue other areas of personal growth?

  21. Have you had any concerns about your sexual behavior (in the last year)?

  22. Have your lovers or friends been worried or upset about your sexual behavior?

  23. Do you try to hide some of your sexual behavior from your friends and lovers?

  24. Do you find it hard to keep commitments (to yourself or others) regarding your sexual behavior?

  25. Do you have trouble stopping your sexual behavior when you know it is risky?

  26. Have you ever felt that your sexual behavior was out of control?

  27. Do you find yourself getting into more and more risky situations?

  28. Is sex more exciting for you if there is some risk or danger involved?

  29. Do you count on sex as an escape or a way of coping with problems?

  30. Do you ever feel like you are seeking a more perfect (or peak) sexual experience?

  31. Do you feel that you have to be high (use drugs or alcohol) to have the sexual experience you want?

  32. Have you had any STDs in the last year?