The Value of (Temporary) Sexual Abstinence
Sexual sobriety, unlike sobriety from drugs and/or alcohol, does not require total, ongoing abstinence. Instead, sexual recovery addresses sobriety in much the same way it is handled in the treatment of eating disorders. (You can’t very well permanently abstain from eating!) Ultimately, the goal of sexual recovery is to define which sexual behaviors are problematic and which are not, and to thereafter engage – moderately and appropriately – only in the non-problematic activities. In other words, sexual recovery is about learning to be sexual in life-affirming rather than life-destroying ways.
Even though ongoing abstinence is not the ultimate goal, in early sex addiction recovery (and sometimes in later stages of recovery) a brief period of complete sexual abstinence is highly recommended. Usually this period lasts anywhere from 30 to 90 days. If the addict is receiving treatment at an inpatient sex rehab, he or she will almost certainly be asked to maintain total abstinence while there. This period away from all forms of sex, including masturbation, is incredibly helpful (perhaps even necessary) for a variety of reasons.
For starters, sex addicts new to recovery have lost perspective on their behavior. They have reached the point where they are no longer able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy sexual activity. By abstaining, they provide themselves with the space needed to step back and look at their behavior through an objective lens. Oftentimes, after doing a sexual inventory while not acting out, recovering sex addicts are shocked by the full nature and extent of their activity. And they are equally shocked to realize that while they were active in their addiction their over-the-top sexual behaviors seemed perfectly reasonable and normal – to them.
Once the addict gains some perspective he or she, working in conjunction with his or her therapist or 12-step sexual recovery sponsor, is able to determine which sexual behaviors are causing problems and which are not. A written “sobriety plan” is then created, and the addict thereafter has a complete list of prohibited behaviors that he or she can refer to in the heat of the moment.
The addict also uses this time to become aware of his or her triggers toward acting out – the people, places, and things that send the addict spinning into sexual fantasy and behavior. Triggers might include boredom, depression, anxiety, arguments with a boss or spouse, financial stress, unstructured free time, travel, certain types of imagery (lingerie catalogs, for instance), certain TV shows, R-rated movies, driving down certain streets or past certain motels, etc. Then the addict can develop some basic coping skills he or she can use to combat those triggers.
Last but not least, as the period of total abstinence progresses and the addict struggles on a day to day – perhaps even moment to moment – basis to avoid his or her previously automatic sexual choices, he or she also gains some much needed insight into the full extent of his or her dependency on sexual acting out as a way to self-medicate and dissociate.
Thus we see that a brief period of complete sexual abstinence is the first step on the road to sexual recovery. (This is similar to drug detox being the first step on the road to chemical sobriety.) It is important to note that sexual abstinence NOT a long-term intervention or the ultimate goal of sex addiction recovery. Instead, it is a tool used to interrupt long-established patterns of compulsive sexual behavior. It also provides an opportunity for the addict to recognize triggers and develop some basic coping mechanisms. So the heavy lifting of sex addiction recovery is not this short time out from sexual behavior, even though it may feel this way to the addict. Instead the goal is to slowly (re)introduce healthy sexuality into his or her life. In other words, the true work of sexual recovery is not “staying away from sex,” it’s learning how to meet one’s emotional and physical needs without engaging in problematic “acting out” behaviors.