What is Sexual Sobriety?

Posted on January 30th, 2013

Most people entering sexual addiction recovery have no real idea what “sexual sobriety” means. Oftentimes people think that, as is the case with alcohol and drug addiction treatment, sobriety entails total abstinence. Happily, this is not the case. Unlike sobriety for alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual sobriety is not defined by ongoing abstinence (though a short period away from sex is often recommended in early recovery as part of the healing process). Instead, in sexual addiction treatment we work with clients to help them carefully determine which of their sexual behaviors are problematic and which of their sexual behaviors do not compromise or destroy their personal values (fidelity, not hurting others, etc.), life circumstances (keeping their job, not getting arrested, etc.), and relationships.

In sexual recovery, addicts commit in a written “sexual sobriety contract” to only engage in sexual behavior that is permitted within the bounds of that predetermined pact. These boundaries are set based on the individual history and goals of recovering addict – specifically taking into account the ways in which his or her life has been negatively affected by past patterns of addictive sexual behavior. As long as the addict’s sexual behavior remains within his or her well-defined boundaries, that individual is sexually sober.

That said, as mentioned above, a short period of total sexual abstinence – a time-out from all sexual activity, including masturbation – is both helpful and strongly recommended in early recovery. This “abstinence interlude,” usually lasting anywhere from 30 to 90 days, is suggested because most people new to sexual recovery find it incredibly difficult to distinguish between their healthy and their unhealthy sexual activities. During this time away from sex the addict, working in conjunction with his or her therapist and/or 12-step sponsor, gains perspective on sexual acting out and is over time able to gain some understanding about which behaviors are problematic and need to be eliminated.

This brief period of being nonsexual is also a great time to develop some basic coping skills that can be used, as recovery progresses, to both recognize and combat the “triggers” (feelings, events, external circumstances) that cue the addict’s sexual acting out. And as the addict struggles with his/her past “automatic” sexual choices, he/she also gains much needed insight into the full extent of the problem, especially the depth of his/her dependence on sexual fantasy and behaviors for emotional distraction and self-stabilization.

In the same way that drug detox is the first step in recovery from substance abuse, this period of complete sexual abstinence is a first step on the road to long-term sexual sobriety. In essence, it is “sexual detox.” Again, sexual abstinence is NOT a long-term intervention. Rather, it is a recovery tool used to interrupt long-established compulsive behavior patterns while ego-strength, social skills, and new coping mechanisms are developed. In fact, the heavy lifting of sexual addiction recovery is not this time out from sex; instead it is the slow (re)introduction of healthy sexuality. In other words, the true work of sexual recovery is learning how to meet emotional and physical needs without acting out.

One potentially problematic gray area after the initial period of total sexual abstinence for many recovering sex addicts is masturbation. For porn addicts and compulsive masturbators, the decision is clear – masturbation with or without pornography is not acceptable. For other sex addicts the situation is sometimes less clear. For many, masturbation is an integral part of the addictive cycle, directly feeding the fantasies that produce the “high” of sexual addiction. For these individuals masturbation could be either a slippery but still-sober behavior or a bottom line non-sober behavior. For other sex addicts, however, non-compulsive masturbation can actually aid recovery, encouraging appropriate intimacy and contributing to an overall sense of sexual health and well-being. Each sex and love addict is different, as are their treatment plans and goals. Thus, it is important that every sex addicts discusses masturbation with his or her therapist and/or 12-step sponsor. Erring on the side of caution when the situation is less than clear is recommended.

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