Ken Wilber stated in one of his books, “Sex isn’t bad, only bad sex is bad,” as a way to speak to how some spiritual/religious traditions and other therapeutic models make sweeping statements that condemn sex as a whole. Sex is made into a dirty and wrongful act. This is a topic worth discussing when it comes to sex addiction/recovery and how our personal and cultural views play into it.
In my years of working with men and women on sex addiction, I’ve noticed that most of the addictive or compulsive behaviors around sex have to do with stories of deficiencies such as “I’m not good enough,” “I’m unlovable,” “I’m unsafe,” or “I’m not man enough.” These stories have a way of making people feel bad about themselves and then look to sexual behavior as a way to medicate the negative thoughts and feelings that come with these stories. In addition, there are general beliefs around sex as being bad, wrong, dirty or perverted that seem to fuel addictive behavior.
I’ve noticed that many who come to work with me at the Kiloby Center on sex addiction take an extreme view around sex generally, judging or resisting the sexual impulse itself, whenever it arises. They have a desire to extinguish all sexual impulses instead of limiting their inquiry only to addictive and compulsive behaviors that are fueled by the beliefs above. Even non-addictive or non-compulsive sexual attraction is deemed “wrong” or “problematic.” This view, I think, is not healthy for us. It takes the spiritual/therapeutic quest too far and creates unneeded turmoil and self-judgment in our lives. When I see a preacher or pastor on TV condemning sex, I think it actually creates a cultural taboo around the topic, which has the effect of fueling sexually addictive or risky behavior. Sex becomes the forbidden fruit. And we all know that fruit that is forbidden is even more tempting and tasty!
How do we find a healthy balance with sex? How do we discern the difference between healthy sexual impulses and sex addiction? Let’s start with my definition of addiction: Addiction is using a substance or engaging in an activity, repetitively or compulsively, for the purpose of avoiding having to feel emotion or sensation, and in a manner that is not necessary for physical survival.
Procreative sex is needed for our survival as a species. Does this make all sex outside of procreation wrong, as some religions state? Does it mean that all non-procreative sex is addictive by nature? No. Addiction involves engaging in activities in order to avoid or medicate certain uncomfortable emotions or sensations. Not all sex is about avoiding or medicating emotion or sensation. Sometimes it is just loving, sensual or downright fun. Not all pleasure-seeking is about avoiding something painful. Sometimes it is just pleasurable. If sex wasn’t pleasurable, we wouldn’t be interested in it at all.
When I began looking at the sexual impulse within myself, I noticed that I had internalized some of these negative societal views around sex. There was a subtle, unconscious judgment of the sexual impulse whenever it arose in the moment. Simply put, I had confused sexually addictive behavior with natural sexual impulse. Not all impulses are addictive. They are not all centered on deficiency stories, negative beliefs about sex or avoidance of something. For me, this judgment of the sexual impulse itself was a way to push sexual desire down or suppress it. It felt like a wild beast that couldn’t be controlled. But isn’t the nature of sexual desire wild naturally? When was the last time you had “controlled” sex? And was it fun?
There is a fairly simple solution to all this personal and cultural madness around sex. I have found that helping people uproot these culturally-engrained beliefs (e.g., deficiency stories and negative views about sex) has a way of quieting sexually addictive behavior. Peel away the extreme taboo views and the low self-esteem around sex and the addictive nature of it begins to relax.
Even when I am working with clients on sex addiction, I never find it helpful to encourage the client to suppress sexual impulses, even when they are coming from deficiency stories or negative beliefs about sex. In order to have a client examine and release the addictive quality of these impulses, the impulses have to be allowed to arise freely first. Suppression doesn’t work. It tucks away all the beliefs and stories around sex into the unconscious, where they continue to fuel addictive behavior. We bring everything out into the light of awareness so that it can be seen, allowed and questioned. By allowing the sexual impulse to arise non-judgmentally, a client is able to begin inquiring into only the deficiency stories and negative beliefs around the impulse. These things are what makes sex addictive for clients.
Once these beliefs are cleared away, one’s sex life usually becomes much healthier. Sex itself is no longer seen as a bad thing. It was only the addictive or compulsive quality of it that created difficulty and struggle in one’s life.
If you are struggling with sex addiction, consider participating with us at the Kiloby Center. We are constantly developing new ways to release sex addiction without making sex itself “bad.”