What is Sexual Addiction?

By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.



Karen and Marty had decided to join a swingers club where they each had sex with other members of the group. They felt that it might add spice to their own sexual relationship. But after participating for a while, Marty found that it was actually interfering with it. His wife had become far more interested in sex with other men than she was with him.

After they quit attending, Marty caught Karen sneaking out occasionally to join groups that got together for sex. Whenever she was caught, she was very apologetic and promised it would not happen again. But within a few weeks, the cycle would repeat itself. As he employed increasingly suppressive measures to keep her faithful, she employed increasingly creative ways to get away long enough be with a group.

Karen was always very contrite. She felt guilty about what she was doing and apologized profusely. She received therapy for sexual addiction and attended a support group regularly. But it didn't help.

After returning from a weekend with a sex club, she would be happy to be with Marty for about a week. Then, for the next two weeks, she would become increasingly depressed. Marty could see her planning to leave him in her eyes, but she would not admit it. Then she'd be gone again.

I recommended moving to another state, where Karen would not have such easy access to sex clubs, but Marty was near retirement age, and didn't think he could find another job somewhere else. Karen depended on him financially, and would probably have joined him if he had moved. But whenever an addict cannot be separated from the source of their addiction, recovery is very difficult, if not impossible. As far as I know, they never moved, and Karen did not recover.

Why are you having marital problems?

That's a question I ask couples when I try to help create a plan for their marriage. I want to know which emotional needs are being unmet and which Love Busters are running amok. But a response I've heard throughout my career as a marriage counselor is, "my spouse is insane," or something to that effect.

I'll admit that I've seen a few cases of insanity among struggling couples. But it's much rarer than most people think. Those I've treated for serious mental disorders have tended to be single, not married. The process of courting usually eliminates from contention those who are truly insane. So why would a spouse conclude that the root of their marital problems is found in the other spouse's mental disorder? One answer is that it usually deflects attention from their own contribution to the problem. Instead of joining in a mutual effort to solve their marital problems, with each accepting some responsibility, one spouse wants the other to be "fixed." Extensive therapy is usually suggested giving the "healthy" spouse the right to sit on the sidelines waiting to judge the final result.

But over the years, I've witnessed a new class of answers to the question, why are you having marital problems? It's, "my spouse is an addict." I've found this answer to be increasing, while the insanity answer seems to be decreasing.

The reason for that answer, to avoid personal responsibility for the marital problem, might still be the primary motive. But it's a more compelling answer than the insanity answer. Indeed, in our developing culture addiction appears to be on the increase, and it's often a major factor in creating serious marital problems.

In the final analysis, however, everyone's marital problems revolve around spouses failing to meet important emotional needs or failing to avoid Love Busters. So, like the insanity answer, the addiction answer is relevant to the issue only if it can be shown that it contributes to those failures.

So my question, why are you having marital problems, must first be answered in terms of unmet emotional needs and Love Busters. Then, after an effort has been made to meet those needs and avoid Love Busters, and that effort fails, a deeper analysis may find that a mental disorder or an addiction may be standing in the way.

Changes in the meaning of "addiction"

When I completed my Ph.D. degree in psychology in 1967, addiction was a term that referred to dependence on an unhealthy substance, such as alcohol or cigarettes. But today, the term also refers to unhealthy behavior, such as gambling.

What makes a behavior an addiction is primarily its self-destructive characteristics. For example, we don't consider eating food to be an addiction. We depend upon it for our survival. It's only an addiction if we eat so much food that it threatens our health. The same thing can be said of most other behavior. It's the amount of something we do or how we do it that usually determines whether or not it's an addiction. Exercise, video games, work, shopping, reading, and, yes, even sex, can either be healthy or unhealthy depending on how much of it we do and how we do it.

In addition to its self-destructiveness, there's another characteristic of addiction -- guilt and shame. The addict knows that what he or she is doing is wrong, but can't stop doing it.

Finally, a third characteristic is its tendency to be compulsive. The addict wants to stop the behavior, but seems powerless to do so.

Who is a sex addict?

"Sexual addiction" has become an increasingly common answer to my question, why are you having marital problems? Part of the reason for this increase has been due to the explosion of pornography, particularly through the internet. Scores of filtering programs, hundreds of books, and thousands of support groups are offered to help men overcome their "addiction" to pornography.

But does viewing pornography really qualify as a sexual addiction?

Technically, it would be possible for someone who goes to bed drunk almost every night to feel no guilt and live a long and healthy life. If the only problem with his drinking was that it upsets his wife throughout their lives together, is he an addict?

That's the dilemma that we face when trying to decide if someone is a sex addict. Must a compulsive sexual behavior be proven to be unhealthy and cause guilt before it can be considered a sexual addiction? Or, is the simple condition that it upsets his wife reason enough?

I've counseled many men whom we would all agree are sex addicts. Some of them have broken the law by compulsively exposing themselves in public for sexual gratification. They ruin their marriage, their career, and their self-esteem with such behavior. They also feel very guilty about what they've done. Most psychologists have no difficulty diagnosing these offenders as being addicted to sex.

But can someone be a sex addict if they don't break the law? Take Tiger Woods, for example. He had legal sex outside of marriage that, when discovered, ruined his marriage and may have ruined his career. He certainly felt guilty about it after the fact, but did he feel guilty while he was doing it? And was it a compulsive act?

Tiger admitted himself for treatment as a sex addict. It may have been in an effort to save his marriage. His wife, Elin, may have answered the question, why are you having marital problems, with "Tiger's a sex addict." Since she was unwilling to consider her own contribution to their problems, he may have had the choice of either submitting to treatment for sexual addiction or risking an expensive and a terribly damaging divorce. We now know that the treatment didn't actually help him avoid the divorce.

My approach to Tiger's marital problems would have been quite different than the one that was taken. I would have seen his long absences from his wife as a major contributor to his affairs, as they are for most couples. I would have strongly recommended that Elin join him in every golfing event, never leaving him alone overnight, and making sure that his need for sexual fulfillment was met. That's what I recommend to almost everyone who's had an affair.

Elin would probably not have agreed to my advice at first, but I would have told Tiger to avoid golf until she did agree. His number one goal in life would have been to win his wife back to him, even if it meant abandoning his career. Then, after she would feel some hope for their marriage because he put her first in his life, he would only return to golf if she were to join him.

But that's not what the Woods did to solve their marital problems. By taking the "sex addict" path, they divorced. That's because the sex addict approach doesn't address the fact that his emotional need for sexual fulfillment was not being met in marriage due to the lifestyle he chose.

Is your spouse a sex addict?

What if Elin were to join Tiger on his golf tour? What if she were to spend every night with him, willing to make love about as often as he would like? And then, what if he were to sneak out and have sex with a prostitute? Would that make him a sex addict?

Yes, if he felt guilty, and if he felt compelled to do it in spite of the likely consequences that his marriage would be over and his career ruined. Sex would certainly seem to be more important to Tiger than his marriage (or his career, or his religious beliefs, etc.). After being caught with the prostitute, he would claim that he felt he had no choice, and that he felt out of control, the words of an addict.

One of my cardinal rules for marriage is the Policy of Joint Agreement: Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. It's a rule that, when broken, identifies behavior that should be targeted for elimination because while one of you enjoys it, the other is hurt by it.

Anything that you enjoy doing so much that you do it without regard for the feelings of your spouse will damage, and possibly ruin, your marriage. But that kind of behavior is not necessarily an addiction. It can simply be a selfish and foolish choice.

One of the best ways to determine if your spouse is a sex addict or merely being selfish and foolish is to ask why he or she persists in a sexual behavior that is known to offend you. An addict will express the compulsive aspects of the problem and have a deep feeling of guilt for doing it. He or she may even describe something like an "out of body" experience, knowing it's wrong but can't stop.

But you may hear the answer I hear from most husbands who view pornography, a sexual behavior that's offensive to most wives: "There's no harm in it as long as my wife doesn't find out." They don't do it because they feel compelled -- they do it because it's entertaining. What these husbands do is consistent with their general philosophy of marriage, which is that it's sometimes healthy to engage in independent behavior, and that the Policy of Joint Agreement is ridiculous.

Men who view pornography, frequent strip clubs, and even have sexually explicit chats with women on the internet don't usually fit the description of an addict. They readily admit (at least to me) that they violate the Policy of Joint Agreement because they believe that their wives do not have the right to dictate what they can and can't do. In other words, they're being selfish and foolish.

Granted, someone who starts out viewing pornography purely for entertainment can become sexually addicted. When they're caught, although they sincerely agree to end the practice, they find themselves unable to stop. It's similar to the addiction of an affair, where the relationship may have begun as a friendship with sexual overtones, and eventually becomes compulsive.

If your spouse has sincerely promised to avoid sexual activities that offend you, your sexual relationship together has been reasonably fulfilling, and he or she continues to indulge in those offensive sexual activities, voluntarily expressing deep remorse, you're probably married to a sex addict. And the best way to overcome addiction is to separate the addict from his or her source of addiction. In the case of a man who is addicted to internet pornography, he must view the internet under supervision, or not view it at all.

But unlike the problems that Karen and Marty faced, the problems that most couples face when dealing with pornography are not due to addiction. Marital philosophy is usually at root of the problem. If one spouse doesn't grasp the importance of making all decisions with the other spouse's feelings in mind, pornography will not be their only source of conflict. A host of other issues will combine to make their relationship miserable.

The Policy of Joint Agreement is designed to point a couple toward win-win solutions to every problem they face. It's the smartest way for them to deal with conflict. And when it comes to pornography, if a wife is offended when her husband views it and if he is a caring husband, he will avoid it entirely.

What's wrong with a married man viewing pornography now and then?

Most men find naked women to be sexually arousing. It can vary from being mildly stimulating (entertaining) to very stimulating (foreplay). In that sense, it's normal for most men to enjoy, and hence, want to view pornography.

The same can be said of a man touching a woman's body, particularly her breasts, butt, or crotch. But we have strict laws against such behavior unless an adult woman gives clear permission. A woman is regarded as harmed if a man touches her sexually without her consent. Notice that our laws do not consider a man to be harmed if he touches a woman, with or without her consent. That's because there is no convincing evidence that he has been harmed.

Laws against pornography are limited to images of minors because we assume that they are not mature enough to give their permission to be photographed, and are thereby harmed when their images are made public. Naked images of adult women who freely agree to being filmed or photographed are not illegal because the law assumes she is not harmed. If it's through coercion, she is considered to be harmed and it's illegal. Again, the law never assumes that a man is harmed by looking at such images. No one has produced convincing evidence that viewing pornography actually harms the viewer (I'm aware that there are those who feel that they have such evidence, but so far, neither legislatures nor the courts have agreed with them).

So as long as a man views pornographic images of adult women who freely give their consent, what's the fuss all about? The most commonly expressed problem with pornography is given by wives. They see it as a form of infidelity, with their husbands having a sexual experience outside of their marriage. And I believe that they're right. Pornography represents a sexual experience to men that is with someone other than their wives.

I'd be opposed to a particular husband viewing pornography if there was absolutely nothing wrong with it except that it made his wife feel uncomfortable. Any violation of the Policy of Joint Agreement should be avoided. But there are reasons to avoid it, even when a wife enthusiastically agrees to it. One of the most important is known as the "contrast effect."

If you compare one sexual experience with another, the more stimulating experience will make the less stimulating experience seem boring in comparison. If you compare one naked woman with another, the one who's more physically attractive will make the less physically attractive woman appear to be unattractive. That's why I caution men to avoid pornography because it's unfair to his wife to be compared to an 18-year-old girl who has been specially selected for her physical assets.

Most wives know that I'm correct in my analysis. They don't want their naked body to be compared with an 18-year-old's naked body. And they don't want their husbands to be fantasizing about what it would be like having sex with that 18-year-old. They view such fantasies as unfaithfulness.

The same can be said of husbands touching other women inappropriately, even if they have the woman's permission to do so. Most wives feel terribly threatened by such behavior.

Wanting to view pornography, and enjoying it when they do, is normal for men, and not usually a sexual addiction. But most wives do not, and should not, accept it. I feel that it greatly diminishes the value and purpose of marital sex.

If a husband enthusiastically agrees to stop viewing internet pornography because he cares about his wife's feelings, but finds himself helpless to avoid it even when he's taken precautions and feels guilty when he views it, then I'd consider his behavior to be addictive, and he should be treated for the addiction. As I mentioned earlier, the best treatment for addiction to internet pornography is to separate the addict from the source of the addiction, the internet, or guarantee supervision whenever he has access to it.

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