A question that I often challenge clients to ask themselves is “Who do I get to be?” when being compulsive sexually. The sexual act could be anything from viewing pornography, going to strip clubs, hiring sex workers, or having affairs. There are a variety of reflections to this question. But what’s common is that clients often report that the sexual behaviors give them the sense of overcoming (if only for a moment) a deficit they perceive in themselves. Essentially, fantasies can give way to experiencing more self confidence, a sense of control, etc.
When a person is in the cycle of compulsive sexual behaviors, the act may seem like it is nothing more than getting a sexual release. However, if that same person were to be aware of what is being experienced during the act, he might realize that in the moment he’s imagining something that is temporarily offsetting an ongoing insecurity. For example, a person who struggles with low self confidence may have a difficult time pursuing romantic and/or sexual relationships. With porn he or she may experience a sense of confidence or desirability. It’s not uncommon to hear clients say that they imagined being one of the actors in a pornographic video. “I imagined being the guy who could give her the ultimate orgasm”. “I got the feeling that he wanted me and found me sexy”. Although it is an imagined state, the human brain does not differentiate between the fantasy and reality in the moment. The problem with this is that the individual has not really developed more self confidence or social skills because the interaction was with a screen as opposed to a real person.
Another example is someone who has been traumatized and later finds him or herself engaged in sexual behaviors that involve being controlled or having control over another person. This is referred to as a trauma reenactment in which the person is attempting resolve the trauma experience. Trauma survivors may look for ways in which they can control others, or put themselves in situations that involve being controlled. When being controlled they can feel a sense of power because this time it was on their terms as opposed to being victimized. Either situation has the potential for the same outcome as the example with viewing porn above. That is, the person doesn’t really resolve the traumatic experience. She may feel temporary relief during the sexual act, but be left with same set of symptoms after the act (e.g., depression, anxiety, loneliness etc.). On top of the original symptoms she may have added more shame for having acted in a way that was degrading and re-traumatizing.
Coming back to the original question “who do I get to be?”- The importance of this question is to help clients realize that what may seem like just sexual pleasure, could actually be an attempt to fix something that they continue to struggle with. I want to be clear here that sexual pleasure is not the problem. The problem I am talking about is when a person feels empty or continues to struggle in life and relationships after the sexual pleasure is complete. In fact, a person whose sexual behaviors have become compulsive may resemble substance addiction in that sense that he or she will pursue the next sexual experience soon after the end of the last. This attempts to keep the “high” going so that the pain of the unresolved issue doesn’t have room to breathe. The result is a never ending chase for the high.
When new clients come to see me for individual counseling or start a group I’m leading, we discuss the importance of addressing the underlying issues that are driving his or her compulsive sexual behaviors. I explain that stopping the behavior itself is not always sufficient. Without good support, exploring healthy coping strategies or working on underlying issues, sobriety alone can actually lead to more compulsive behaviors because a person is faced with the pain that had previously been avoided. That is why it is always recommended that a person attempting to change his or her sexual or relationship patterns get support rather than going at it alone. It’s often hard to admit a problem and ask for help. It can be painful, but ultimately less so in the long term.