Addiction is characterized by an easily recognizable cycle. Essentially, the cycle is: being triggered (feeling emotional or physical discomfort); thinking about using as a way to ease the discomfort; preparing to use; actually using; pretending that using was OK (engaging in denial); and then feeling bad about using. The last stage, feeling bad, is the same as the first stage. In this way the cycle of addiction is self-perpetuating. This is true with all forms of addiction, whether they involve substance abuse or a compulsive behavior.
- Triggers (Shame/Blame/Guilt): Sex addicts are usually triggered by some sort of “pain agent.” This can be any type of physical or emotional discomfort, either short-term or long-term. Anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, job loss, stress, anger, shame, blame, guilt, despair, and even something as seemingly benign as boredom can trigger a sex addict’s desire to escape and dissociate through sexual fantasy and behavior. If the trigger is not dealt with in a healthy way, usually by relying on family, friends, or a therapist for emotional support, the addict nearly always progresses to the next stage of the cycle.
- Fantasy (Control): With a “need” to dissociate, a sex addict turns to his go-to coping mechanism – sexual fantasy. At this point the addict starts thinking about how much he or she would enjoy a sexual encounter, be it online or in-the-flesh. Every person or image encountered by the addict is passed through the addict’s sexually obsessive filter. People become objects without needs or feelings. Fantasy does not involve memories of previous bad experiences or negative consequences. At this point it is very difficult for sex addicts to stop the cycle without assistance.
- Ritualization: Here, sex addicts begin their acting out routine. Particular patterns of behavior intensify the sexual fantasies begun in the previous stage, adding arousal and excitement. This ritualization can last for a few minutes or several days, and it can start with something as simple as booking a business trip, logging on to the computer, or getting in the car. Once a sex addict advances past the initial, seemingly harmless actions of ritualization – for instance, advancing from getting in the car to “cruising” for prostitutes – it is almost impossible to halt the addictive cycle without intervention. It is important to note that this stage of the addictive cycle provides the “high” that sex addicts seek. This is the stage where self-induced neurochemical changes in the brain are most prevalent. Sex addicts often refer to this stage as “the bubble” or “the trance.” Typically, sex addicts try to extend this stage for as long as possible, because the next stage (actual sexual activity) inevitably bursts the bubble and ends the dissociative high.
- Acting Out (Release): Obviously, actual sexual activity is the endgame of the fantasy and ritualization stages. All of the energy invested in those two stages is expressed here through sex and orgasm – either alone or with another person (or people). That said, the rush of orgasm is almost meaningless for sex addicts. The real drug, as mentioned earlier, is the dissociative neurochemical high induced by fantasy and ritualization. That is the drug, not actual sex or orgasm. In fact, orgasm brings the sex addict’s high to a screeching halt.
- Numbing: This is the period of time when sex addicts distance themselves emotionally from what they have just done. They do this by telling themselves things like: “Well, at least this time it was safe sex,” or, “It’s OK because I didn’t know the person, which makes it meaningless,” or whatever. This is the addict’s denial moving in to temporarily protect him or her from the inevitable next stage in the process.
- Despair (Shame/Blame/Guilt): Some individuals don’t feel anything after their sexual acting out, as they are caught up in denial. That said, after one acting out event or another, most sex addicts eventually feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, shame, and remorse about their behavior. Even worse, they feel powerless to stop their sexual acting out. And of course these are feelings that addicts of all types try to avoid at any cost. So when the sex is finished and reality sets in, self-loathing, depression, and anxiety take hold (or get worse), and eventually the sex addict once again acts on these triggers with another round of self-medicating sexual fantasy and activity.
The sex addiction cycle is most easily interrupted when the addict recognizes that he or she is being triggered. At this point it is possible to see the potential problem and to implement a healthier, non-addictive coping mechanism. In this way the onset of sexual fantasy is avoided, as are the remaining stages of the cycle. It is possible to stop the sex addiction cycle even if it has progressed into fantasy and even during the early portions of ritualization, but doing so becomes progressively more difficult. And once an addict enters “the trance,” the addiction is in full swing and nothing less than significant outside intervention (being discovered by a spouse or a boss, getting arrested, etc.) will stop it.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release, Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.