When working with alcoholics and drug addicts the concept of sobriety is easy to define. Essentially, for substance abusers sobriety entails total abstinence, meaning no use of mood altering substances (outside of medical emergencies and carefully prescribed, medically necessary usage). This standard of complete abstinence is also used with certain process/behavioral addictions, such as gambling. However, when looking at life-affirming behaviors that have spiraled out of control (such as sex), sobriety is much less cut and dried. Unlike chemical or gambling sobriety, sexual sobriety is defined not by ongoing abstinence, but rather by the addict agreeing in writing to not engage in a clearly defined set of problematic sexual behaviors, while engaging only moderately and appropriately in expressions of healthy (for that person) sexuality. This is actually very similar to the definition of sobriety with eating disorders, where the goal is not to stop eating altogether, but rather to eat in a healthy, life-affirming manner.
When defining sexual sobriety, a sex addict, working in conjunction with a trained sex addiction therapist and/or a 12-step sexual recovery sponsor, carefully delineates the sexual behaviors that are out of control and that compromise his or her relationships, career, health, and life circumstances. The sex addict then commits in a written sexual sobriety contract to not engage in these problematic sexual activities. The addict also looks at what defines healthy sexuality for him or her in his or her particular life circumstances. The ultimate goal is to encourage non-compulsive, non-secretive, non-shaming, life-affirming sexual activities. As long as the sex addict’s sexual behaviors remain within his or her written sexual sobriety contract’s concretely defined limits, he or she is sexually sober.
Sometimes these written sexual sobriety contracts are either based on or take the form of sexual boundary plans, which define and set limits on what is and is not acceptable (sober) sexual behavior. Since every sex addict arrives in recovery with different problems and different goals for health and happiness, every boundary plan is different. Again, this differs significantly from substance abuse recovery, where the definition of sobriety – complete abstinence – is the same for everyone. Typically, sexual recovery boundary plans are split into three tiers:
- The Inner Boundary – This is the bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety, listing specific sexual behaviors (not thoughts or fantasies) that the addict needs to stop. These are the damaging and troublesome acts that have led to negative life consequences and incomprehensible demoralization for the addict. If the addict engages in inner boundary behaviors, he or she has slipped and will need to restart his or her sobriety clock.
- The Middle Boundary – These are the warning signs and slippery situations that can lead a sex addict into the inner boundary. Here the addict lists people, places, thoughts/fantasies, and experiences that might trigger the desire to act out sexually. In addition to obvious potential triggers (such as logging onto the Internet or driving through a neighborhood where prostitutes hang out), this list should include things that may indirectly trigger a desire to act out (such as working long hours, worrying about finances, keeping secrets, and the like).
- The Outer Boundary – This is a listing of healthy behaviors and activities that can and hopefully will lead the addict toward achievement of his or her life goals (including but not limited to a healthy, nondestructive sex life). These healthy pleasures are what the recovering addict turns to as a replacement for sexual acting out. The list should reflect a healthy combination of work, recovery, and play. If going to a support group three times per week, exercising every day, and seeing a therapist once per week are on the list, then spending time with friends, going to the movies, and engaging in enjoyable hobbies should also be on the list.
Once again, and I can’t stress this enough, every sex addict is different. Each addict has a unique life history, singular goals, and specific problematic sexual behaviors. Therefore, every sexual boundary plan is different. Behaviors that are deeply troubling for one sex addict may be perfectly acceptable for another, and vice versa. As such, there is no set formula for defining and living sexual sobriety. The key is for each addict to be totally, completely, and brutally honest when formulating his or her boundary plan.
One common behavior that can end up in any of the three boundaries is masturbation. For porn addicts and compulsive masturbators the decision is clear: masturbation is an inner boundary activity. For others, masturbation may or may not be an integral part of the addictive cycle. As such, some sex addicts define it as a slippery but still-sober behavior (middle boundary) rather than a non-sober (inner boundary) action. Still others view non-compulsive masturbation as an aid in recovery, a tool that can be used to encourage appropriate intimacy (outer boundary). The point here is that all sex addicts are different, as are their goals and definitions of sobriety.
In sum, sexual sobriety can indeed be a confusing concept. This is because it differs for each individual sex addict, and there just aren’t any straightforward, automatic answers in terms of what is and what isn’t allowed. (One relatively popular 12-step sexual recovery group, Sexaholics Anonymous, does provide a standard definition of sexual sobriety, but the definition offered is typically not useful for younger people, single people, gays and lesbians, and various others.) As such, for the majority of recovering sex addicts an in-depth assessment of that person’s complete sexual history, coupled with an honest analysis of the consequences of each specific behavior, is needed for the development of a workable boundary plan and sexual sobriety contract.
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 Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters.