Active sex and porn addicts rarely view their escapist sexual fantasies and behaviors as a root cause of their unhappiness and life challenges. Even when they are neck deep in negative consequences, sex addicts somehow don’t let themselves think about their sexual acting out as a contributing factor to their misery. In fact, they typically see this behavior as the solution to rather than the cause of their emotional discomfort and various life problems. In other words, active sex addicts tend to be painfully out of touch with the costs of their addictive sexual behavior – at least until a major crisis hits. Prior to that, they ignore all sorts of blatant warning signs: destroyed relationships, workplace reprimands, STDs, unwanted pregnancies, financial problems, etc. They either refuse to see or they are unable to see the destructive effects of their compulsive sexual behaviors. This is known as “denial.”
With addictions (of all types), denial is a complex series of internal lies and deceits. Typically, each lie is supported by one or more rationalizations, with each rationalization bolstered by still more falsehoods. When looked at objectively, denial is about as structurally sound as a house of cards in a stiff breeze, yet addicts act as if they’re living in an impenetrable bomb shelter. They defend their flimsy lies with reckless abandon, no matter how ridiculous those lies actually are. In time, they start to believe their own mendacity, and they therefore expect others to do so as well. And because addicts buy their own dishonesty, their behaviors, no matter how crazy, seem utterly reasonable to them.
Sex addicts never intend to destroy their relationships, ignore their kids, ruin their careers, mangle their finances, get arrested, or whatever. Yet they often end up in these very circumstances, arriving there incrementally as their denial escalates. Over time, they grow less able (and less willing) to see the connection between their increasing personal problems and their addictive sexual behaviors. They are often deaf to the complaints, concerns, and criticisms of those around them – even those they profess to love – and they correspondingly devalue and dismiss the words of those who try to point out the problem. Instead of accepting that they may have a serious issue, they ignore attempted interventions and accuse others of nagging, being prudish and restrictive, not understanding them, or asking too much of them. They do this not because they truly don’t care, but because they need, above all else, to protect their addiction.
Unsurprisingly, sex addicts are incredibly creative in this regard, relying on a variety of techniques, including blame, entitlement, justification, minimization, and rationalization.
- Blame: With the lousy sex life I have at home, who wouldn’t be looking at porn and chatting up other people for sex? Plus, even when my spouse and I were having sex it was totally vanilla. There was never anything new or interesting, whereas some of the people I meet online are up for anything.
- Entitlement: Just look at how hard I’m working. I give and give to my job and my family. Sometimes it feels like there just isn’t any time left for me. So if I spend a few hours here and there getting off on a little fantasy, that’s a reward I deserve for all the work that I do.
- Justification: This is what single people do. Plus, chatting people up on social media, dating sites, and a couple of hookup apps gives me something to look forward to after work. And if some of the people I meet seem nice and want to come over for a quickie, there’s nothing wrong with that.
- Minimization: I’m no different than any other single person. All of us are on hookup apps, waiting for our phone to buzz and let us know there’s someone nearby who wants to have sex. Everybody does it. We meet somebody online, we have sex, and then we brag about it the next day. I’m not hurting anyone with this behavior, either, so it’s just not a big deal.
- Rationalization: I’m not having actual face-to-face affairs like some of the other people I know. So if I go online for a few hours after my spouse falls asleep at night and have my secret little intrigues, nothing that affects my real life comes of it and no one gets hurt. I’m not doing anything wrong.
On some level, even though their sexual behavior is clearly harming not only themselves but their loved ones (and possibly others), many sex addicts somehow see themselves as the victim. This too is a form of denial. They say they feel overwhelmed and at the mercy of the people in their lives, and that sexual acting out gives them a sense of freedom and control that they do not otherwise experience. Essentially, they view themselves as burdened by the seemingly unceasing demands of other people, especially those close to them, for attention, participation, validation, and support. Unfortunately, feeling like a victim (poor me) leads to feeling entitled (I deserve) to act out, which of course leads to the behavior itself.
One of the best exercises for helping sex addicts overcome their denial involves having them create a list of reasons that their compulsive sexual behaviors are OK (in their own mind). Generally, I ask them, as a homework assignment, to write down as many justifications as they can. Then, in their next session, I ask them to read that list aloud. This exercise is especially effective in a focused group therapy. It’s a rare sex addict who can say, out loud to an audience of his peers, “It’s OK for me to use prostitutes because my wife gained 25 pounds since we had a kid,” without suddenly realizing what a sad, ridiculous excuse that is. And when an addict is desperately hanging on to the last vestiges of his denial, his fellow group members will nearly always point out the flaws in his reasoning. Happily, this process is powerful and useful not only for the addict being confronted, but for the addicts doing the confronting – many of whom will have used the same basic rationalizations to justify their addictive behaviors. For sex addicts without a therapy group or some other sex addiction focused support group, it is still key to speak about the elements of denial with a trusted friend, a therapist, a clergy person, or even a family member as a way to develop a clearer, more objective picture of the situation.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.