When is sex "out of control"?
"I think I'm a sex addict."
I often hear these words from clients. Or some variant like: "There's something wrong with me for wanting to do this." "I don't have control over porn and it is messing with my life." "Normal people don't have this much sex." While I believe sex addiction or out of control sexual behavior is a real experience that some struggle with, I want to provide some ideas about how to understand the difference between healthy sexuality and out of control behaviors.
When is sex out of control?
One key thing to remember is that out of control or addictive sexual behaviors aren't actually about sex. Here are some ways to identify if sexual behavior is more addictive in nature or out of control:
It's about escaping or avoiding difficult feelings.
Often out of control or addictive sexual behavior is actually about using sex as a way to avoid dealing with painful experiences such as sadness, loneliness, guilt, etc.. Sometimes it is described as being on autopilot or in a trance. People with out of control sexual behavior typically don't talk about the pleasure of sex or the connection they feel with their partners because of sex.
The behavior has a cost.
Usually there is some negative consequence or cost because of the behavior. Time is spent on the pursuit of sex rather than building relationships, focusing on work or school goals, or taking steps to be healthy. More concrete costs such as job losses, relationship failures, jail time or sexually transmitted diseases may also be happening.
It is out of control.
Finally, you don't feel that you are in control of your behavior. Perhaps you've tried to stop but you can't. Or you know there is a significant cost to the behavior but feel paralyzed about anything changing. You know that there are situations where you won't be able to say no, choose a different behavior, or modify your behavior.
If my sexual behavior isn't out of control but I'm distressed by it, what is it?
Just because sexual behavior doesn't fit the concept of being out of control or addictive doesn't mean it isn't problematic and distressing. There are several other reasons why sex might not feel good or you feel that things need to change. It can be helpful to be curious and explore some of your feelings, thoughts, and memories around this issue. Therapy can also help in addressing the deeper issues that come up related to your sexuality.
Feelings of shame often show up around sex and it is worth being curious if they show up and taking time to explore what these feelings might mean. Perhaps there is shame around specific sexual behaviors that you enjoy, sexual fantasies you have, or preferences you have for partners. Often it can be tempting and easier to label a behavior as addictive when it isn't - it can feel better to label something as out of your control rather than own it, accept responsibility for it, and attempt to understand it and integrate it into your identity.
Old belief systems and evolving identities
Perhaps you were raised in a religious or spiritual belief system that has very specific dictates and guidelines related to your sexuality. If your sexual behavior is not in sync with these dictates, shame and distress often shows up. If this belief system holds true for you and is important to you, then exploring your sexual behaviors and your belief system and how you can better reconcile these can be very helpful. But what if your belief system has changed over time? Are you still finding that those childhood beliefs are showing up in the form of shame about your behaviors? Perhaps you have let go of a specific religious belief about sexuality but find shame coming up whenever you behave a certain way. Exploring and understanding this, as well as taking a more mindful approach to what comes up can be helpful in integrating your sexuality with your current belief system.
Your ever-evolving identity is also something to consider. While humans certainly have stable aspects and traits of their personality, many parts of your identity can evolve over time. Perhaps you hated football in high school and love it now. Or you were a carnivore in your 20s and a vegan in your 40s. Maybe monogamy is something that you valued for many years and considered to be an important aspect of your relationships. But now you find yourself participating in behaviors that don't fit that definition and are feeling shame about this. While it can be tempting to consider these out of control behaviors, it may be worth looking at aspects of your identity and seeing what has changed and what is stable. Taking time to better understand, reconcile, and integrate your behaviors and your identity can be helpful.