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Understanding Sex Addiction — Part 1

How self-isolation from coronavirus impacts sex addicts and their partners.


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Lisa Bradburn

3 years ago | 7 min read

How self-isolation from coronavirus impacts sex addicts and their partners.

Self-isolation is causing partners to spend a considerable amount of time together under the same roof. I’m curious how Sex Addicts (SAs) and their significant others are coping?

The question led me to have a conversation with a woman I know well. Let’s call her Pam for anonymity. Pam is a former wife of a Sex Addict (SA). For twenty years, she lived through hell and, through time and experience, evolved into a valuable knowledge source, managing an online sexual addiction support system and became an essential lifeline for spouses of Sex Addicts. Pam has either seen or heard it all.

The following interview with Pam delves into what SA’s and significant others may be facing right now during self-isolation. Pam explains how a person becomes addicted to pornography, how the addiction progresses, and what chemical changes occur in the brain. We discuss reprogramming opportunities, available treatment, and resources.

Pam’s former spouse is male; this interview is slanted toward men who are sexual addicts. In our discussion, we also refer to porn and sex addiction as interchangeable.

[Lisa] How do you envision pornography or sex addicts are coping right now in self-isolation?

[Pam] I believe being in self-isolation will exacerbate the problem. Many Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) group meetings are canceled, and no face to face support is available. The coronavirus is a time of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety for many, and Sex Addicts use porn and masturbation as self-soothing activities for their default mechanism.

With people in quarantine, men will be going through withdrawal as their wives are with them regularly, and they can’t watch as often as they want to, given they’ll be under scrutiny. I’m sure there will be more unhappiness than ever. While their partners may wish for more reassurance, more times of closeness, and feelings of being protected and loved. The SA is incapable of providing these emotions so he will do whatever he can to create distance — coldness, fighting, being overly critical, etc. to ensure there is space between them and enabling addictive behavior.

[Lisa] Let’s take a step back for a moment; how do you define a sex addict?

Pam performs a specific search on Google and provides the following research paper. “Sex Addiction, Neuroscience Trauma, and More!” written by Stefanie Carnes, Ph.D., CSAT-S.

[Pam] reads:

A pathological relationship to a mood-altering experience (sex) that the individual continues to engage in despite adverse consequences.

It is very much a physical addiction.

[Lisa] This statement provides a clear understanding of the problem. During quarantine, what signs can spouses look out for?

[Pam] Increased time on the computer or phone. Hiding what he’s looking at. Passwording his devices and not allowing you access. Unexplained time away from home. Excuses not to accompany you on outings and preferring to stay home alone. Loss of interest in sex. Coldness. Continually picking fights to put distance between you. Making excuses not to sleep together.

[Lisa] What happens if the sex addict is not able to get what he or she needs right now due to being in isolation with their partner?

[Pam] When sex addicts can’t get their fix, they go into withdrawal almost with the same symptoms as a drug addict. Symptoms include anxiety, withdrawal, short temper, anger, nausea, and even physical pain.

[Lisa] How do people become addicted to porn?

[Pam] One of the most common reasons is early sexual experience before maturity, often in childhood. It is not uncommon for SAs to be victims of childhood sexual abuse. The first introduction to pornography may involve magazines, or videos, or online.

Pam is correct. Carnes research paper reports the following reasons:

  • 72% experienced physical abuse
  • 81% experienced sexual abuse
  • 97% experienced emotional abuse

[Lisa] In our previous conversations, you mentioned there’s a slippery slope with porn addiction. Can you describe this process from beginning to advanced stages?

[Pam] In the beginning, curiosity leads people to seek out images. Porn sites offer lots of free drawing cards.

[Lisa] Wait — what’s a drawing card?

[Pam] When you first go on porn sites you can see short videos which are usually soft porn with a short teaser trailer to harder stuff and a place to enter your credit card number.

For some, it whets the appetite for more consumption, like how a long sip of Crown Royal demands the whole bottle for an alcoholic. Soon, porn becomes harder as the neurons in the brain are re-wired and desensitized by tamer acts. To meet demand, watching more disgusting, demeaning, and sometimes violent or sex acts with children are required to stimulate the brain. Soon it can evolve from just watching pornography to performing the actions themselves. And affairs begin. Online dating sites are filled with SAs looking for no strings attached thrills.

[Lisa] Tell me more about the term “emotional anorexia.” How does an SA’s personality change over time?

[Pam] Dr. Douglas Weiss coined the phrase. He’s a psychologist and the founder of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here he explains what this is between man and wife. When love happens between two people in a ‘normal’ sexual, loving relationship, the man’s brain imprints with his partner’s body and sexual rewards come from that. Her body and looks become associated with sex in his brain, and the look of his wife turns him on sexually. It doesn’t matter if she is fat or thin, ugly or gorgeous; his imprint of her nude body triggers sexual desire and loving emotions.

Once an SA has become strongly addicted, chances are he no longer views sex with his partner as desirable for several reasons. She is human versus online porn women and may complain about things like demanding foreplay, romance, and expect sexual gratification. To most SAs, this is not desirable. His online girls never whine. They always look perfect and do as they’re told. Of course, they adore him in his fantasy world. Since he lives in a world of make-believe, trying to integrate back into the real world with a partner who makes demands and has expectations is beyond what he is willing to give. Once he’s involved with viewing pornography and masturbates, it doesn’t take long before he can no longer enjoy intimacy.

[Lisa] What happens on a chemical level to a person’s brain as they evolve more in-depth into the addiction?

Pam pulls up another online research paper from TE Robinson and B. Kolb titled Structural plasticity associated with exposure to drugs of abuse. She starts to read it aloud to me.

Recent research has shown that non-drug addictions such as gambling, binge-eating, and sexual activities affect brain function in ways similar to alcohol and drug addiction. Many addiction studies focus on what is referred to as the pleasure/reward circuitry and their corresponding neurotransmitters — chemicals that are responsible for the communication between neurons.

Pam looks up at me. I nod my head in understanding and ask her to continue reading aloud:

One of the neurotransmitters frequently identified as central to addiction is dopamine. A behavior or drug that produces pleasure induces a rush of dopamine that ultimately “reinforces” that behavior, making it more likely to occur. The amygdala, basal ganglia, and other reward centers play a role in the reinforcement of the activity that produces pleasure.
Changes in the brain’s neural pathways are referred to as “plasticity”; and “synaptic plasticity” refers to changes among neuronal connections.

[Lisa] To recap, research substantiates the idea that porn addiction can alter brain plasticity.

[Pam] Exactly.

[Lisa] Can the addict ever reprogram their brain back to its original state?

[Pam] With time, and a lot of work, the addict’s brain can return to normal. After all, it is considered plastic and can change and mold. It takes strict refusal to view porn and a program of recovery for both partners. There is a slow, gentle approach to introducing intimacy back into the marriage. In time, if conditions are met, the SA can once again look at his partner with desire and love. He must be forever vigilant not to allow himself to be triggered and may have to avoid places that he once went to fill his needs. Places like the beach, shopping mall, downtown street, and, most importantly, his computer. An accountability program for the computer can be installed, protecting the SA from entering sites that are not safe.

[Lisa] What treatment is available for porn addicts?

There are several treatment centers and resources available for sexual addiction. Some require in house treatment for 30 days or more with extensive programs involved. Others are geared towards the husband and wife. There are 12 step sexual addiction groups in most urban spaces and as well as support groups for partners. Online support groups exist also.

[Lisa] Support resources will be included at the end of this post. My last question to you, Pam — will you be willing to share your personal story with us in Part 2?

[Pam] Yes, absolutely.

In the next post, we continue to speak with Pam to understand what it was like to be a spouse of a sex addict. She reveals how she discovered her husband’s addiction, it’s progression and the evolution of her own feelings. Pam will describe her difficulty in accepting sexual addiction as a disease. Next, we talk about the support she received and how Pam became a voice for spouses of SA’s. The interview will conclude with the outcome of Pam’s marriage and where she is today on her journey.

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Lisa Bradburn

Sr Scrum Master Transitioning To Agile Coach | Heart-Centric Leader | Gestalt Psychotherapist-In-Training | Writer on Medium | Brand Ambassador Plentyworld.com for Mental Health Awareness | Editor, Being Well and Medika.Life


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