by Mark Robinett, MFT
When a person works on a sexual addiction issue in personal therapy, I like to follow a simple 2-step approach. First I like to work with a person to understand what has caused the sexual addiction to develop – what is at the root of it. Secondly, once we know the root cause of the addiction, I like to focus much of the effort of therapy on resolving that underlying issue. It’s like the old saying “You can’t fix something until you know what’s broken”. Once you know what is broken and then work on this and resolve it, the sexual addiction usually also resolves.
Two important clues that can facilitate understanding of the cause of a sexual addiction are (1) understanding what is behind one’s most prominent sexual fantasy, and (2) understanding what one’s sexual preference is about – the most preferred type of sex and/or most preferred type of sexual partner. These two factors are often big clues in a sex addiction, which help to “solve the case”. In other words, looking at your main sexual fantasy and your preferred type of sex and/or sexual partner are both ways to understand why and how the sex addiction developed and what it is about psychologically. Once you know where the sex addiction came from and what it is about, you’re in a much better position to fix it.
Exploring Sexual Fantasy
When someone has a sex addiction, they often have a primary sexual fantasy. The thing to do with this fantasy is to explore what the goal of the fantasy is. In other words, if someone fantasizes about sex with sexy women, where does the fantasy go to its conclusion? Is it simply having wild passionate sex with these women, or is it sex where you are very powerful and in control of the women, or sex where the women gives you everything you desire, etc. (there are many more possibilities).
Let’s say for example that a person fantasizes about sexy women and the end goal of the fantasy is to receive complete attention and admiration from the women in the fantasy. This gives us a clue about why and how the sex addiction may have developed. In other words, it may have developed because the need for attention and admiration did not get met in childhood and perhaps now it’s not getting met in the person’s life either. Lets say some exploration is done with this and it becomes clear that the sex addiction is about this person growing up in a family with a lot of kids and the mother (and/or father) rarely had time to give this person attention or admiration. If this fits for a client, then we know where to focus the work – on this need; in perhaps grieving the lost childhood need and with trying to get this need met with one’s partner now. In this example, just knowing what the addiction is all about can greatly free a person to know what to do about it.
An example of this is a client I once worked with who’s sex addiction involved going to nude shows and paying for lap dances. His main fantasy was that these women gave all their attention to him and this was a tremendous turn on. In other words, when we examined the end goal of the fantasy, it was to have all of the woman’s attention – this made him feel special and very excited. In looking into his childhood it turned out that he came from a family with lots of siblings and his mother rarely had time for him. In addition, he was presently married with 4 kids and his wife rarely gave him the attention he wanted/needed. When we figured out that this is where his sex addiction came from and that this is what it was about, he was able to see a lot more clearly what he needed to do to solve the problem. First, he saw that he needed to talk about, grieve and accept the attention he never got from his mother or father, and secondly he realized that he needed to work on getting more attention from his wife, rather than going outside the marriage to get this need met. It was a big challenge for him to put this need out to his wife because he felt afraid that she would disappoint him; the reason why it was so much “safer emotionally” to pay a woman to meet this need. This example exemplifies what I often see in a sex addiction – that the sex addiction is covering up a person’s real needs. This often happens when a need goes unmet in childhood a child covers the need up and makes it secrete because it is too painful to keep it out in the open and not get it met. Then, if a sex addiction develops later, it can be a way to keep the need secrete (and hence protected and safe) while attempting to get it met at the same time.
Sexual addictions as well as other addictions are usually about an attempt to deal with a psychological trauma rather than simply being about getting unmet needs met. However, it is usually accurate to say in the above example that it was traumatic for this person not to get his childhood need for attention met, and it is usually accurate to say that large unmet needs in childhood are usually traumatic.
Exploring Sexual Preference
The next subject – “exploring sexual preference”, is another way to find clues to what is underneath or at the root of a sexual addiction. When a person has a specific sexual preference involved in a sex addiction, this preference is usually related to the issue of emotional safety. In other words, the sexual preference in the sexual addiction feels like the best thing sexually because the person feels very safe, or at least most safe, with this type of sex and as a result, can “let go” more to the sex.
One example of this is a sexual addiction involving pornography. If pornography is a person’s preference for sex, it is a clue that the person feels most safe emotionally having sex by himself. If this is true, it may have to do with how dangerous it was for this person in his family to be around anybody. Or it may have to do with how this person received very little contact with anyone in his family. Or it could have to do with being traumatized sexually as a child by an older person so that sex with another feels too dangerous. Once it is understood what caused this addiction, it is easier then to know what to do about it. Let’s say a person’s sexual preference to porn is about being neglected emotionally during his childhood and teen years. He was a loner at school, and at home neither parent paid much attention to him. In this example, it is easy to see that the preference for porn probably came from not enough contact with people in the childhood and teen years and an attachment of his sexuality to pornography during these years. Once a person knows this, he can see that the thing he needs to do is to begin to stretch himself and work towards moving his sexual energy towards a sexual partner to break through the fears of being sexual with a real person and the fears of rejection, and all the other fears and challenges of a relationship.
Another example is of a client whose sexual preference was to have sex with women in a sadomasochistic type of way, where he was in the position of power and control. This preference provided the clue to understanding that this person felt safest in this type of sex because he had grown up with a very out of control, angry and abusive mother. The only way he felt safe with a woman sexually was to be in complete control during sex. Once we learned this, we could begin to start working on the trauma from his abusive mother, with the hope that this would enable him to feel safer being with a woman sexually in a more or less equal power dynamic.
Exploring a person’s main sexual fantasy can help to try to figure out what a person is trying to protect by having a certain sexual preference. In the above example, the person was trying to protect the trauma that he had suffered from his mother’s abuse. It was emotionally safe for him to have sex (and he most preferred it this way) in a sadomasochistic way when he was in control, because he could stay in control and not have to risk having the traumatic feeling brought up if he wasn’t in control. Knowing this, gave us the information we needed to focus the work on the trauma. And as we did, this person’s need to be in control during sex, gradually faded away as he felt emotionally safe to be sexual in a mutual way with a partner.
I like to work using a 2-step approach where I first try to help a client figure out what has caused the sexual addiction – what is at the root of it. Then knowing this, we can work at healing what is underneath the addiction. If we can heal what is underneath the addiction – usually some kind of trauma, the addiction usually resolves. Two clues that can greatly help in discovering what has caused the sexual addiction is a person’s primary sexual fantasy, and a person’s preferred sexual preference. Both of these often provide important information that will point to the same underlying cause of the sexual addiction, and point the way at what needs healing.
Mark Robinett’s page