For most sex addicts, episodes of sexual acting out have a very characteristic pattern. The actual sexual behavior may vary from episode to episode or change over time, but the underlying pattern itself is so consistent that it has the quality of a ritual.
1 Fleeting idea
Most episodes begin with a simple fleeting thought, often following some sort of trigger. Events that trigger episodes are wide ranging. For you, it may be a mood – sadness, loneliness, disappointment, anxiety, anger, or sexual excitement. Or perhaps an encounter with a former lover or a potential lover. Or it may be an erotic stimulus, such as glimpsing a sexy person, seeing an erotic movie or reading an erotic story, or browsing the personal ads. Many times this cycle begins with a chance encounter with people, places, or things associated with past sexual acting out.
2 Mental attention (inviting the fantasy)
Instead of letting the fleeting thought pass, giving it attention keeps it alive and allows it to grow into a more elaborate fantasy. Obsession is a central feature of all compulsive and addictive behavior. Fantasy is an especially potent part of compulsive sexual behavior because fantasy alone can get us sexually aroused. This may be increased or sustained by masturbation. For a sex addict, sexual arousal can become an extremely altered state of consciousness. Sexual obsession can distort time and impair judgment.
3 Making plans (obsessing)
In the elaboration of the fantasy, you may develop vague or definite plans for sexual acting out. Once this seed is planted, many people find it very difficult to let go of the idea. If the idea is especially risky or remote, they bargain with themselves and settle for an alternative that is more immediate or less risky. But ending the cycle at this point may feel impossible without intervention from outside yourself. This makes you feel out of control. Some people describe this feeling as “being in the bubble”, isolated in a world of fantasy, beyond the reach of reason.
4 Compulsive encounter (acting out)
The episode reaches culmination in some sexual behavior. Sometimes this is short of acting out – a close call, which may give false confidence that the sexual obsession is harmless the next time around. Sooner or later, the cycle leads to compulsive behavior, which is called acting out because it is behavior that the person consciously wishes to avoid. Sexual acting out means engaging in sexual behavior that is beyond what you believe is safe or acceptable for you. For most men the episode ends with orgasm, although a binge may extend through several cycles of arousal and orgasm. For both men and women, the cycle may end in an interaction with someone else that brings rejection or humiliation. If the compulsive behavior is secret and shameful, the episode may end when the fear of discovery gets too high, or with actual discovery and the negative consequences that unfold.
The aftermath of the episode often brings intense feelings of emptiness, shame, remorse, disgust, despair or hopelessness. You withdraw or feel isolated from others. You may now be obsessed with covering your tracks, preventing discovery, developing your cover story, or minimizing the negative consequences of your behavior. You may resolve to never, ever do this again.
Based on: Charlotte D. Kasl, Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the Twelve Steps. New York: HarperCollins, 1992 and Patrick Carnes, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (2nd Ed.). Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1992.