By Mic Hunter, Psy.D., L.P., L.M.F.T.
Nearly half of the members of Sex Addicts Anonymous in three midwestern cities reported growing up in families with chemical use problems.
Jim is going to be late for supper again tonight. He always has a good reason to explain his frequent lateness, and his wife usually understands. Again tonight he promises himself that it will never happen again, that he will never do what he has just done. He has made this promise before; he will make it again. But he will not be able to keep it. Jim is a sex addict. He is late because he had a good day at his job, and he is celebrating by going to a prostitute. Or he had a rough day and is comforting himself with a quick fix at the adult bookstore. Following either of these experiences, he will feel guilty about the lies he will tell his wife, the time and money that he could have spent with his children, and he will want to stop. He will burn his pornography collection. He will tell the woman he is having an affair with that it's over. But none of these attempts will be successful for long because Jim is a sex addict.
The Origin Of The Problem
What drives men and women to become sexually compulsive? No one knows completely, but based on research compulsive sexual behavior correlates highly with having alcoholic parents. The dynamics of living in an alcoholic family system can cause children to grow up without learning how to be intimate, and they must guess at what appropriate behavior is.
To study the connection between sex addiction and adult children of alcoholics, 158 members of the Twelve Step-based group Sex Addicts Anonymous (S.A.A.) in the Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago area to complete a questionnaire. This self-help group, which is based on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, started in the early '70's by men and women who were engaged in sexual behaviors that were causing negative consequences. The results from this research showed that nearly half (45%) of the members reported that while they were growing up one or both of their parents or other guardians were alcoholic. This figure is at least four times greater than expected, since only 5-10% of the adult population is estimated to be alcoholic.
In order to have satisfying relationships, one must learn to be intimate. To be intimate, one must be aware of one's own emotions, be able to express them, and be aware of others' emotions. Alcoholics have trouble being intimate because their moods are inconsistent and their emotions are numbed or distorted. Their preoccupation with obtaining their chemical or covering up the consequences of its use prevents them from being emotionally available to their offspring. Though no fault of their own, children of alcoholics become adults with an under developed understanding of relationships. They face the world with a narrow range of options and a simplistic view of reality, and some of them turn to sex as a way to comfort their emotional pain and to get much needed validation.
For those who become sexually addicted, sex is the answer to every question. Sex is used to celebrate, to relax, to comfort, to deal with anger, loneliness, fear, or any other emotional state. Sex is used in an attempt to get close to another, rather than as an expression of intimacy that already exists in the relationship. This pseudo-intimacy leaves the participants with a sense of emptiness, disappointment and shame. Lacking intimacy skills, the only option that appears available for dealing with these undesired emotions is to again attempt closeness through physical contact, thus completing the compulsive cycle.
Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., author of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction wrote: "The addict uses-or abuses rather-sex...The metabolic responses are like a rush through the body as adrenaline speeds up the body's functioning. The heart pounds as the addict focuses on his search object. Risk, danger, and even violence are the ultimate escalators. One can always increase the level of intoxication."
Carnes described levels of sexual addiction that range from compulsive masturbation, and compulsive affairs, to illegal behaviors such as hiring prostitutes, and engaging in exhibitionism, voyeurism, and obscene phone calling. The most severely addicted will violate the strongest social sanctions in pursuit of their addiction. These boundaries include taboos against child molesting and incest, rape and violence. Most of the people who attend S.A.A. are not involved in rapes or incest; but they still are suffering as their sexual behavior causes ever more serious problems.