Are we addicted to sex?
Heather Corinna replies:
My boyfriend and I have been together for almost 7 months. We had sex after the 1st month because we felt that special connection with each other. Ever since the first time with him, I keep wanting more. I think I'm addicted to sex with him. That is all I think about constantly. He is the same way but for my sake (he doesn't want to be a father yet, if you get what I mean) he tries to control himself as much as possible. He can't always though. To be safe I've asked him to buy condoms but since we both realized we are doing it too much, he says we aren't going to do it anyway so why have them. Well then he comes over and we wind up doing it without a condom. It was a close call one time where he almost ejaculated inside of me, but pulled it out just in time. Do you have any suggestions on how we can overcome out sex addiction and try and be safer? I'm not allowed to go on the pill and my boyfriend and I have a lot of time to be alone together. We are just teenagers. Thank you for the advice.
Sex addiction is a popular topic on talk-shows and in mainstream media (where the goal isn't accuracy, but ratings), but it isn't something many sexologists consider credible. I'm not on board with the idea myself.
Our collective ugh about it has a lot to do with the way addiction is clinically defined, and how sex just doesn't fit that definition. That definition is usually about drugs or external substances, and sex is not either of those things. People who work full-time in and with sexuality and sexual health also usually have big problems with the idea of sex addiction because of the assumptions that must be made about sex to define it as something to which one can be addicted. Those are assumptions like sex as something which is inherently dangerous or unsafe, the weird idea that sex is something which is only or primarily chemical when we know different; that there's only one right or healthy way for everyone to be sexual (which we know isn't true), or that sex is only okay in the context of certain kinds of relationships (also, not true). The clinical model of addiction also includes a real physical dependency on the substance itself which we just can't have with sex, because there's no substance or chemical sex is or creates which we could be dependent on that is unique to it. While parts of sex can be chemical, the same chemicals can be drummed up in our bodies through things like exercise or breastfeeding. It's also generally agreed that sex and other kinds of physical affection are one of the primary human needs, so in some ways, saying a person is addicted to sex is like saying someone is addicted to breathing or having a place to live.
There is not any agreed-upon criteria to diagnose "sex addiction" and the way it tends to be assigned is highly questionable. For instance, a typical scenario is when the the person being attributed with addiction is simply because something about that person's sexuality isn't something their partner likes or wants themselves, like a kind of sex they want or the frequency of sex they would prefer. Just because two people are sexually different doesn't make one person healthy and the other an addict: just because one partner wants sex more than the other doesn't mean one of them is not psychologically well. We'll see people assigned as addicts whose sexuality simply doesn't meet someone's idea of what is sexually normal or ideal, such as a person preferring several partners to one, or someone who wants both male and female partners.
What people who study and work in sexuality generally can agree on is that some people have problems with compulsive behavior and sex -- with doing things sexually they don't want to, but feel compelled to do or like they have to do, even when they know it's not right for them or someone else. So, if anything, what we'd be talking about is sexual compulsivity or impulse control, something we would be concerned with because those can not only result in a very real disruption of a person's overall life and well-being, it can also result in harm done to others, such as rape and other kinds of abuse.
If you or another person are feeling as if you do not have control over your sexual actions, for real, that's something to seek out professional help with. When having sex feels totally outside our control, like something we have no choice in, it also isn't a pleasant set of feelings. Feeling that way will tend to be scary and upsetting, disruptive to a person's life and often will make healthy sexual relationships with someone else very difficult. If we meet someone who tells us they earnestly cannot always control themselves around us sexually, or who behaves that way, the only safe thing to do is to distance ourselves from that person until they get help and learn self-control. That is NOT someone to get intimately involved with.
If all of that sounds extreme, chances are, you or he are probably not having issues with compulsive sexual behavior. And I'd be willing to bet neither of you are, especially since you make clear sex is something both of you want. Instead, you and your boyfriend are probably feeling a lot of of sexual desire, and just have not yet learned how to best manage those feelings and the choices all of us make when it comes to them and how we express them with other people. Additionally, when your boyfriend says things like that he can't always control himself, he just may be saying that in order to avoid taking responsibility for himself.
When love and/or sex are new, when we're with a new partner, or even just at certain times in our lives or in certain relationships, it's normal to feel very strong sexual desire, to think about sex and to want to express and explore those feelings. Two people who are really into each other really wanting to be sexual together often isn't a signal of any kind of problem or addiction, but a sign of people being human and having the kinds of normal sexual drives most human beings have. But none of us are born with the skills to manage those feelings: that's something that we learn and need to make an effort to learn. Loving each other or being in love doesn't give us those skills automatically, nor does having sexual feelings and urges.
It's common to stumble or feel overwhelmed while we're learning how to deal with sexual desires and sexual relationships in a healthy way, especially if we didn't have a lot of preparation for them or got ourselves into a sexual relationship before we or the relationship were ready for all that involves. You two did move into sex fairly quickly for a young adult relationship, probably before you really had enough time to consider and talk out if you both really were ready for all sex together means and requires. By all means, feeling connected in a special way is part of why we want sex, and a deep connection is good ground for a sexual relationship. But that feeling can't give a person more maturity than they have, can't create all the skills they need, and can't provide the things (like birth control) they need for a sexual relationship that works well for everyone.
There's nothing undoable about that, though: even if you two moved into sex too quickly for what you were both ready for, that isn't a barrier to making sound choices from here on out.
Sexual feelings can be intensely strong, but -- unless we earnestly do have an impulse control problem -- we still always have complete control over how or if we act on them. However okay those sexual feelings are, if we're not making good choices when it comes to them, or are expressing them with others in such a way that might do someone else harm or create outcomes one or both partners don't want or can't handle,then we've got a problem. We can also run into problems if we don't leave room for a sound learning curve while we are learning to manage them: if we rush in before we are ready. I may feel very strong desires to try surfing, for example, but it'd be pretty nutty of me to jump on a board and paddle out before I learned how to swim. So, as with anything else, when it comes to sex we want to be sure we're not jumping into the deep end of the pool before we know how to tread water.
Both you and your boyfriend can always control yourselves. You can. He can. You or he just may not always be choosing to, or may not have learned yet how to deal with those feelings and making wise choices at the same time. It absolutely can be challenging to think clearly when your head's all swimmy and your heart's racing a mile a minute, but you both can learn the skills so that's something you are capable of.
So, what I'd suggest is that both of you, if you're going to continue being in a sexual relationship, start by making a commitment to learning those skills, and that starts with talking.
You can initiate these talks by expressing the concerns to him you expressed in your letter to us: don't sugarcoat it, be honest. Make clear to him that however strong both of your feelings are, however much one or both of you wants to have sex, in order for your relationship to be healthy and for the sex you have to be something earnestly good, you need to establish some clear limits and boundaries. You can tell him some of the things I've told you about the ability both of you DO have to be in control of what you do. You can mention that if he has said he is only "controlling himself" for your sake, that this isn't just about you, it's about him, too, and also about your relationship as a whole. Everyone needs to have limits and boundaries, and taking risks that aren't smart or safe, or feeling like one or both people in sex aren't able to be in control of themselves in the most basic ways isn't healthy for anyone. It also doesn't tend to result in strong feelings of self-respect, which are important for everyone to have, or in a relationship where the people in it can build trust and feel safe.
It might be a good idea to talk about times when one or both of you may feel out of control, and to talk about how you're going to manage that feelings wisely. If he's having a moment where he's inclined to dive in without a condom, for instance, or you feel like you're going to space that out or blow it off, how are you going to deal with that from now on? How about making an agreement that if clothes are coming off, it's only when condoms are nearby? How about agreeing on a safeword -- a word partners choose to use during any kind of sex that, when said, means everyone immediately stops what they're doing and steps back -- you can both use at those moments? How about revisiting, in this conversation, what you both do and do not want and need out of sex (for example, you want to be close and feel good, but you don't want a kid), so you can be sure you're both in touch with what choices support those wants and needs, and what choices don't? Good sex requires creativity: you can be just as creative coming up with ways to manage your sex life as you are during sex.
Talking about the difference between feeling free and feeling out of control might be something else to bring up. One thing most of us enjoy during sex is feeling free: uninhibited, blissed out, surrendering together, able to open up and connect on a deeper level. But we can't really feel that way completely if we can't trust each other to be in control, fully regarding and caring for each other. Freedom can't exist without responsibility. When we learn how to manage sex safely and responsibly, we will tend to truly experience the freedom in it. When safer sex and birth control are taken care of, for example, it's easier for both people to relax, which helps our bodies become more sexually responsive and sensitive. When both people know the other is being mindful about the other and themselves, and the whole context of sex -- not just what feels physically good at the time -- that helps build compassion, love and trust, which opens the door to sexual freedom.
Remind him that you know he has no desire to be a parent, and that for right now, you don't either. If condoms are the birth control method you have, you both need to firmly commit to using them every single time you have sex. If there isn't a condom, or he won't get them, then you both agree there won't be the kind of sex where you need them. You can also step it up and make clear you will get condoms for you to have, too, so that you BOTH are responsible for having them around. That's not something you need to leave solely up to him, after all, and if both of you always have condoms, it's way more likely they'll be there when you need them and that you'll feel more empowered overall. Taking charge of things like that can be something that helps you feel a lot more in control.
You talked about using withdrawal, which is also a method of birth control. It is, however, one of the least effective in typical use, and if you're having close calls with it like you did, it doesn't sound like it's probably a good one for you two right now. For withdrawal to be effective, the male partner needs to be very much in-control, and to withdraw well in advance of ejaculation, not right as it is happening. Additionally, withdrawal doesn't offer you any protection from sexually transmitted infections, which are just as much of a risk for you as pregnancy, and some can impact your life and health just as deeply. Given the timeline of your relationship, and the fact that you didn't talk about testing or consistent condom use, that should be a real concern for both of you. Suffice it to say, if you two haven't talked about STI testing, it's past time to bring that up, too.
Additionally, should you decide you'd prefer to pair condom use with another method of contraception (or, when you know, through testing, you're both free and clear of STIs and want to ditch condoms), in most areas you have the legal right to whatever method of contraception you'd like to use and which a doctor deems a good fit for you. You do not need to have a parent's permission to get sexual healthcare services or to access contraception. Mind, you may need to be able to pay for it for yourself if you seek it out by yourself: however, some states have programs that can provide you contraception at low cost or no cost and some clinics (such as all Planned Parenthood clinics) offer sliding-scale fees based on your own income. So, if you'd feel better with a method like the pill, that is an option for you. I'd also suggest you consider talking to your parents about all of this: just give it some thought. It may actually be helpful for you to have a family member aware of what's going on with you, and to have some extra support and help from your family.
In the talks you have with your boyfriend, I'd also bring up the possibility that one or both of you may need more time to really get ready for sex together than you gave yourselves. When a partner blows off responsibility for birth control with statements like "We aren't going to do it anyway, so why have them," or says they are only controlling themselves "for our sake" that's the sort of thing that can suggest that person just may not be ready for sex with someone else yet. I'm also concerned that his refusing to get condoms may have a manipulative response to your suggestion you feel like you're having sex too much: you should always be able to ask to adjust sexual frequency and have a partner respond with maturity and care.
Readiness is about more than just wanting sex or being in love: it's also about being able to deal with the parts of sexual partnership about personal and shared responsibility with mutuality and emotional maturity, which some folks aren't capable of yet. Ideally, anyone involved in a potential sexual relationship is self-assessing their readiness, and is being honest both with themselves and others about what they're really ready for. But let's face it: not everyone is so good at doing that, especially when something they want is involved. If you asked me if I was ready to win the lottery, and had millions of dollars in your hands for me, I'd probably say yes without giving much thought to if I really was ready. So, on top of talking about this together, you also need to use your own best judgment to be sure your boyfriend really is ready, and make your own choices about whether or not you're sexual with him based on your own assessment as well as his own.
Don't forget that some of why you want sex so much may have to do with your relationship, but some of it may just be about your own sexuality, which you have with or without someone else. Sometimes when we want sex, it's not always about a partner, or something we need a partner for to satisfy. Masturbation may answer some of the desires you have just as well, if not better, than sex with a partner, especially if you and he aren't yet able to really manage a sex life together well, and masturbation can offer us some real benefits. Chances are your boyfriend masturbates and already knows about those benefits himself.
There are aspects of partnered sex that masturbation doesn't address: for instance, if we're looking to get close to someone else, that's not going to fit the bill. But I encourage everyone to masturbate for a whole bunch of reasons. Masturbation not only may turn out to be one way to feel more in control of your sexual desires, it also can help you explore your sexuality without also managing the wants and needs of a partner at the same time so you're more free to discover things about what you like and what feels good for you. In case it isn't obvious, one other thing that's awesome about masturbation is that it's totally safe sex: it doesn't pose any risk of pregnancy, and as long as your hands or anything else you use to masturbate with are clean, doesn't pose risks of infections, either.
I want to be sure and leave you with the clear message that it is absolutely, totally healthy to have sexual feelings and desires, and it is most certainly okay to have a great sex life with a partner you enjoy. But you don't have to make a choice between that and being and feeling safe, physically and emotionally. In fact, if you're not safe in those ways, you really can't be having a great sex life in the first place. A great sex life includes feeling good about it -- after as well as during -- and reducing the risks of outcomes you don't want, like pregnancy or sex when one or both of you feel scared because of feeling or being out of control.
I want to make sure you know that we always, always, have the right to step away from sex with a partner once we've started having it, be that temporary or permanent. When you say you're just teenagers, if you're expressing that you feel too young for where you're at, that's yet another cue that stepping back for a bit might be a good idea.
Once we start having sex, that never obligates us to continue ever after, or without taking any breaks away from it if and as we need them. People of all ages -- including those in established sexual relationships -- do take breaks or press pause. Because it's been part of your relationship for the last six months doesn't mean it needs to stay part of it, or keep on going throughout. You, he, or both of you may need to step back from sex in order to talk all of this out and get to a point where everything is and feels safer for you on all levels. That doesn't mean going without intimacy, either. Intimacy is something we can find and need to nurture in more places than in bed. A big part of sexual intimacy is found in our sexual communication, and the quality of that communication.
I hope I covered all of your bases and gave you some solid places to start to change things for the better. Here are a few links if you feel like you need more information, or want some extra clarity around some of the things I brought up, like what it is to be ready for partnered sex, or like what birth control methods are available to you: