I'm an abuse survivor, and I'm worried about sexual addiction.
Sam replies:Lately I've noticed my sex drive has kicked up a lot. For a few years I was sexually abused, and ever since then (and even before that) my mind has been very sexual. I masturbate a lot, watch a lot of porn, constantly have sexual thoughts (in general and about some people), and it's really scary. I don't know how to talk to people about it, doctor or therapist, since I've never told them about my sexual abuse. Should I be worried? While I'm not sexually active (I'm still a minor), I've really wanted to see how good it feels, too... I'm scared this will spiral into an addiction as I get older.
You're far from the first person to ask about it in our direct services. I'd like to have some harsh words with whoever is telling people that common parts of human sexuality are things to be afraid of.
See, folks who study human sexuality have a pretty good picture of what sexual behaviors and desires are common. Regular masturbation or porn usage is something many people engage in. Even if someone engages in those things at a higher than average level, that isn't a sign something is wrong with them; it just indicates they do those things more than some other people do.
On a conceptual level, sex addiction isn't an accurate framework anyway. As Heather points out here, the clinical definition of addiction requires a chemical substance that a person is physically dependent upon. Sex does not create a unique substance or chemical that we could be dependent on. There are chemical components of sex, but those same chemicals are released by a bunch of other activities, including exercise, breastfeeding, and non-sexual touch. To put it another way: no one's going to die if they go cold turkey from sex, the way people can if they try to quit certain drugs all at once.
The language of addiction frames sex as purely about the chemicals it releases into our bodies -- but there are massive emotional and relational parts of sex. Even casual sex, which people often talk about in the same breath as "sex addiction," isn't some emotionless act driven only by the need for physical pleasure. How we feel about the other person and the act itself is just as important, if not more so, to the experience of sex.
Another issue I have with the way people talk about sex addiction is that it tips quickly into making enjoyment synonymous with addiction. I've really noticed an uptick in that thought process in our users. When I see people feeling afraid because they are enjoying something that is enjoyable, it leaves me blinking, confused, at my screen. Yes, certain activities, be it sex, kissing, working out, or eating pizza, often create pleasure for us. But the fact that I'm sitting here thinking "Mmm, pizza would be nice" does not mean I'm "addicted" to pizza. It means I like the taste of pizza, and sometimes my brain remembers that; when my brain does that, sometimes I order pizza for dinner and other times I shrug and move on with my day.
Conflating enjoyment with addiction gets at the biggest issue with sex addiction: it pathologizes harmless variations in human sexual behavior. It posits there is a level of desire or interest in sex that's "normal" and a level that's "bad." This isn't a new phenomenon by any means; things like Graham Crackers and the Boy Scouts arose out of the fear that people indulging in their sexual desires (even if those desires were just for masturbation) would lead to the decline of civilization. Given that humans have been having sex, masturbating, and just generally horny since the dawn of civilization (and before), it's safe to say that fear is unfounded.
That fear also just doesn't reflect the reality of human sexual behavior. How much we want sex (if we want it at all), who we want it with and in what ways, what we fantasize about, how we masturbate, varies so much more than many of us are led to believe. That's why we encourage people to focus less on whether their sexual behaviors are "normal" and more on figuring out what models of sexuality feel right and healthy for them.
There are times when sexual desires or actions can be cause for concern. The one closest to sex addiction is compulsion: when someone is doing sexual things with themselves or others even when they have no desire to or feel like the they have to. If that's happening, the person will want to get in touch with a mental healthcare provider to discuss the issue. But again, the problem there is the compulsive behavior, not the sexual behavior or desire.
Now, because it sounds like your sex drive and habits are concerning you, I want to give you some tools to help you evaluate how you're feeling and help you make choices you're comfortable with. That includes being sexual with yourself, but also making choices about if, when, and how to be sexual with another person, and how to approach things like fantasy in a healthy, empowering way.
- How to Understand, Identify, and Make Choices About Desire
- I Feel No Pleasure With Orgasm, but I Don't Really Want to Masturbate in the First Place
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
You mention you're worried about being curious about sex. It might help to think of it this way: sex turns up all over the place in many cultures. Media, politics, and personal relationships are just a few of the spots where sex is a frequent topic. Even people who want us to not talk about sex in a positive way still spend a lot of time talking about sex themselves. When something is presented as so ubiquitous, and we haven't done it yet, curiosity is an understandable response.
In fact, I encourage you to think of curiosity as a positive trait when it comes to sex. Curiosity is a way we learn about our own bodies and desires, or how to navigate sexual encounters with a partner. It's also a way that we unlearn negative messages and scripts around sex and replace them with ones that center consent and pleasure.
It also sounds like you've encountered the idea that survivors of sexual assault are more likely to compulsively have sex or otherwise be "too" sexual. That idea is, in a word, nonsense. The same goes for the idea that survivors are somehow sexually "broken" if their experiences make them want to avoid or go slow in sexual relationships. Not only do those ideas set survivors up to have their sexuality pathologized (however they choose to express it), they objectify survivors by reducing them down to how they act as sexual objects. Those ideas also give even more power to abusers. They center abusers as the determining factor in a survivor's sexual choices, rather than empowering survivors to navigate their sexuality in the way that works for them. It may help to carry this reminder in your mind: you are the boss of your sexual choices. The fact that someone chose to abuse you is not the defining characteristic of you as a person, in your sex life or anywhere else.
Finally, since you mention you're not sure how to bring up your feelings around sexual desire or the fact you're a survivor with care providers, I encourage you to find safe spaces to do that. If you haven't already done so, I would look into your local rape crisis center to find out what counseling is available. Almost every center has a hotline where you can talk with trained support staff, and they often offer one-on-one counseling or support groups. The reason I recommend specifically linking up with a therapist who works with survivors is that they'll have experience helping people navigate thorny feelings about how their sexuality relates to the abuse they've survived. You're also always welcome to come to our direct services and get support from our team and from fellow Scarleteen users.
I hope this has all made you feel a little less worried about your desires and sexual habits. Exploring and enjoying your sexuality isn't a slippery slope to addiction; it can be a way of reclaiming and reconnecting with your body and desires. And that's nothing to be ashamed of.
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