Sexual Well-Being and Sex Addiction

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways that sex addiction is being discussed in the media and it seems to me that the ways that we (as a society) are talking about it are mostly coming at it from the wrong direction.

I’ll be among the first to say that I think that a lot of people have problematic sexual behaviors. Since I’m a sex educator, I’ve talked with a lot of people about their concerns, problems, and issues so I am quite positive that plenty of folks engage in sex in ways that don’t support their well-being. And yet, I think it’s a lot more complex than tabulating how often someone has sex, which is how the media generally portrays the issue.

Tallying someone’s sexual acts is an easy thing to do, which makes it a tempting way to compare people and decide who’s normal and who has problems. It also makes it easy to sell products that promise to help you have sex more often, or magazines and books that promise to give you the ultimate secret. But I’m often skeptical of the easy answers, especially when it comes to sex, if only because my experience is that sex is usually more subtle and nuanced than that.

Rather than taking the easy way out, I think we do better if we take a look at our sexual patterns and determine if they work for us. To do that, there are several questions that we can ask ourselves:

1) What are my reasons for having sex?

This is one of those questions that gets a lot of “what are you talking about?” responses. But there’s a lot more to unpack here than “because it feels good.” Cindy Meston and David Buss surveyed college students and compiled a list of 237 reasons they have sex. Some of those reasons include:

I was attracted to the person
I wanted to experience the physical pleasure
The person made me feel sexy
I wanted to feel connected to the person
I was curious about my sexual abilities
I wanted to feel loved
It just happened
I wanted to increase the emotional bond by having sex
I got ˜˜carried away”
It was a special occasion
The person had a great sense of humor
I wanted to keep my partner happy
I hadn’t had sex for a while
I wanted to make up after a fight
The person was intelligent
I was drunk
I was married and you’re supposed to.
I wanted to defy my parents.
It’s considered ˜˜taboo” by society.
I wanted to get a job
I wanted to breakup my relationship
I wanted to breakup someone else’s relationship
It was a favor to someone
I wanted to have something to tell my friends
I was bored
I could brag to other people about my sexual experience
I wanted to change the topic of conversation
I wanted to end the relationship
I thought it would relax me.

With all of these possible motivations (plus about 200 more), suddenly the question of why we want to have sex at any given time doesn’t seem so simple any more. And yet, if we don’t know what we want, it’s a lot harder to get it. Yes, we sometimes get lucky but we’re more likely to meet our needs when we know what they are.

I’m certainly not claiming that all of the possible motivations for sex are equal. Some of them are more likely to support our pleasure and happiness than others. If you think that being honest about your reasons will make sex less likely (like if you want to use sex to break up a relationship), or if you think it’ll make you feel bad afterward or have other negative consequences for you or someone else, then perhaps that’s a good time to assess your actions and their impact on yourself and those around you.

What I am suggesting is that being able to identify your reasons lets you decide what you want to do with them. You might want to set them aside. You might want to explore them. You might want to figure out where they come from. If you do decide to make them happen, knowing what they are makes it a lot easier to ensure that your and your partner(s), if any, have compatible expectations. Which brings us to the next question:

2) What can I do to get what I want?

Once you know what you want, you can look for ways to try to make it happen. If you want to feel connected with your partner, that’s a different situation than if you’re curious about trying a new sexual practice or you want to use sex to get a job. Unfortunately, we live in a society that wants us to at least pretend that sex always has to be about building intimacy or enhancing a relationship, which can make it hard to be honest about what we really want.

This is also a place where we can ask our partners what they want, tell them what we hope to get, and look for a common ground. Sex educators usually frame this in terms of specific sexual activities, but it also works for those fundamental motivations that you’ve identified. If one partner is feeling horny and their lover wants to feel deep connection, it’s often possible to satisfy both desires. Sometimes, we can meet different needs at the same time, while other situations might require taking turns. But whatever works best for a particular relationship, the best way to get what you want is to start with knowing what that is. And yes, sometimes, we can’t make it a win-win situation. But even in those cases, there may still be ways to make some things work if we can be creative about it.

Which brings us to #3:

3) How do I feel afterward? Did I get my needs met?

One of the patterns that many people consider to be a sign of sex addiction is repeatedly (and perhaps frequently) having sex that doesn’t satisfy the underlying need. For example, some people want to have sex in order to feel connection, but feel lonely afterward. Since it often seems like sex should build intimacy, they may keep trying over and over, without stopping to assess why they’re not getting what they want.

There’s a  saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But it’s also a very human trait and as far as I can tell, we all do it sometimes, especially if we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing. For example, it’s quite common for people to try to make themselves feel better by having sex, and that sometimes works just fine. But if it doesn’t work, I think that’s something to explore, especially if it’s an ongoing pattern. This is another place to be honest with ourselves about what we really wanted and how we feel about the situation. It’s also a place to try to avoid blaming ourselves or our partners and take a good look at the situation.

But what about sex addiction?

These questions are all about exploring our relationship to sex and we’ll each come up with different answers. Simply put, unless we know how someone answers these and similar questions, there’s no way to say with any certainty that they’re a “sex addict”. As Marty Klein points out, the sex addiction model often focuses on the symptom (the sexual behavior) without delving into these deeper questions. And when we do that, we don’t change anything.

A lot of people create sexual lives that wouldn’t suit me at all and as long as they’re not trying to get me to join them, that’s just fine. For that matter, a lot of people do all sorts of things that wouldn’t suit me at all, and as long as they’re not trying to get me to join them, that’s also just fine. I don’t care if you want to organize your life around sex, football, long-distance running, cooking or building model ships out of toothpicks and I don’t see why any we need to treat people who are focused on sex as inherently different than people who are focused on other things. In any of these pursuits, the important question is whether we’re treating ourselves and other people well. That’s all that matters.

I’d really like for us to let go of the sex addiction model, as it’s portrayed in the media. It’s an easy-to-understand approach to sex, and it makes for great sound bites. But it’s an oversimplification of a complex experience and it’s not really helping anyone. Other than the media and the people who claim to be sex addiction experts, that is.

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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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