Hello. I have a dilemma and I thought you may be able to give me some advice. I’ve seen someone and falling in love. He told me he is a recovering alcoholic. Today he told me he is a recovering sex addict. His rehab counselor told him to first get to know each other and then tell the person. I have trust issues from the past, I can be jealous. What do you advise. Please, I need help from someone.
A compulsion is only a problem when it a) causes physical or financial harm and b) is perceived negatively within a particular culture. Both criteria must be met.
Most people have compulsions, and most compulsions are socially acceptable. I have a raging sweet tooth and probably have a cupcake every two days. No one bats an eye when someone goes on a needless trip to maintain their platinum airline status or owns too many clothes.
For someone to have a harmful compulsion or addiction, there must be some negative cultural judgment — their behavior must be considered abnormal or harmful within their culture’s norms. Many harmful substances are not seen negatively in the United States — most people here are addicted to processed sugar, which is associated with various cancers and gastrointestinal problems, and alcohol kills more people in the U.S. than opioids, but companies can legally put sugar in baby formula and you can legally get drunk every weekend. But if you do heroin once and get caught, you will go to jail.
We judge substance use differently. Many working people get drunk on the weekends — many say that’s what weekends are for. But if you told your coworkers you smoke meth every weekend, they’ll likely call you an addict — and you’ll probably lose your job.
When compulsions are no longer socially acceptable, we pathologize them, regardless of how much harm they actually cause. Sex addiction is tricky because so much social moralizing and judgment is already involved in our understanding of sex. Healthy sexuality is still widely seen as “wrong” by many religious groups and cultures. Masturbation, watching porn, and casual sex are all part of a normal, healthy sex life, but many people judge these behaviors negatively.
I have mixed feelings on “sex addiction” — I think that, in most cases, it is a social invention, nothing more — but I’ll concede that one can have unhealthy compulsions like spending too much money on porn or skipping work for sex. One still must be careful, though. Our moralizing culture has a history of pathologizing sex — particularly sexually active women. Even with the above compulsions we can ask questions: how much porn money is “too much”? I know people who spend all their spare cash on clothes, eating out, and video games. Are they sick? And what if you hate your job? I’d skip out on an awful job for good sex.
Sex pathologies have been leveled against women for centuries because we shame women who like sex — we have a litany of words for women (slut, whore, harlot, and so on) that we do not have for men, because men historically are perceived as “virile beasts.” These ideas sustain widespread violence against women and they persist into our present day. Read this recent slut-shaming article about a “sex addict” woman who “romped with between 100-200 partners” — a number I passed in college.
Because there’s no standard classification of “sex addiction” and because the diagnosis itself is so subjective, you need to do away with the ideas you have of “sex addict” in your mind and get the specifics — ask what “sex addiction” means to him. If he’s an “addict” because he masturbates every day, he’s simply an alcoholic with a bad counselor. If he’s unable to manage his finances because of porn consumption, that’s a little different.
Once you know these details, you can ask yourself what you’re willing to embrace in order to continue seeing him. If you want this to work, you must embrace all of him, even and especially his compulsions. It took courage for him to tell you these things knowing you might reject him. If you want to keep dating, have an open mind and see all of him. You can’t “tolerate” his compulsion or “look the other way” — he deserves more than that.
I say this as someone who monitors my own substance use — because I worry about it, and because I know how easily recreational substances can get out of hand. There was a moment in my life a few years ago when I thought I might have a problem.
I generally have a wild, druggy night every two months, and this usage pattern is manageable. Many of my friends drink heavily every few days, so if all substances were seen evenly, my every-two-months thing would be a non-issue compared to their drinking. But all substances are not seen evenly — the one I enjoy is a “bigger deal” than alcohol. For this reason, I monitor my use with a harm-reduction counselor who calls me every Friday. We have harm-reduction practices in place and set goals. Did I go for two months between uses last time? Great, now let’s go for four (easily doable).
All this brings me to my point: it doesn’t matter “how much” of a problem he (or anyone) has. It doesn’t matter if he has a disabling sexual compulsion or simply pathologizes his normal, healthy sexual behavior and considers it a “sickness.” What matters is that he believes he has a problem and is working to correct that problem, and you need to support him in that. It’s really not your place to discredit his addiction or monitor it. You are simply a confidante, a safe space.
My boyfriend is a fine example of how to date someone who thinks they have a problem: he has never judged me and stays hands-off with my harm-reduction/moderation regimen. He trusts what I tell him, lifts my mood when I’m coming down, and otherwise is not involved. If I get triggered somewhere and need to leave, he leaves with me. When I get scared about my usage, he reminds me that I’m doing everything right (counselor, moderatoin, etc.) and being responsible.
This guy you’re interested in is being responsible. He’s talking to a counselor. He’s acknowledged he has a problem with alcohol. He’s doing everything right. So trust what he says and don’t act like a warden. You’re not a cop — you’re a lover.
My boyfriend and I are very promiscuous and many doctors — especially ones who are not familiar with gay culture — might call us sex addicts. Our promiscuity has caused problems: last summer we had a lot of sex and unintentionally ping-ponged an STI back and forth between us. The repeated antibiotics were so hard on us that we had a serious harm-reduction talk and decided to minimize the number of sex parties we go to.
Brent and I are not sex addicts — most people we know are similarly promiscuous. Even when our promiscuity causes harm, it’s not perceived negatively — promiscuity in gay male culture is normal. I say this to poke holes in the “sex addiction” diagnosis. Not all cultures judge sex similarly. Which culture does your boyfriend subscribe to that judges his sexual behavior negatively?
While I’m casting doubt on “sex addiction,” I won’t do the same for alcoholism. Addictions to drugs and alcohol are different — substance addictions alter brain function to the point where the brain goes from wanting a substance to needing it. These are classified as mental health disorders by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Sexual compulsions are not.
This is why I monitor my substance use, not my sex life — only the former has the real risk of chemical dependency. (There is, of course, some debate on this — we know surprisingly little about this stuff, and there’s even scientific debate over how to classify substance addictions. Are they brain disorders, mental illnesses, or both?)
You have trust and jealousy issues, so you must learn from him what usage periods look like (some people say “relapses”) and decide if you want to deal with them (it’s OK if you don’t). You both must agree to be as honest and understanding as possible when usage periods happen.
I hate the word “relapse” (along with “addict” and “addiction” — I think these words are rooted in shame and are widely used thanks to a cult called 12-step). I think “usage period” is better. Many people plan usage periods, and doing so allows you to take steps to minimize and moderate the intensity of the usage period. This is harm reduciton and it is applicable to both sexual compulsion and alcoholism.
For example: when I plan to have a wild night, I agree to text my boyfriend the next morning and tell him I’m OK and headed home. I never go for two days — I’m a one-night-only gal — so this next-morning text keeps me accountable and keeps him informed. I don’t know what a comparable practice would be for him, but plan to do something like that.
If you ever meet him after a usage period (sexual or alcoholic), remember he’ll be in a low headspace. Alcohol is a chemical depressant, and if he’s coming off a sex bender, he’ll likely be physically and mentally exhausted. He’ll feel vulnerable — no one feels cute when they’ve done something they’re not proud of. This is the time to be a pillow. Cuddle him, watch a movie, and give him some distraction until he falls asleep.
And this goes without saying: if it’s not working, break up. If you ever feel you have to stay with him in order to prevent him doing something unhealthy, the relationsihp itself is unhealthy and it’s time to leave. You’re never locked in. Always put your needs first.
Watch this TED talk about addiction. The speaker wrote a book called Chasing the Scream which proves that everything we think we know about addiction is wrong. Our culture isolates, demonizes, and judges those who develop chemical coping mechanisms which are necessary in a world that shames mental illness, fosters rampant income inequality, subjects minority groups to continuous violence (typically at the hand of law enforcement), and offers few ways to escape poverty.
In such an unfair world, people have to cope, and coping may include drugs, alcohol, or sexual compulsion. We’re all responsible for the problems people face when they develop dependencies because we all allow our society to be what it is. Addiction is a symptom of a broken world, not broken people.