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Characteristics of Sexual Addiction

An excerpt from the book: “The Secret Sin: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction” Mark R. Laaser, Ph. D., Zondervan Publishing, 1992.
All rights reserved. Reprinted with author’s permission.

While sexual addicts will attempt to conceal their behavior, they usually exhibit some readily observable symptoms. People who live, work, or worship with a sex addict might notice these symptoms. As you read through these symptoms, be careful when you use them to judge the behavior of others. Some of these symptoms might indicate other addictions or emotional problems. If you see someone exhibiting these symptoms, that person may need help and probably doesn’t have the strength or tools to be able to ask for it.

Symptoms

Here is a brief list of observable symptoms:

1. Preoccupation with sexual behaviors
2. Escalating patterns of sexual activity
3. Acting distant or withdrawn
4. Depression and mood swings
5. Irritability
6. Abuse of self or others
7. Resistance to supervision or criticism
8. Use of sexual humor
9. Inappropriate sexual behavior and overt sexual advances
10. Occupational, social, family, professional, and legal difficulties
11. Intuition
12. Direct evidence

1. Preoccupation with sexual behaviors

Sex addicts will first of all be extremely preoccupied with their own sexual fantasies. This preoccupation leads them to search for sexual expression of their fantasies. They will devote more and more time to the preoccupation until they get to a point where sexual thoughts and activities are the central organizing principle of their lives.

How will someone else notice this? There are many ways. Is there pornography of any type around? Do they watch sexually explicit videos? Are there X- or R-rated videos lying around? Do they point out or notice sexually oriented places like bookstores, massage parlors or striptease bars? Do they do “double takes” of attractive people? Does their conversation seem to center on sexual activity?

If you are this person’s sexual partner, does he or she ask for sex incessantly, or never ask you? Does he or she complain about lack of sex or ask for sexual practices that you don’t enjoy?

These are some more obvious indications. In a more subtle way, if you live around a sex addict, you will almost have a “feeling” of sexual energy. Even though you may not be factually aware of the sexual practices that are taking place, you will have an intuitive sense that something is wrong.

2. Escalating patterns of sexual activity

Sexual addiction is a degenerative disease, and the amount or level of activity will get worse. For example, it may seem normal to go to R-rated movies because lots of people do. In early stages, sex addicts may scan movie reviews to see which ones have sex actually portrayed in them. From that they graduate to R-rated movies from the video store. Next, they move on to X-rated videos, and from there they may frequent more dangerous places for hard-core pornography.

The patterns of escalation can be as varied as there are numbers of sex addicts. They may be short or long. They may vary in intensity. Remember that sex addicts can go for long periods of time without acting out. This may fool them or others into thinking that their disease is under control. More serious behaviors may alternate with less serious ones. In fact, sex addicts may commit less serious behaviors in order to stop greater ones, or reward themselves with lesser ones for not committing the more serious forms. In final analysis, however, the acting out will always escalate.

3. Acting distant or withdrawn

As the pattern of sexual activity escalates, sex addicts will seem more distant and withdrawn because they are preoccupied with their sexual activity, guilt, shame, and the fear of getting caught. They will be unavailable mentally and often physically to everyone around them. They may seem distant or cold, or they may even become angry if they are badgered about what they are thinking. Ask them what the trouble is and they will deny any problems. More and more their work, activity, interests, and relationships will suffer from lack of attention.

4. Depression and mood swings

Sex addicts may alternately be depressed and then excited, even giddy. In the sexual addiction cycle, the withdrawn character with preoccupation is followed by the excitement of the ritual or the chase, the high of acting out, and then the despair or shame. To ask them about these mood changes would elicit elaborate denials and perhaps even rage.

5. Irritability

Sex addicts try to avoid their feelings and avoid being found out. They create enormous defenses. If anyone were to ask questions that would come too close to the truth or simply challenge their story, addicts can become greatly irritated. The behavior of sex addicts makes them angry at themselves and angry at others. Abuse issues of the past also create hidden resentments and angers. Triggers that remind them of these past events may set off anger that seems unrelated to the importance of the event. Simple questions, insignificant events, or basic statements may incite an angry reaction that will surprise you because the reaction is out of proportion to the event.

6. Abuse of self or others

If sex addicts have been abused in the past, they may do the same to others. If they have not been talked to, they won’t talk to others. If they have been yelled or screamed at, they will yell and scream at others. If they have been preached to, they will preach to others. They will abuse others in ways they were abused. Victims of this abuse may believe this is acceptable behavior, or they may be too afraid or ashamed to confront it.

Sex addicts may also abuse themselves. Their personal habits and hygiene, their eating, smoking, and drinking may annoy everyone around them. They may engage in any activity or use any substance compulsively. I met one sex addict who chewed three packs of gum a day while exercising for three hours every day.

Many sex addicts tell intimate details about their lives, except the sexual details, to strangers. A Catholic bishop told me about one priest who had almost every member of his church thinking he or she was the priest’s personal confident. When his sexual acting out was discovered, everyone was shocked by it and felt guilty that they hadn’t known.

Sex addicts are trying to get people to like them by seeming to confide in them. Sex addicts have lots of acquaintances, but no friends.

7. Resistance to supervision or criticism

Since they hide a large part of their daily behavior, sex addicts are not very open to criticism, whether it is constructively given or not. They may live with people who would very much like to correct their behaviors and who continue to turn up the volume of their criticisms in order to be heard.

This just drives sex addicts deeper into withdrawal, for they do not want their sexual behaviors to be challenged or threatened by supervision.

8. Use of sexual humor

Sex addicts may use sexual humor all of the time. They are always teasing (which many consider sexual harassment) or telling sexual jokes. Sex addicts “sexualize” most situations and see some humor in it.

Sexual jokes can be used to recruit new sexual partners. Sex addicts can gauge the reaction of a person hearing their sexual joke, and if that reaction is favorable, the level of sexual engagement may be taken up one step higher.

Sex addicts are great at double entendre - words or phrases that might have two meanings, one of them sexual. Say something in this fashion and the sex addict will smile and point out the sexual content. If a person says, “My friend was able to get off on time this morning,” a sex addict will interpret get off to be about orgasm and will make some sexual joke about it.

9. Inappropriate sexual behavior and overt sexual advances

Know what to look for and you can spot a sex addict at a party, the grocery store, even church. They tell sexual jokes, they touch people in ways that don’t feel right, they give too many hugs, and they are looking, always looking. Their eyes dart here and there. They take everything in. They follow certain attractive people.

Some sex addicts are very direct. They will come right up to you and talk about sex. One day the receptionist at a health club told me a man had just come up to her, out of the blue, and asked if she would like to go home with him. There are more subtle overtures than this, and sex addicts can be very creative.

As the disease progresses, the kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior will get worse. A pastor’s wife told me how her husband first took her to R-, then X-rated movies. Next he bought a video camera and wanted to film her nude. Then he wanted to film her being sexual with other men. When she refused, he became angry and abusive. She left and he has never received help.

The strange part about stories like this is how long it may take a loved one to challenge the behavior. Look for it in early days. The progression of the disease means that the consequences will get worse.

9b. Inappropriate sexual demands on spouse

Spouses should be aware that sex addicts will increasingly be frustrated with sexual activity in marriage. They may learn to avoid sex altogether as a result of the sexual frustration or as a result of sexual activity outside the marriage. Sex addicts may make increasing demands for sex and certain types of sexual activity, or they may not be interested in sex at all.

An uneducated spouse will feel guilty that he or she can’t fulfill the marital “obligation,” as well as feel angry at or repulsed by the demands. It is difficult for Christian spouses to confront inappropriate sexual demands in marriage because they may assume it is their duty to be submissive. However, they need to assert their right to have sexual standards and preferences.

An educated spouse will know that no amount of sexual activity or level of attractiveness will be enough to satisfy an unrecovering sex addict. Even if the sex in marriage may seem quite good, he or she might not be aware of the partner’s frustrations because the sex addict doesn’t have the ability to articulate them.

10. Occupational, social, family, professional, and legal difficulties

As the disease progresses, increasing amounts of time will be spent thinking about and obtaining sex. This means there will be less time for work, social life, family, professional responsibilities, or any other obligations. Ignoring these activities is evidence that energy is being drained somewhere else. A concerned person should demand to know what is going on. Family members have a right to know because they are the victims.

If work is ignored, there will be loss of jobs and income. Friendships or other social relationships will be lost. Unethical conduct can result In the loss of professional licenses or the ability to practice the profession. Finally, if illegal behavior is involved, a sex addict may be arrested and could go to jail. Many sex addicts try to explain away arrests, such as for soliciting prostitution, as isolated events that won’t happen again. Don’t be fooled - these arrests are rarely, if ever, isolated. More than likely they are a part of a long-standing pattern.

It is important to look for obligations, duties, jobs, and relationships that are being ignored before there are great losses and consequences. There still might not be anything that can be done at these early stages to help sex addicts. Some of them need to bottom out.

11. Intuition

Most spouses, bosses, pastors, or friends of sex addicts have a sixth sense that something is wrong. This may take various forms and could simply be a combination of impressions from certain events. They may feel that they are not getting the full or real story. The explanations of sex addicts for where they were or what they were doing on such and such occasion just don’t make sense.

One spouse told me her husband used to take thirty to forty-five minutes to take the baby-sitter home. He would explain that he was just visiting or that he had stopped off at the convenience store and then just driven around to relax. He sounded convincing and sincere, but it didn’t make sense. In fact, he was briefly visiting a woman with whom he was having an affair.

People with this kind of intuition must trust their instincts. My experience is that God gives us intuition, a built-in barometer of our comfort level. People must trust that barometer when it lets them know they are uncomfortable. It is not a caring reaction to look the other way and hope that things will get better, for the sex addict is slowly dying, and things will only get worse.

12. Direct evidence

Don’t ignore the direct evidence:

  • Charge card bills from companies with strange names
  • Phone bills with unfamiliar or 900-numbers
  • Pornographic magazines
  • A large number of sex related ’spam’ e-mails (more than a couple per month)
  • … and so on.

The spouse may be the last one to accept this evidence. A part of them doesn’t want the pain of accepting the truth. The spouse may even become involved in elaborate explanations of why it can’t be true. You have heard it said that, “The family is often the last one to know.” They aren’t the last to know, but they may be the last to accept the facts.

If you suspect that someone is a sexual addict, there are definitely things that can be done. Start by talking to your pastor, and seek professional help.

To anonymously talk to someone, call a Love Lines counselor right now: 612-379-1199. Available 24 hours a day.

About The Author

Mark R. Laaser, Ph.D., is a Program Specialist at Golden Valley Health Center, Golden Valley, Minnesota.

He was trained as a pastor at Princeton Theological Seminary and received his doctorate in religion and psychology from the University of Iowa.

At Golden Valley Health Center, he most closely consults with the Professional Assessment and Sexual Dependency Programs.

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