Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

April 13, 2011

Polyamory and sex addiction

Psychology Today blogs

At a recent poly conference I attended, the organizers set aside time and space for anyone who wanted to do a presentation or announce a discussion topic. A longtime poly couple took the opportunity to discuss a terribly difficult and traumatic problem.

The man, who sincerely loves and respects the woman, had recently confessed to her that despite their poly vows of openness and care, he had been cheating with secret girlfriends, sneaking out to spend huge sums on prostitutes, endangering his livelihood by spending hours a day with porn rather than working, and keeping it all hidden. She had sensed that something was badly wrong but blamed herself. The man poured forth, to the rapt audience at the conference, what it was like to be a sex addict — the compulsion pushing everything else aside, the inability to stop despite seeing the damage his behavior was causing, the denialism despite seeing it, and the almost suicidal self-disgust at being unable to break his destructive behavior despite his best efforts.

If you've ever heard an alcoholic or a gambling addict tell his story, you heard exactly what we heard in that room. This had nothing to do with sex-negativity or guilt about being a sexual creature. If I was skeptical about the reality of "sex addiction" before, I wasn't any longer.

The man is now in a sex-addict recovery organization, and with its help and the help of his partner he has broken loose of his compulsion, so far. The two said that they decided to close their relationship during the ongoing intensity of working through this, a radical step for both of them.

The woman, very experienced in the poly and kink worlds, emphasized that sex-positive communities have had a hard time facing up to the reality of sex addicts because the mundane world often throws this accusation against anyone who lives beyond the ordinary.

Hopefully, we are becoming mature and confident enough to be less defensive and address this problem when it really exists.

Deborah Anapol, one of the founders of the modern polyamory movement a generation ago, takes up the topic in her latest "Love Without Limits" article on the blogsite of Psychology Today magazine:

Polyamory and Sex Addiction

...Several years after that, Thelma looked me up again, asking what I thought about sex addiction. I responded that I was very disturbed by the presence of sex addiction in the polyamory community, saying that while most polyamorous people are not addicts, it was a significant problem and one that often came up for discussion in my workshops. Although I wish sex addiction was never an issue in polyamory, the truth is that polyamory does provide a convenient cover story for addicts who are generally in denial about having an addiction.

It's easy to justify sexual obsession by calling it polyamory. A handful of sex addicts can wreak havoc in a community, especially when people are still operating out of conditioning that forbids the sharing of "family secrets" out of misguided respect for confidentiality. Polyamory offers a venue in which sex addicts can begin at least to tell the truth about what they're doing instead of carrying on secret affairs. I prefer to put a positive spin on it by seeing that bringing their destructive, addictive behavior out into the open is the first step toward healing, but unfortunately it can get messy and hurtful for those who are hoping for love and instead find callousness.

I'm well aware that some people object to the whole concept of sex addiction, partly because the label is sometimes used inappropriately to condemn people who don't conform to sexually repressive social or cultural norms. However, if the polyamorous community insists on denying that sexual addiction exists, they end up reinforcing the erroneous view that all polyamory involves sex addiction by allowing sex addicts to masquerade as polyamorists.

After hearing my opinions, Thelma decided she'd like to tell me about her own experience. "I can well describe what it is like, how it feels to be the substance that a sex addict uses to engage in his addiction," she told me. For Thelma, the idea that she was attempting a polyamorous relationship that would involve a potentially painful confrontation with her own jealousy, but would be well worth it in the end, allowed her to be drawn into an abusive relationship....

Anapol also discusses the outwardly similar, but quite different, syndrome of "New Relationship Energy addiction."

...For Alex, polyamory did provide a context in which he was able to see that it was not so much the jealousy and possessiveness of his partner... nor the judgments of society — which were essentially reversed in the polyamory community — that stood between him and his sexual freedom. Rather, he became aware for the first time that nonmonogamy was workable only if he could heal the childhood wounds that led him to compulsively lose control when he indulged in his "drug." When he wasn't "high" on "new relationship energy," Alex was an empathic and attentive partner. "It wasn't like I could just be satisfied with two or three women and settle down. There was never enough, and I was always tempted by the next one."

Alex's high-level communication skills, team spirit, and playful creativity made him a natural for polyamory, but his addictive behavior sabotaged him every time. Alex, like Thelma, finally joined Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Similarly to its sister Twelve Step groups Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, SLAA preaches abstinence (which in this case means monogamy rather than celibacy).
At one point, when Alex was having difficulty staying on the wagon, I suggested that it might be easier if he stayed out of "bars," but he and Dawn so enjoyed the relaxed openness of poly-friendly venues and the deep friendships they'd established that they continued to gravitate toward this community and eventually succeeded in establishing better boundaries....

Read the whole article (April 11, 2011).

The woman I described at the start of this post writes,

There are sex addicts and their partners in our community who suffer in silence, being too embarrassed and afraid of condemnation to come out, ask for support, etc., because they are aware how conflicted many are about whether sex addiction actually exists.

Part of the controversy over whether it exists comes from "addiction" sometimes being defined as applying only to chemicals that cause withdrawal symptoms. People who hold to this definition insist that the term "compulsion" should be used instead for things like gambling, sex, Warcraft, and marijuana.

But there's evidence that the same dopamine reward/compulsion process occurs in the brain whether the addiction is chemical or purely behavioral. So I think the term is justified. And anyway, so many people use "addiction" this way now that it's too late to change it.




Anonymous Alan Salmi said...

I thought, for the sake of completeness, to let you know about the link to a professional who considers sex addiction to be a dangerous concept. He makes interesting points that may well add to the discussion:


Note that in general, labels to me are fairly dangerous things, often leading to the problem of changing WHO someone is, versus WHAT they do, which is easier to shift in most people's mind. I prefer to clinically describe what's happening with the individual person, to work out with them the unique pattern of thinking and old programs that they are running that lead to a maladaptive behavior.

April 13, 2011 8:49 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I think that the word "Addiction" is an innacruate and dangerous one to use; I think that those who behave like this have what should be properly termed by psychologists as "Impulse Control Disorders".

April 13, 2011 9:04 PM  
Blogger Annie Ory said...

Yes, yes, impulse control is the key issue. Yes there are brain chemistry issues here, of course, and, in the end, most of us control ourselves in these situations daily, as a part of life, simply not doing the things it occurs to us to do, because we know they don't serve the life we want to live. People who call themselves sex addicts often have other "addictions" too. My mother was married to one. He went through an alcohol rehab program, then a drug rehab program, then a gambling rehab program, then a sex addict program, then he left her for someone he felt NRE with. In the end his real issue was, likely still is, that he has not developed the mature ability to simply tell himself NO when he wants to do something. A skill that can be taught even when chemical addiction is present, and a skill that MUST be learned in order to live a stable and healthy life...

April 14, 2011 3:58 AM  
OpenID Tomek Kulesza said...

"The man is now in a sex-addict recovery organization, and with its help and the help of his partner he has broken loose of his compulsion, so far. The two said that they decided to close their relationship during the ongoing intensity of working through this, a radical step for both of them."

Why did they close the relationship for both of them, if it was because of his addiction problem? Weird.

April 14, 2011 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tomek, I can think of a couple of reasons, at least if we are talking about a primary relationship. One is that surely there is some very intensive work to do in order to re-establish trust and get the relationship on solid ground. In order to do this, it would be important to focus on accomplishing this as a priority without distraction or diluting available time spent together. Of course, I can well imagine that having another partner might be a great way to destress. I expect this is a matter of personal preference and a matter for negotiation between existing partners.

Secondly, the partner of a sex addict having outside relationships potentially jeopardizes the addict's sexual sobriety in that it can trigger resentment and an urge in the addict to act out. In order to be fully supportive of the addict's sobriety, a partner may indeed have to make this sacrifice in order not to undermine progress. Or they could leave, of course.

April 14, 2011 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like some here are rationalizing about what sex addicts "ought" to be able to do by basing it on how their own non-addictive mind works. They are seeing the problem through a very different filter than that of the addict.

My understanding is that this is a much bigger and more complicated emotional problem to solve than the mere inability to say no to an extra cookie. Yes, the addict can learn to say no, but first a lot of psychotherapy needs to take place to heal what it is that compels them to act when they would desperately prefer not to. Typically the action is an attempt to fill an emotional need from early childhood that was never met, and the trauma of abuse. Sex addicts typically are not aware that these are what causes their compulsivity until they've done the emotional work necessary to identify it.

April 14, 2011 5:13 PM  
OpenID Tomek Kulesza said...

Time constraints are possible reason (although i'd be surprised if it involved breaking up already existing relationships), true, but the resentment... it's common problem, isn't it, when partners get inequal amount of fun? But i always though that the solution lies in handling the resentment, not in handling your partner. After all, a lot of people are going to get more fun anyway. This strikes me as very similar to the sacrifice of sexual (non)exclusivity in monogamy.

April 15, 2011 10:39 AM  

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