It has been more than 30 years since Dr. Patrick Carnes published his book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, which introduced the concept of sexual addiction. One working definition of sexual addiction is a pathological attachment to a mood-altering experience of sex.
At that time, the focus was almost entirely on males who were addicted to sex. But new ground was already being broken. When I first met Jennifer Schneider—an Arizona psychiatrist—in the early 90s, she and a colleague had recently completed a book about couples recovering from sexual addiction.
Schneider and her colleague obtained detailed information about married females who were addicted to sex. Twenty-four women and 17 husbands were interviewed by telephone; 7 of the male spouses declined to take part in the survey. The findings were provocative back then, but they are confirmed by my own clinical observations over the years.
Gender Differences in Sex Addiction
Unlike the majority of men with sex addiction, most women are aware of their codependency when they initially begin therapy with me—either alone or with a partner. Codependency can be briefly described as looking outside oneself to other people in order to define self-worth.period of abstinence is important in order to learn to maintain sexual boundaries. But that requires being able to say no without it affecting self-worth. As one woman in therapy put it, “I don’t want to deprive him or drive him to look elsewhere for sex!”
I find that is rarely a problem for a man choosing a period of abstinence. Unfortunately, this culturally learned gender difference makes it much more difficult to rebuild marriages in which the wife is sexually compulsive. Females with sex addiction often feel alone and unsupported as they work toward recovery.
Steps for Women in Recovery
In order to appreciate the complicated nature of sex addiction for women, it’s important to recognize how terrifying psychological isolation can be. One woman told me, “I feel ashamed that I feel lonely even in my marriage, like something in me is broken and defective.”
Consequently, women in recovery benefit most from a combination of supportive individual therapy and group experience, both 12-step and therapist-led. In 12-step meetings such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), participants share experiences, strength, and hope. In her book, Ready to Heal: Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction, author Kelly McDaniel lists some of the numerous benefits:
- A sense of belonging
- Seeing and being seen
- Having a voice
- Supporting others when they have a turn to speak
- Giving and receiving comfort when life is painful
You may not be able to heal your brain alone, and the brain usually doesn’t function at its best capacity when you are isolated. Therapy can provide a trusting relationship and a healthy context for healing.Healing relationships requires healing the mind and the lifelong patterns that have shaped responses to the people closest to you. When your mind is fearful, you may have problems trusting or acting outside of your truest morals and values. Women with sex addiction may have difficulty being their best selves, and many of their sexual behaviors may have fallen outside their value system.
Healing your life also means healing your brain, and this may require professional support. Sexual addiction thrives in isolation. You may not be able to heal your brain alone, and the brain usually doesn’t function at its best capacity when you are isolated. Therapy can provide a trusting relationship and a healthy context for healing. McDaniel makes these suggestions for being a careful consumer when you’re ready to find a therapist:
- Consider finding a professional who understands brain chemistry, the effects of trauma, and the subsequent need for an addiction.
- Look for a therapist who understands sex addiction and can guide you through the process of designing a treatment plan that will best address your particular situation.
- Most important, your therapist must be able to facilitate a relationship with you that is collaborative and respectful. If you feel awkward in your first session, listen to your intuition. Trust your heart to be your guide in finding the right professional.
Women experiencing sex addiction today have a much greater chance of finding a caring and well-trained professional than their mothers may have had. You owe it to yourself to find the best help possible.
- Carnes, P. (2001). Out of the shadows: Understanding sexual addiction (3rd ed.). Center City, MN: Hazelden.
- McDaniel, K. (2008). Ready to heal: Women facing love, sex, and relationship addiction (2nd ed.). Carefree AZ: Gentle Path Press.
- Schneider, J., & Schneider, B. (1989). Rebuilding trust: For couples committed to recovery. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
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