Clients will often come into the office carrying concerns about abstinence. Sex, porn, and love addictions are process addictions. Unlike chemical addictions, we cannot live our lives completely devoid of intimacy and sexuality. I have often encountered people who admit that they have a problem but are reluctant to enter treatment, because they believe that it means they will have to learn how to live without these things. In our practice, we would like to clear up some misconceptions and meet you where you are at.
For partners, the understandable fear is that intimacy will continue to include a violation to the relationship. Healthy sexuality is not permission or endorsement to continue the compulsive behaviors that were damaging to the relationship or to the partner. In fact, a significant part of treatment is a celibacy contract, which holds the purpose of allowing the addict to rewire their brain and change their relationship to their sexuality. Therapy for sex, love, and porn addiction involves a lot of psychoeducation around healthy sexuality and what that entails for each individual. While some of these components are individualized (every addict decides what sobriety looks like for them, in conjunction with the guidance of a therapist and/or treatment team), other aspects of healthy sexuality are non-negotiable. For those in relationships, healthy sexuality makes space for your safety and your boundaries as well as for your partner’s. It does not only cater to one person’s desires or needs.
Healthy sexuality includes the following elements:
Boundaries. Boundaries serve the purpose of protecting us, keeping out what we do not want. They are limits of what we will tolerate and what we do not want to tolerate. While often we grow up believing that boundaries are only about punishment or control, in reality healthy boundaries are all about protection and safety. We all get to decide for ourselves what boundaries feel safe and reasonable for us. For this reason, boundaries should be set intentionally and deliberately. In our romantic relationships, we create boundaries around exclusivity, pleasure, and safety, amongst other things. Boundaries are constantly being learned and negotiated, and it is important for people to stay in dialogue and revisit or reassess their boundaries in their relationships. Healthy, clear boundaries allow for the integration of what you want and what your partner wants. Respecting each other’s boundaries builds safety and trust in the relationship.
Communication. We often see in movies, television, and other forms of entertainment that sex is seamless and effortless. Characters in your favorite romantic comedy seem to have a magical sex life, where everything flows smoothly and one person just knows what the other person enjoys without needing to ask. Popular culture has certainly taught us some incorrect things about sexuality. The reality is that healthy sexuality involves a lot of ongoing communication – talking about what we like and what we don’t like, what feels good and what doesn’t, and what we want out of our sexual experiences. Yes, it is perfectly normal to talk during sex, before sex, after sex, and about sex. Needing to talk about what is going on in your sex life does not mean that there’s something wrong with it. Actually, it is a sign that you and your partner are working to stay on the same page.
Consent. The truth is that we don’t talk enough about consent. Consent is ongoing, even in long-term committed relationships. Consent is necessary for having sex, for coming up with the terms around what’s okay and what isn’t during sex, for determining the nature of exclusivity around the sexual relationship, and so much more. Each partner should be given the opportunity to consent. Healthy sexuality goes out the window when only one person gets to make the call. Consent needs to be a non-negotiable element of healthy sexuality.
Agency. An important marker that something is a problem in our lives is when clinically significant distress or impairment exists. This can often look like a loss of control, a preoccupation or compulsivity that leads to us behaving in contradiction to our values, or an overbearing feeling of dependence on an element of our sexuality (masturbation, pornography, extramarital sex, etc.). With healthy sexuality, we have agency over our sexual decisions and choices. It doesn’t feel like something we “can’t help” or a craving we have to fight. Instead, after rewiring our brain’s relationship to sex, porn, or masturbation, we are able to incorporate all the elements of healthy sexuality instead of compulsively feeding into an addictive process.
Knowledge. There is always more to learn about sex. Some of these things are technical and others are relational (i.e., learning about sex as it relates to your personal relationship). Sex education is extremely important, and if you feel that you do not know as much about sex or your relationship to sex as you should, the good news is that it is never too late to learn. Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (CSATs) will provide psychoeducation as needed in sessions. As you build safety and trust in your relationship, open the lines of honest and vulnerable communication with your partner and yourself, and enter treatment with someone with a lot of expertise, you will absolutely expand your knowledge on your own relationship with your sexuality.
Fun! Healthy sexuality is positive and relational in nature. Sex is most pleasurable when it is about connection, not isolation or shame. While healthy sexuality is respectful of boundaries and requires effort and personal work, ultimately it is something many of us enjoy and something that allows us to deepen our connection with our partner. There is so much possibility for love and closeness through healthy sexuality.
Healthy sexuality is not a topic that can be fully covered in this brief blog article. Finding the right therapist who is a good fit for you is so important, because this is something that is worth unpacking in therapy. Our team at Banyan Therapy Group is highly passionate about healthy sexuality. We are here to answer your questions, to process with you, and to start the conversation around defining what it will mean for you.