All addictions are cyclical, with no clear beginning or end and one stage leading to the next—and then the next, and the next, and the next—leaving the addict stuck in an endless, downwardly spiraling loop. With sexual addiction, various models of the addictive cycle have been proposed. Here, we prefer and utilize a six-stage model, described below.
- Stage One, Triggers: Triggers are catalysts that create a need/desire to act out sexually. Most often triggers are some sort of “pain agent.” Pain agents include both emotional/psychological and physical discomfort, either short-term or long-term. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, stress, shame, anger, and any other uncomfortable feeling can easily trigger a sex addict’s desire to escape, avoid, and dissociate. Positive agents can also serve as triggers. So, if a sex addict gets fired from his or her job, he or she will want to act out sexually; and if that same addict gets a great new job, he or she will want to act out sexually. Triggers can also be visual (seeing a sexy image on a billboard), auditory (hearing a noise that reminds the addict of sexual activity), olfactory (smelling the perfume or cologne of a past sexual partner), and even touch or taste related. If triggers are not dealt with in a healthy way (dissipated via a healthy, non-addictive coping mechanism like talking to supportive friends, family members, or a therapist), the cycle inevitably slides forward into stage two.
- Stage Two, Fantasy: After being triggered and therefore needing/wanting to escape and dissociate, sex addicts automatically turn to their primary coping mechanism—sexual fantasy. They start thinking about how much they enjoyed past sexual encounters and how much they would enjoy a sexual encounter either right now or in the near future. At this point, the addict becomes preoccupied to the point of obsession with his or her sexual fantasies. Every person encountered by the addict (both in-person and online) is viewed as a sexual object. The addict’s fantasies do not involve memories of bad experiences or unwanted consequences. Once the addict is mired in sexual fantasies, it is very difficult to stop the addictive cycle without some sort of outside intervention.
- Stage Three, Ritualization: Ritualization is where fantasy moves toward reality. This stage adds excitement, intensity, and arousal. For example, the addict logs on to the computer and goes to his or her favorite porn site, or hops in the car and drives to a place where sex workers congregate, or begins the process of booking an out-of-town business trip on which he or she can act out sexually without restraint, or whatever. This stage of the cycle is also known as the bubble or the trance because the addict gets lost in it. Real world issues and concerns disappear as the addict focuses more and more intently on his or her sexual fantasies and potential behaviors. This stage of the addiction (rather than actually having sex) provides the escapist neurochemical high that sex addicts seek. As such, sex addicts typically stretch this stage for as long as possible—looking at porn, cruising for casual sex, chatting via webcams and the like for many hours (or even days) before moving to the next stage.
- Stage Four, Acting Out: Most non-sex addicts think that this stage, rather than stage three, is the ultimate goal of sexual addiction because this is where actual sex and orgasm takes place (either solo or with another person or people). However, as stated above, the fantasy-fueled escape and dissociation of stage three is the real objective. In fact, most sex addicts try to put off actual sex and orgasm for as long as they possibly can because orgasm ends the escapist high and tosses the addict back into the real world with all its issues and problems. Stated another way, sex addicts are looking to escape emotional discomfort, not to experience the pleasure of orgasm. Orgasm brings their escapist high to an abrupt, screeching halt.
- Stage Five, Numbing: After acting out, sex addicts attempt to distance themselves from what they’ve just done. They justify their behaviors, telling themselves, “If my spouse was nicer to me, I wouldn’t need to do this.” They minimize their behaviors, telling themselves, “Nobody knows that I just spent six hours looking at and masturbating to pornography, and nobody got hurt by what I did, so it’s no big deal.” They rationalize their behaviors, telling themselves, “Hooking up with people online for mutual masturbation isn’t really cheating because I don’t actually touch the other person and I don’t even give that person my real name.” Etc. In this stage of the cycle the addict’s denial kicks in full force to temporarily protect the addict from the next stage.
- Stage Six, Despair: Eventually, numbing will dissipate. And when it does, sex addicts start to feel guilty, ashamed, and remorseful. Exacerbating these unwanted emotions is the fact that they also feel powerless to stop the cycle of their addiction. Plus, whatever reality it was that they were trying to escape in the first-place returns, bringing with it the self-loathing, anxiety, and depression they were already experiencing. When this happens, stage six automatically spins the self-perpetuating cycle of sex addiction back to stage one.
Repeating the Cycle Builds Tolerance
The cycle of sexual addiction typically intensifies with each repetition, requiring more of the same sexual fantasies and behaviors or more intense sexual fantasies and behaviors to reach or maintain the same neurochemical high. This transforms the cycle from a repetitive loop into a downward spiral, leading to relationship, work, health, financial, legal, and other crises. And all these crises can qualify as triggers, setting the cycle in motion yet again.
Can the Cycle Be Stopped?
The cycle of sexual addiction is best interrupted in the early portion of stage one when the addict’s pain agents first arise. If the addict learns to recognize his or her triggers (emotional discomfort, certain types of imagery, certain areas of town, etc.), he or she can engage in contrary actions designed to:
- Stop the onset of sexual thoughts before they escalate to fantasy, ritualization, and acting out.
- Deal with the unwanted uncomfortable feelings or triggers in an emotionally healthy way.
It may be possible for a sex addict to stop his or her addictive cycle if it has progressed into stage two (fantasy) or even into the early ritualistic behaviors of stage three, but doing so becomes progressively more difficult. And when the addict enters the bubble/trance portion of stage three, the game is up. At that point, the cycle gathers momentum like a boulder rolling down a hill, and without external intervention sexual acting out is almost inevitable.