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By David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

Amphetamines, sexual fantasy, sexual behavior, and porn can are sometimes referred to as super-stimulants, as they create a heightened sense of intensity through unnaturally large releases of dopamine. Because of this intensity, they are powerful mood changers that can quickly form the basis of addictive behavior.

When substances and sex are combined in an addictive manner it is often the search for intensity that underlies the behavior. Addicts seeking intensity can easily find it with amphetamines like cocaine and methamphetamine. Intensity can also be found through a variety of compulsive sexual behaviors. Such behaviors might include sex with heightened risk, highly engaging images, taboo behaviors, or novel fantasies.

One hallmark of addiction, especially intensity-driven addictions, is tolerance, which occurs when increasing amounts of a drug or behavior are required to achieve the same effect (the same high). With the inevitable development of tolerance, levels of intensity begin to plateau and more stimulation is required.

The escalation needed to overcome tolerance can take many forms, such as switching from one kind of drug to another. For example, a substance abuser might move from beer to hard liquor or from cocaine to methamphetamine. Escalation with substances can also include changing methods of ingestion – from smoking or snorting to injecting, for instance. With a behavior, escalation generally involves upping the stakes or engaging in the behavior for longer periods of time. For example, a person might move from penny slots to $5 minimum tables at the casino, or from vanilla porn to hardcore webcamming.

Adding sex to substance use (or vice versa) also creates a more potent effect. As such, this pairing can be used to up the intensity and overcome tolerance. Often, substance/sex addicts will stack different behaviors on top of one another. For example, they may combine drug intoxication with pornography or sexual behaviors that heighten risk, increase the sense of taboo, or in some way push the boundaries of the individual. Stacking arousal sources in this way has a cumulative effect.

Other elements that evoke a heightened level of excitement include intense emotions like anger, behaviors that add novelty (such as a new sexual position or fetish), and new sex partners.

It is important to remember that most addicts who combine drugs and sex do so not only for the heightened level of intensity and excitement but to numb their emotions – to dissociate from uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, or situations. While addictive behaviors may at first be about the intoxicating sensations derived from certain substances and behaviors, these substances and behavior eventually become more about divorcing oneself from unpleasantness.

It is important to understand that with all addictions, even though the addictive substances and behaviors are used to experience intensity and excitement, the goal of that intensity and excitement is to numb or distract the user from uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. This is as true with sex addiction as it is with substance addictions. In fact, contrary to popular perception, sex addiction is not about sex. Instead, sex addicts use their addictive behavior as a means to numb, avoid, and otherwise distance themselves from discomfort.

It should be noted that not every addict who pairs drug use and sexual behavior is seeking intensity (though most are). Sometimes people use substances to literally anesthetize themselves against overwhelming feelings, particularly those concerning sex and sexual behavior. I have had clients who ingested excessive amounts of alcohol, benzodiazepines, or even opioid drugs to basically knock themselves out enough to have sex. Their sexual behavior in these circumstances was often something that repulsed them.

In one case, a self-identified heterosexual man would get intoxicated to the point where he was nearly helpless on his bed and then be the receptive partner in sex with other men. When trying to explain his behavior, he said he found sex with other men repulsive but apparently (at least at a subconscious level) highly desirable. So, while his substance use was not about seeking intensity, it still achieved the goal of numbing or dissociating him from uncomfortable or intolerable thoughts and feelings.

Someone who uses drugs and sex together as a way of avoiding or numbing will, in recovery, find it essential to develop tools to manage these thoughts and feelings. Especially in early recovery, strong emotions can easily overwhelm a person’s coping mechanisms and greatly increase the risk for relapse. For that reason, I caution other therapists to move into trauma resolution work only when a client has a reasonable amount of sobriety and a firm foundation in affect regulation. While such trauma work is essential for prolonged recovery, re-engaging with strong and powerful emotions related to trauma before a client is ready can lead to relapse.

It is also true that addicts in recovery, especially those who sought heightened stimulation in their addictive behavior, must learn how to manage a lack of intensity. Situations involving relaxation, unstructured time, or boredom can present relapse risks for those accustomed to high levels of stimulation. Many people who stop using stimulant drugs or stimulants paired with sex find that a great deal of energy and time that had been directed toward thinking about, acquiring, using, and recovering from addictive behaviors is now free, often with no specific productive focus. Such “open space” is fertile ground for cravings and rationalizations that quickly undermine efforts to stay clean and sober.

As such, it is essential for intensity seekers in recovery to learn ways to manage their feelings and to increase their ability to tolerate periods of low stimulation.

If you or someone you care about is dealing with an intensity-based addiction or compulsion like sex addiction, porn addiction, or paired substance use with sexual behavior, help is available. I host an online weekly Chemsex discussion group every Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific. The group is free to anyone who wishes to attend. I also serve as VP for Clinical Programming for Seeking Integrity, an inpatient facility that works with sex, porn, and paired substance/sex addicts.