Sexual Sobriety vs. Sexual Abstinence

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Sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts in the early stages of recovery and healing typically have little to no idea what the term “sexual sobriety” means. Many worry that sexual sobriety mirrors chemical (substance abuse) sobriety, where permanent abstinence is nearly always the goal. In fact, sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts new to treatment often pose some form of the following question: “Will I ever have a healthy, enjoyable sex life, or do I have to give up sex forever?” This question is usually followed by a statement like: “If I have to give up sex permanently, then you can forget about me staying in recovery.”

Fortunately, unlike sobriety for alcoholism and drug addiction, sexual sobriety is not defined by long-term abstinence. Instead, sex, porn, and substance/sex addiction treatment address sexual sobriety much as it is handled with eating disorders – another area in which long-term abstinence is simply not feasible. Essentially, instead of permanently abstaining from all sexual activity, recovering sex addicts learn to be sexual in non-compulsive, non-problematic, life-affirming ways.

That said, sex, porn, and substance/sex addicts new to treatment and recovery are often asked to take a short timeout (usually 30, 60, or 90 days) from all sexual behaviors, including masturbation, when they begin the process of healing. This brief period of total sexual abstinence is suggested because most of these newly recovering addicts have lost touch with reality when it comes to sexual behavior, and therefore find it difficult to distinguish between healthy and problematic sexual activity. This period of temporary celibacy provides them, working in conjunction with their therapist, 12-step sponsor, or some other accountability partner, a chance to develop some clarity about which of their sexual behaviors are addictive and which are not. They can also use this timeframe to dismantle their denial, to learn what their triggers are, and to develop healthy coping skills they can turn to instead of acting out.

In much the same way that drug detox is a first step toward recovery from substance addiction, this short period of complete sexual abstinence – a “detox” from addictive sex – is a first step toward recovery from sex, porn, and substance/sex addiction. This time away from sex interrupts addicts’ long-established patterns of compulsive sexual behavior while clarity, ego-strength, social skills, support networks, and new coping skills are developed. Again, celibacy is not a long-term intervention. In truth, the heavy lifting of sex, porn, and substance/sex addiction recovery is not this period of self-restraint; it’s the slow (re)introduction of healthy sexuality and intimacy into the addict’s life. In other words, the true goal of sexual recovery and sexual sobriety is not ongoing sexual abstinence; it’s learning to meet one’s emotional and physical needs without engaging in problematic sexual activity.

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If you think that you or someone you care about might be sex, porn, or substance/sex addicted, we suggest taking our anonymous Sex Addiction Screening Test and our Substance/Sex Addiction Screening Test. Residential treatment for these issues is available at Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles. Seeking Integrity also offers online workgroups for sex addicts seeking recovery.