If you’re like most sex addicts in the early stages of recovery, you have little to no idea what the term “sexual sobriety” means. You may fear that sexual sobriety mirrors chemical sobriety, where permanent abstinence is the goal. You may be thinking, “Do I have to give up sex forever? Because if I do, 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. Celibacy is not a long-term solution to sexual addiction. Recognizing this, we define sexual sobriety as we define sobriety with eating disorders—another area in which long-term abstinence is simply not feasible. Rather than permanently abstaining from all sexual activity, recovering sex addicts think about sobriety as being sexual in non-compulsive, non-problematic, life-affirming ways.
At this point, you may be wondering, “If sexual sobriety doesn’t require lasting sexual abstinence, what does it require?” The good news (and maybe also the bad news, if you happen to like rigid rules) is that there’s no cut-and-dried answer to this question. Every sex addict enters recovery with a unique life history, a distinct set of compulsive sexual behaviors that are causing problems, and a singular set of goals for the future. Based on these deeply individual factors, each sex addict is asked to create his or her own definition of sobriety.
This means every addict’s definition of sexual sobriety is unique. Sexual behaviors that are problematic for you might be perfectly fine for another sex addict. For example, sexual sobriety for a 25-year-old single gay man might (and likely will) only loosely resemble sexual sobriety for a married 40-year-old heterosexual man with two kids. The goal of sexual sobriety is not conformity; the goal is a non-compulsive, non-shaming, consequence-free sexual life.
Generally, recovering sex addicts create a “sexual boundary plan” to define sobriety and guide their behavior. Most often, these plans are a three-tiered system listing problem behaviors (the inner boundary), slippery behaviors (the middle boundary), and healthy behaviors (the outer boundary).
- The Inner Boundary lists specific sexual behaviors that create negative consequences for you and your loved ones. If you engage in any of these behaviors, you are not sexually sober. This is your bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety.
- The Middle Boundary lists slippery situations and warning signs that might lead you back into your inner boundary. This list includes people, places, emotions, events, experiences, thoughts, and fantasies that endanger your sobriety.
- The Outer Boundary lists healthy behaviors that lead you toward health, happiness, and accomplishing your larger life goals. More importantly, this is a list of healthy activities you can turn to when you feel triggered to act out sexually.
Once again, every sex addict is different, with a unique life history, singular goals, and specific sexual behaviors that create problems. As such, every sexual boundary plan is different. Behaviors that are deeply troubling for you might be perfectly fine for another recovering addict, and vice versa. There is no set definition of sexual sobriety and no set formula for recovery. Conformity is not the goal. Living a healthy and fulfilling life is what matters.