There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about sexual addiction, much of which centers around the way in which “sexual sobriety” is (and is not) defined. For starters, a lot of people, including some underinformed therapists, think that clinicians who treat sex addiction dictate to their clients what is and is not healthy, thereby leaving the definition of sexual sobriety open to the therapist’s personal, moral, and/or religious views about what sex should look like, with whom clients should have it, and how often they should have it. This could include possible interpretations like, “If you’re not legally married to an opposite-sex spouse, you should not be having sex with anyone, including yourself.”
Happily, this is not the way in which Certified Sex Addiction Therapists define sexual sobriety. CSATs are not the sex police, nor do they wish to be. In fact, as a rule they are incredibly sex-positive, encouraging all forms of sexual expression unless they’re obsessive, compulsive, out of control, and creating negative consequences. Same-sex behaviors, fetishes, kinks, and all other forms of legal and consensual sexual activity are perfectly acceptable as far as CSATs are concerned—even for recovering sex addicts. Anyone who says differently is either misinformed or lying.
A similar concern, generally expressed by sex addicts themselves, is that sobriety requires long-term abstinence (as we typically see with recovery from substance use disorders), or at least long-term abstinence from the types of behaviors that turn them on the most. In fact, one of the first questions therapists are likely to hear when starting work with a newly recovering sex addict is: “Will I ever have a healthy and enjoyable sex life, or do I have to give up hot sex forever?” Often, that is followed by a statement like, “If I have to give up sex permanently, or my favorite flavor of sex permanently, you can forget about me staying in recovery.”
Fortunately, sexual sobriety is not defined by long-term abstinence. Celibacy is not a long-term solution to sexual addiction. Recognizing this, CSATs define sexual sobriety as other therapists 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 are coached to think about sexual 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 treatment with a unique life history, a unique set of compulsive sexual behaviors that are causing problems, and a unique set of goals for the future. Based on these deeply individual factors, each sex addict must create his or her own definition of sobriety. This means every sex addict’s definition of sexual sobriety is unique. Sexual behaviors that are hugely problematic for one sexually addicted client might be perfectly fine for another.
Generally, recovering sex addicts, working with their therapist, will create a “sexual boundary plan” that defines sexual sobriety and guides their behavior in recovery. 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 your sexually addicted client. If your client engages in any of these behaviors, he or she is not sexually sober. This is your client’s bottom-line definition of sexual sobriety.
- The Middle Boundary lists slippery situations and warning signs that might lead your client back into his or her inner boundary. This list includes people, places, emotions, events, experiences, thoughts, and fantasies that endanger your client’s sobriety.
- The Outer Boundary lists healthy behaviors that lead your client toward health, happiness, and accomplishing his or her larger life goals. More importantly, this is a list of healthy activities your client can turn to when he or she feels 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 one client might be perfectly fine for another, 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.