Sex addicts new to recovery typically have little to no idea how to define sexual sobriety. Sometimes they worry that sexual sobriety is the same as chemical sobriety, where permanently abstaining is the ultimate goal. Many say that if that is the case, they’ll stick with their addiction thank you very much. And would anyone fault them for this?
Happily, sex addiction recovery is less like recovery from substance abuse and more like recovery from an eating disorder, where the goal is learning how to eat in healthy ways rather than abstaining entirely, which would obviously be a very bad idea. As such, long-term recovery from sex addiction does not mean addicts can never have sex again. Instead, sexual recovery is a process of learning to be sexual in life-affirming, relationship-affirming, non-compulsive, and non-problematic ways.
Nevertheless, most newly recovering sex addicts are asked in treatment to take a 30, 60, or 90 day timeout from all sexual activity, including masturbation. This relatively brief period of total abstinence is suggested for two reasons: 1) it temporarily separates the addict from his or her problem causing behaviors, and 2) it helps the addict develop some perspective on his or her behavior – an understanding of which sexual actions have caused problems and which have not. Then, based on that analysis, sex addicts can create a written definition of and plan for sexual sobriety.
Moving forward, the recovering addict agrees to avoid the sexual behaviors that create problems in his or her life. Engaging in any such activity is deemed to be non-sober sexual behavior. Meanwhile, other sexual behaviors, as long as they are engaged in moderately and appropriately, are perfectly OK and maybe even encouraged. And as long as a sex addict’s sexual behavior does not violate his or her highly individualized boundaries for sexual sobriety, he or she is sexually sober.
NOTE: I believe it is vital that each recovering sex addict put his or her definition of sexual sobriety in writing, and that this definition clearly define the addict’s bottom line behaviors to avoid. Murky plans lead to murky recovery, and nobody needs that extra layer of complication. Healing from sex addiction is hard enough as is. (I will discuss in detail what these written plans should look like in future postings to this site.)
At this point you may have noticed that, unlike sobriety from alcoholism, drug addiction, and gambling, there is no single, universally accepted definition for sexual sobriety. Each addict has a unique life history and a highly individual set of problems, goals, and life circumstances. Thus, each sex addict will have an equally unique definition of sobriety. For instance, sexual sobriety for a married, 44-year-old heterosexual mother of three may little resemble sexual sobriety for a single, homosexual 23-year-old man. And that’s just fine. The goal is not conformity; the goal is a non-compulsive, non-problematic sex life, whatever that happens to look like for any given person.
For more information about sexual addiction, check out my recently published books, Sex Addiction 101 and Sex Addiction 101, The Workbook. If you feel you need clinical assistance with sexual addiction, therapist and treatment referrals can be found here and here. I also conduct an open-ended discussion about sex addiction at InTheRooms.com, Friday nights at 6 p.m. PST.