The first task of recovery: Establishing Sobriety

Pat Carnes is one of the “founding fathers” of the sex addiction field. One of his fundamental principles is that the first task of recovery is to “establish sobriety.” There are two ways to understand this, both of which are essential:

1. To establish sobriety, we must define it

First, we need to “establish” what we mean by sobriety. This is not as easy as it first appears. “Sobriety” – when used in reference to compulsive sexual behavior – is the state of living that is free from the addictive or compulsive behavior. Sexual sobriety is not the same thing as sexual purity … it’s not sexual perfection. It is the ongoing experience of abstaining from unhealthy, addictive sexual behaviors. But, of course, this begs the question … which behaviors are addictive, and which behaviors are healthy?

Recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs is simpler. Sobriety there means abstaining from the drug. Period. But sexual behaviors are much more varied, and recovery for most married people will not involve ongoing abstinence from sexual activity. The task of early recovery is to determine what kinds of sexual behaviors are healthy and lead to genuine intimacy, and which ones are unhealthy and destructive.

Some programs (such as Sex Addicts Anonymous) leave the definition of the specific behaviors in this category up to each individual addict. In these programs, each person decides for him or herself what behaviors are “off-limits”. Other programs are critical of this approach, believing that it creates too much room for self-delusion, and it allows people to define their sobriety so broadly that they don’t really make progress in addressing their problems.

As guys who’ve gone to the Mens’ Recovery Workshop know, we at Faithful and True Ministries suggest some specific guidelines as a sobriety definition. We offer three basic behaviors that form the boundaries of sobriety. Engaging in any of these three behaviors means losing your sobriety. We use the acronym MAP to define these behaviors. Here they are:

  • Masturbation (pretty self-explanatory)
  • Adultery (sex in any form with someone other than your spouse)
  • Pornography (the intentional viewing of pornography)

You’ll notice that there are certain behaviors that come to mind as important boundaries, but don’t make it onto this list. Things like fantasizing about sex, or staring at women, or flirting with someone who’s not your spouse are all examples of things that are dangerous and destructive in certain ways … but with these guidelines, we’re implying that they don’t represent a breaking of sobriety.

The reason for defining sobriety this broadly and definitively is to help people get clear about what specific behaviors are “out of bounds” … without setting ourselves up for continual failure. We don’t do this to create leniency and “loopholes” in our program. We do it so that we can be clear, and make recovery “doable” given the normal experiences of sexual arousal and craving that inevitably come into our experience. We will be addressing in future weeks the dangerous and destructive things we do that get us into trouble — but aren’t sobriety violations.

For now though, it’s enough to think about (or maybe “re-think”) the question of our definition of and commitment to sobriety. Which brings us to the second dimension of “establishing sobriety.”

2. Experience it

The second component to “establishing sobriety” is that we not only define it, but that we actually start to live it. To experience it. We don’t make progress in recovery until we can begin to build days and weeks of solid sobriety. Until the alcoholic or junkie is able to experience life without his or her drug in their system, they can’t begin to face the issues in their life that need facing.

The same is true with people struggling with sexual behavior. We do the sexual things we do as way of coping with (shielding ourselves from) painful or stressful aspects of life. We “act out” because we’re bored, resentful, anxious, lonely, etc. This is important because it means that unless and until we’re able to start experiencing life without our “drug” (or coping mechanism), we’re not going to make much progress in understanding or changing what’s really going on. Instead, as the old SA guys say, we’re “living in the fog of lust.”

This helps explain why those early days of sobriety are a mixture of joy (from finally being free from the grip of our sexual junk), and pain. We feel irritable, sad, and/or anxious a lot. For most of us, this is not so much the experience of “withdrawal” … it’s simply a matter of our feelings catching up with us. The negative feelings that we’ve been medicating for so long are now coming to the surface … and we have to deal with them. This is not pleasant, but it’s important — in fact it’s essential — if we want to make progress in recovery.


This article is taken from material I have written and use in the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity program. Each day in the program, I send out some teaching material to participants about recovery, along with a devotional, and a “next step action” suggestion. This teaching point has to do with an essential part of recovery: getting clear about what we mean by “sobriety” (what we want to include and exclude from our lives), and then taking steps to achieve it. Find out more about the 90 Days to Sexual Sanity Program by clicking here.

7 thoughts on “The first task of recovery: Establishing Sobriety”

    1. (Note: Your entire post would not load; the other 4 I read did. I can only see the first two and a half scneenets.) A sponsee is in the middle of Step 7. As expressed in the 12 12, it is a favorite of mine, and the depth of possibilities glimpsed in those pages is gratifying. “Humility” appears nearly 30 times in 7 pages (seven times on pg 75 alone!), and there’s a lot to chew on in the observations and examples presented. Early on, I absorbed many of the things I heard, and one of them was that what other people think of me is none of my business. I believe now that the sentiment is better served by starting the sentence with “Generally, etc.” Like anything and everything else, moderation in thought and action is key to serenity within the rooms, rooms that are full of people just like me, apt to be off the beam at a few-to-many points during the day. There will always be people who silently feel superior or inferior to me or don’t like the way I dress or feel that I smile too much or not enough, and on and on and on. If I truly strive toward a continuing change for the better in myself, then the embracing of humility will help me to keep the focus on my progress on the path. At any given time of the day or night, there is only one entity that I have to be right with, and it’s not one of this earth.

  1. As a member of SAA with four years of sobriety, I’d like to say a couple of things about our approach to defining sobriety. First, while it is true that each member defines what constitutes addictive sexual behavior for themselves, they do not do so _by_ themselves. As the SAA Green Book says, members define out-of-bounds behavior “with the help of a Sponsor and others in recovery.” Mentorship and accountability are built into the system.
    While I appreciate the desire of some sex addicts for simple and straightforward guidelines, the unavoidable fact is that human sexuality is not simple. On one hand, declaring all masturbation, adultery and pornography use as “addictive” threatens to expand the meaning of addiction to the point of incoherence. On the other hand, there are many forms of clearly addictive sexual behavior — such as stalking, voyeurism or self-exposure — that don’t fall under the guidelines you set out. Are those who practice such behaviors sexually sober as long as they don’t masturbate?
    I met a guy in a meeting whose acting out behavior was his inability to stay out of a restaurant where the waitresses dressed like schoolgirls. He was spending a lot of money while hanging out there, neglecting his job. His wife had threatened to divorce him, his kids were estranged from him. But he kept going. He never dated or even touched the waitresses. He wasn’t viewing pornography or masturbating in the restaurant. But it was clear he was engaged in addictive sexual behavior, although by the MAP schema he was actually sober.
    The SAA approach to abstinence and sobriety is unquestionably more challenging for the addict. But real-life sexual sobriety can be far more challenging than following a limited set of generic rules.

  2. Scott,

    I appreciate your comment. Sorry that it stayed in que for so long! I get a lot of spam on this site, so I have to manually approve comments. I thought I had approved it the day after you gave it, but for some reason it didn’t go through, and I just saw it again in the cue tonight.

    First off, I should say that I agree with you that, when practiced correctly, the SAA approach is the best, and its members wind up with a more tailored, and often stricter set of boundaries for their “inner circle” (definition of sobriety). But this presupposes that they are honest with their sponsor, that they are even working with a sponsor at all, and that their sponsor knows what he/she is doing.

    You’ve listed an example of someone engaging in a behavior that is destructive and addictive, but does not fit the “MAP” criteria. I agree with you that in such a case, the SA definition, or the MAP definition of sobriety doesn’t cover this kind of behavior. But I would also guess that this kind of behavior wouldn’t get addressed in the general meetings at an SAA meeting either. Working with a sponsor, and being honest with a sponsor in whatever program one is in is the key, and is the only way to make sure that all our behaviors get addressed.

    The fact is that we can find lots of examples of extreme interpretations of sobriety, and problems with how the various programs approach it. We can certainly find that with SAA.

    All too often, members of SAA set their boundaries so low that “sobriety” is almost meaningless. My mentor often tells the story of an SAA group he went to (pretty sure it was the last SAA group he went to) where the guy who got a two or three year medallion turned out to have a definition of sobriety which was “To refrain from having sex with someone if I don’t know their first name.” I first thought that was a crazy, extreme story … but over the past few years, I’ve been to a number of SAA meetings around the country, and have contact with a lot of people in SAA, and I have found it is not uncommon to find this kind of absurdly broad definition of sobriety. It’s sort of like an alcoholic trying to define sobriety as “Only drinking alcohol to the point where I’m able to walk across the room without falling down or throwing up.” Try that at an AA meeting!

    So we’re back to this bottom line point: get in a program, get a sponsor, work the steps, and get honest with that sponsor about what is happening in your life. I still think that MAP is a good guide, but that in some instances (like the example you bring up) working with a sponsor might unearth something that might be considered “middle circle” to many people actually needs to be part of the “inner circle” (sobriety definition).

    – Mark

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