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.”
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.