Get Real! Are We Addicted to Sex?


cfishhyy2694 asks:

My
boyfriend and I have been together for almost 7 months. We had sex
after the 1st month because we felt that special connection with each
other. Ever since the first time with him, I keep wanting more. I think
I’m addicted to sex with him. That is all I think about constantly. He
is the same way but for my sake (he doesn’t want to be a father yet, if
you get what I mean) he tries to control himself as much as possible.
He can’t always though. To be safe I’ve asked him to buy condoms but
since we both realized we are doing it too much, he says we aren’t
going to do it anyway so why have them. Well then he comes over and we
wind up doing it without a condom. It was a close call one time where
he almost ejaculated inside of me, but pulled it out just in time. Do
you have any suggestions on how we can overcome out sex addiction and
try and be safer? I’m not allowed to go on the pill and my boyfriend
and I have a lot of time to be alone together. We are just teenagers.
Thank you for the advice.

Heather Corinna replies:

Sex
addiction is a popular topic on talk-shows and in mainstream media
(where the goal isn’t accuracy, but ratings), but it isn’t something
many sexologists consider credible. I’m not on board with the idea
myself.

Our collective ugh about it has a lot to do with the way addiction
is clinically defined, and how sex just doesn’t fit that definition.
That definition is usually about drugs or external substances, and sex
is not either of those things. People who work full-time in and with
sexuality and sexual health also usually have big problems with the
idea of sex addiction because of the assumptions that must be made
about sex to define it as something to which one can be addicted. Those
are assumptions like sex as something which is inherently dangerous or
unsafe, the weird idea that sex is something which is only or primarily
chemical when we know different; that there’s only one right or healthy
way for everyone to be sexual (which we know isn’t true), or that sex
is only okay in the context of certain kinds of relationships (also,
not true). The clinical model of addiction also includes a real
physical dependency on the substance itself which we just can’t have
with sex, because there’s no substance or chemical sex is or creates
which we could be dependent on that is unique to it. While parts of sex
can be chemical, the same chemicals can be drummed up in our bodies
through things like exercise or breastfeeding. It’s also generally
agreed that sex and other kinds of physical affection are one of the
primary human needs, so in some ways, saying a person is addicted to
sex is like saying someone is addicted to breathing or having a place
to live.

There is not any agreed-upon criteria to diagnose "sex addiction"
and the way it tends to be assigned is highly questionable. For
instance, a typical scenario is when the the person being attributed
with addiction is simply because something about that person’s
sexuality isn’t something their partner likes or wants themselves, like
a kind of sex they want or the frequency of sex they would prefer. Just
because two people are sexually different doesn’t make one person
healthy and the other an addict: just because one partner wants sex
more than the other doesn’t mean one of them is not psychologically
well. We’ll see people assigned as addicts whose sexuality simply
doesn’t meet someone’s idea of what is sexually normal or ideal, such
as a person preferring several partners to one, or someone who wants
both male and female partners.

What people who study and work in sexuality generally can agree on
is that some people have problems with compulsive behavior and sex —
with doing things sexually they don’t want to, but feel compelled to do
or like they have to do, even when they know it’s not right for them or
someone else. So, if anything, what we’d be talking about is sexual
compulsivity or impulse control, something we would be
concerned with because those can not only result in a very real
disruption of a person’s overall life and well-being, it can also
result in harm done to others, such as rape and other kinds of abuse.

If you or another person are feeling as if you do not have control
over your sexual actions, for real, that’s something to seek out
professional help with. When having sex feels totally outside our
control, like something we have no choice in, it also isn’t a pleasant
set of feelings. Feeling that way will tend to be scary and upsetting,
disruptive to a person’s life and often will make healthy sexual
relationships with someone else very difficult. If we meet someone who
tells us they earnestly cannot always control themselves around us
sexually, or who behaves that way, the only safe thing to do is
to distance ourselves from that person until they get help and learn
self-control. That is NOT someone to get intimately involved with.

If all of that sounds extreme, chances are, you or he are probably not
having issues with compulsive sexual behavior. And I’d be willing to
bet neither of you are, especially since you make clear sex is
something both of you want. Instead, you and your boyfriend are
probably feeling a lot of of sexual desire, and just have not yet
learned how to best manage those feelings and the choices all of us
make when it comes to them and how we express them with other people.
Additionally, when your boyfriend says things like that he can’t always
control himself, he just may be saying that in order to avoid taking
responsibility for himself.

When love and/or sex are new, when we’re with a new partner, or even
just at certain times in our lives or in certain relationships, it’s
normal to feel very strong sexual desire, to think about sex and to
want to express and explore those feelings. Two people who are really
into each other really wanting to be sexual together often isn’t a
signal of any kind of problem or addiction, but a sign of people being
human and having the kinds of normal sexual drives most human beings
have. But none of us are born with the skills to manage those feelings:
that’s something that we learn and need to make an effort to learn.
Loving each other or being in love doesn’t give us those skills
automatically, nor does having sexual feelings and urges.

It’s common to stumble or feel overwhelmed while we’re learning how
to deal with sexual desires and sexual relationships in a healthy way,
especially if we didn’t have a lot of preparation for them or got
ourselves into a sexual relationship before we or the relationship were
ready for all that involves. You two did move into sex fairly quickly
for a young adult relationship, probably before you really had enough
time to consider and talk out if you both really were ready for all sex
together means and requires. By all means, feeling connected in a
special way is part of why we want sex, and a deep connection is good
ground for a sexual relationship. But that feeling can’t give a person
more maturity than they have, can’t create all the skills they need,
and can’t provide the things (like birth control) they need for a
sexual relationship that works well for everyone.

There’s nothing undoable about that, though: even if you two moved
into sex too quickly for what you were both ready for, that isn’t a
barrier to making sound choices from here on out.

Sexual feelings can be intensely strong, but — unless we earnestly
do have an impulse control problem — we still always have complete
control over how or if we act on them. However okay those sexual
feelings are, if we’re not making good choices when it comes to them,
or are expressing them with others in such a way that might do someone
else harm or create outcomes one or both partners don’t want or can’t
handle,then we’ve got a problem. We can also run into problems if we
don’t leave room for a sound learning curve while we are learning to
manage them: if we rush in before we are ready. I may feel very strong
desires to try surfing, for example, but it’d be pretty nutty of me to
jump on a board and paddle out before I learned how to swim. So, as
with anything else, when it comes to sex we want to be sure we’re not
jumping into the deep end of the pool before we know how to tread
water.

Both you and your boyfriend can always control yourselves.
You can. He can. You or he just may not always be choosing to, or may
not have learned yet how to deal with those feelings and making wise
choices at the same time. It absolutely can be challenging to think
clearly when your head’s all swimmy and your heart’s racing a mile a
minute, but you both can learn the skills so that’s something you are
capable of.

So, what I’d suggest is that both of you, if you’re going to
continue being in a sexual relationship, start by making a commitment
to learning those skills, and that starts with talking.

You can initiate these talks by expressing the concerns to him you
expressed in your letter to us: don’t sugarcoat it, be honest. Make
clear to him that however strong both of your feelings are, however
much one or both of you wants to have sex, in order for your
relationship to be healthy and for the sex you have to be something
earnestly good, you need to establish some clear limits and boundaries.
You can tell him some of the things I’ve told you about the ability
both of you DO have to be in control of what you do. You can mention
that if he has said he is only "controlling himself" for your sake,
that this isn’t just about you, it’s about him, too, and also about
your relationship as a whole. Everyone needs to have limits and
boundaries, and taking risks that aren’t smart or safe, or feeling like
one or both people in sex aren’t able to be in control of themselves in
the most basic ways isn’t healthy for anyone. It also doesn’t tend to
result in strong feelings of self-respect, which are important for
everyone to have, or in a relationship where the people in it can build
trust and feel safe.

It might be a good idea to talk about times when one or both of you
may feel out of control, and to talk about how you’re going to manage
that feelings wisely. If he’s having a moment where he’s inclined to
dive in without a condom, for instance, or you feel like you’re going
to space that out or blow it off, how are you going to deal with that
from now on? How about making an agreement that if clothes are coming
off, it’s only when condoms are nearby? How about agreeing on a
safeword — a word partners choose to use during any kind of sex that,
when said, means everyone immediately stops what they’re doing and
steps back — you can both use at those moments? How about revisiting,
in this conversation, what you both do and do not want and need out of
sex (for example, you want to be close and feel good, but you don’t
want a kid), so you can be sure you’re both in touch with what choices
support those wants and needs, and what choices don’t? Good sex
requires creativity: you can be just as creative coming up with ways to
manage your sex life as you are during sex.

Talking about the difference between feeling free and feeling out of
control might be something else to bring up. One thing most of us enjoy
during sex is feeling free: uninhibited, blissed out, surrendering
together, able to open up and connect on a deeper level. But we can’t
really feel that way completely if we can’t trust each other to be in
control, fully regarding and caring for each other. Freedom can’t exist
without responsibility. When we learn how to manage sex safely and
responsibly, we will tend to truly experience the freedom in it. When
safer sex and birth control are taken care of, for example, it’s easier
for both people to relax, which helps our bodies become more sexually
responsive and sensitive. When both people know the other is being
mindful about the other and themselves, and the whole context of sex —
not just what feels physically good at the time — that helps build
compassion, love and trust, which opens the door to sexual freedom.

Remind him that you know he has no desire to be a parent, and that
for right now, you don’t either. If condoms are the birth control
method you have, you both need to firmly commit to using them every
single time you have sex. If there isn’t a condom, or he won’t get
them, then you both agree there won’t be the kind of sex where you need
them. You can also step it up and make clear you will get
condoms for you to have, too, so that you BOTH are responsible for
having them around. That’s not something you need to leave solely up to
him, after all, and if both of you always have condoms, it’s way more
likely they’ll be there when you need them and that you’ll feel more
empowered overall. Taking charge of things like that can be something
that helps you feel a lot more in control.

You talked about using withdrawal,
which is also a method of birth control. It is, however, one of the
least effective in typical use, and if you’re having close calls with
it like you did, it doesn’t sound like it’s probably a good one for you
two right now. For withdrawal to be effective, the male partner needs
to be very much in-control, and to withdraw well in advance of
ejaculation, not right as it is happening. Additionally, withdrawal
doesn’t offer you any protection from sexually transmitted infections,
which are just as much of a risk for you as pregnancy, and some can
impact your life and health just as deeply. Given the timeline of your
relationship, and the fact that you didn’t talk about testing or
consistent condom use, that should be a real concern for both of you.
Suffice it to say, if you two haven’t talked about STI testing, it’s
past time to bring that up, too.

Additionally, should you decide you’d prefer to pair condom use with
another method of contraception (or, when you know, through testing,
you’re both free and clear of STIs and want to ditch condoms), in most
areas you have the legal right to whatever method of contraception
you’d like to use and which a doctor deems a good fit for you. You do
not need to have a parent’s permission to get sexual healthcare
services or to access contraception. Mind, you may need to be able to
pay for it for yourself if you seek it out by yourself: however, some
states have programs that can provide you contraception at low cost or
no cost and some clinics (such as all Planned Parenthood clinics) offer
sliding-scale fees based on your own income. So, if you’d feel better
with a method like the pill, that is an option for you. I’d also
suggest you consider talking to your parents about all of this: just
give it some thought. It may actually be helpful for you to have a
family member aware of what’s going on with you, and to have some extra
support and help from your family.

In the talks you have with your boyfriend, I’d also bring up the
possibility that one or both of you may need more time to really get
ready for sex together than you gave yourselves. When a partner blows
off responsibility for birth control with statements like "We aren’t going to do it anyway, so why have them,"
or says they are only controlling themselves "for our sake" that’s the
sort of thing that can suggest that person just may not be ready for
sex with someone else yet. I’m also concerned that his refusing to get
condoms may have a manipulative response to your suggestion you feel
like you’re having sex too much: you should always be able to ask to
adjust sexual frequency and have a partner respond with maturity and
care.

Readiness is about more than just wanting sex or being in love: it’s
also about being able to deal with the parts of sexual partnership
about personal and shared responsibility with mutuality and emotional
maturity, which some folks aren’t capable of yet. Ideally, anyone
involved in a potential sexual relationship is self-assessing their
readiness, and is being honest both with themselves and others about
what they’re really ready for. But let’s face it: not everyone is so
good at doing that, especially when something they want is involved. If
you asked me if I was ready to win the lottery, and had millions of
dollars in your hands for me, I’d probably say yes without giving much
thought to if I really was ready. So, on top of talking about this
together, you also need to use your own best judgment to be sure your
boyfriend really is ready, and make your own choices about whether or
not you’re sexual with him based on your own assessment as well as his
own.

Don’t forget that some of why you want sex so much may have to do
with your relationship, but some of it may just be about your own
sexuality, which you have with or without someone else. Sometimes when
we want sex, it’s not always about a partner, or something we need a
partner for to satisfy. Masturbation
may answer some of the desires you have just as well, if not better,
than sex with a partner, especially if you and he aren’t yet able to
really manage a sex life together well, and masturbation can offer us
some real benefits. Chances are your boyfriend masturbates and already
knows about those benefits himself.

There are aspects of partnered sex that masturbation doesn’t
address: for instance, if we’re looking to get close to someone else,
that’s not going to fit the bill. But I encourage everyone to
masturbate for a whole bunch of reasons. Masturbation not only may turn
out to be one way to feel more in control of your sexual desires, it
also can help you explore your sexuality without also managing the
wants and needs of a partner at the same time so you’re more free to
discover things about what you like and what feels good for you. In
case it isn’t obvious, one other thing that’s awesome about
masturbation is that it’s totally safe sex: it doesn’t pose any risk of
pregnancy, and as long as your hands or anything else you use to
masturbate with are clean, doesn’t pose risks of infections, either.

I want to be sure and leave you with the clear message that it is
absolutely, totally healthy to have sexual feelings and desires, and it
is most certainly okay to have a great sex life with a partner you
enjoy. But you don’t have to make a choice between that and being and
feeling safe, physically and emotionally. In fact, if you’re not safe
in those ways, you really can’t be having a great sex life in the first
place. A great sex life includes feeling good about it — after as well
as during — and reducing the risks of outcomes you don’t want, like
pregnancy or sex when one or both of you feel scared because of feeling
or being out of control.

I want to make sure you know that we always, always, have the
right to step away from sex with a partner once we’ve started having
it, be that temporary or permanent. When you say you’re just teenagers,
if you’re expressing that you feel too young for where you’re at,
that’s yet another cue that stepping back for a bit might be a good
idea.

Once we start having sex, that never obligates us to continue ever
after, or without taking any breaks away from it if and as we need
them. People of all ages — including those in established sexual
relationships — do take breaks or press pause. Because it’s been part
of your relationship for the last six months doesn’t mean it needs to
stay part of it, or keep on going throughout. You, he, or both of you
may need to step back from sex in order to talk all of this out and get
to a point where everything is and feels safer for you on all levels.
That doesn’t mean going without intimacy, either. Intimacy is something
we can find and need to nurture in more places than in bed. A big part
of sexual intimacy is found in our sexual communication, and the
quality of that communication.

I hope I covered all of your bases and gave you some solid places to
start to change things for the better. Here are a few links if you feel
like you need more information, or want some extra clarity around some
of the things I brought up, like what it is to be ready for partnered
sex, or like what birth control methods are available to you:

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Follow Heather Corinna on twitter: @Scarleteen