Recovery Workshop: Lesson Seventeen

Understanding Addiction II

Elements of sexually compulsive behavior

Consider your favorite cookie. Is it chocolate chip? Oatmeal raisin? How about a macaroon? Whatever the cookie, it is certain that each has its own recipe. Each has its own unique blend of ingredients and cooking instructions that will combine to produce the most personally-satisfying cookie. Even similar cookies — chocolate chip, for instance — vary greatly in style, taste and preparation. The behaviors associated with sexual compulsion are similar in that, the "ingredients" with which you will bake are separate elements that combine to form a unique recipe. Each recipe caters to your individual tastes, and over time, is refined to provide the most satisfying and comforting stimulation possible.

What are these sexually compulsive ingredients?

To help you understand the elements involved in producing the cumulative high associated with compulsive/addictive behavior, we have created a wheel called the Sexual Compulsion Wheel. This wheel consists of nine of the more common factors involved with producing the emotions that are associated with compulsive behavior. Over the next few lessons, we will be exploring each element of the wheel along with three additional filters that will combine to provide you with a means for measuring your compulsive behavior. By learning this measuring technique, you will have the ability of systematically breaking down each of your compulsive behaviors to identify their critical emotional elements, the ritual's structure (to be used in urge control) and more.

A Common Wheel of Sexual Compulsion:

Sexual Compulsion Wheel

Again, keep in mind...the elements shown here are some of the more common ones involved in developing the "artificial high" that is associated with compulsive behavior.

Nine Common Elements of Sexually Compulsive Behavior

The sexual compulsion wheel is a tool that can be used to help you visualize your behavior outside of your emotions. It is not intended to be scientifically precise, as many of the variables are subjective and will apply to only you, your behaviors and your emotional interpretations.

The wheel being shown is composed of nine common traits ("ingredients") found individually or in combination within most sexually compulsive acts ("cookies"). Each ingredient is capable of triggering your sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous system — the same system responsible for the release of the mood-altering chemicals that are at the core of compulsive behavior. The key to understanding this wheel is to not only see each ingredient as a separate entity, but to also consider the range and potential effects that each element possesses when used in combination with other elements. While each element carries with it no particular order or weight; when involving your specific behaviors, the combination of these elements make up your behavioral recipes — your "cookies", if you will.

By the end of this workshop, you should not only have mastered an awareness of each element of the wheel, but have begun to form your own personalized compulsive wheels — each representing your specific sexual/romantic behavior. From there, urge control and the ability to isolate emotions from values becomes a rather simple process.

I. Sensory Stimulation

Sensory stimulation consists of the five senses: touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. Each carries its own unique flavor and so each will be explored individually.

Touch: To most, touch is considered the foundation of our sensory abilities. Our bodies are loaded with millions of touch receptors that transmit the feelings of pleasure/pain to our brains. The combination of how long these sensors are stimulated, the ways in which they are stimulated, the intensity of the stimulation and the amount of receptors stimulated directly correlate to the body's arousal response.

Self-stimulation, or masturbation, involves an individual's attempts to stimulate his/her own touch receptors in a manner that produces sexual arousal. This stimulation may include the use of his/her own body, another's body, inanimate objects, animals, etc. The goal to masturbation is to manipulate your body into altering your emotional state. It is often accompanied by fantasy and orgasm. From a sensory standpoint, intercourse is significant in that it allows for simultaneous access to large amounts of touch receptors in areas where they are highly congregated. Unhealthy intercourse is frequently integrated with power, danger and accomplishment.

Manipulating your body's touch receptors does not have to be pleasant to be effective. Pain is an extremely powerful tool in provoking the body's chemical responses. Masochistic practices such as spanking, biting or scratching — aside from the psychological associations — provide a physical means for altering moods.

Sight: For men especially, sight elicits strong emotional feelings. One need only look at the billion dollar advertising industry to recognize the significant role that sight plays in human arousal. Beauty pageants, advertising, entertainment — each of these industries attempt to manipulate their audience's mood by offering visually attractive stimuli. Add to this the strip clubs, pornographic movies, tapes, cards, magazines...the ways that visual stimuli are pushed into the mainstream is proof of the incredible power that sight has to sexually arouse others.

Voyeurism, the act of secretly watching others engaged in sexually-oriented situations, can even produce such a powerful response in the voyeur that incarceration and social humiliation are routinely chanced. Aids such as telescopes, binoculars, magnifying glasses, computers are routinely used to enhance the visual images available to them. Danger, suspense, fantasy and accomplishment are strongly associated with voyeurism; fantasy and orgasm with pornography.

Smell: Smell involves the body's use of pheromonal-type sensory receptors to heighten sexual arousal. Technically, pheromones are hormonal substances produced by certain animals to attract sexual partners. In humans, olfactory sensors can also be stimulated to produce a heightened state of sexual arousal. Perfumes, used articles of clothing, vaginal fluids: these are examples of stimuli that the sexually compulsive person might use to further alter his/her mood.

Taste: Like smell, taste receptors provide the opportunity for further sexual stimuli through acts such as oral sex, pleasurable foods (especially as they are integrated with the sexual act itself), or the licking of a woman's panties during masturbation. Each scenario allows for the sense of taste to heighten the arousal response.

Sound: Americans spent millions of dollars to hear others performing sexual acts over the telephone. Who out there hasn't listened to an unsuspecting couple having sex in the next room, or in the apartment nearby? It's natural. And for some, extremely erotic. For others, the exact opposite. During sex, they don't want their partners to say anything, as it will distract from the experience — more proof of the power of sound.

Like the Wheel of Sexual Compulsion as a whole, each sense in the first element can be used to illicit arousal on its own, or, through a combination of senses. Many times, the senses will be intentionally managed so that certain senses will be reduced so that other senses will become extraordinarily sensitive. Blindfolding, for example. The act of reducing the visual stimuli, often serves to heighten the other senses — like sound and touch. All of these combinations serving as ingredients for your particular "cookies".

II. Fantasy

Fantasy, as it applies to sexual addiction, exists as two separate entities: imagery and delusion. Both can be debilitating. Using fantasy to create images for sexual gratification is most commonly associated with masturbation, but can also be used with every other component of the compulsive wheel. As the addict masters the use of fantasy, the images approximate that of reality. That is, the illusion of reality becomes so strong, that it triggers the same physiological responses as if the sexual/romantic behavior was actually taking place.

This type of imagery fantasy can be done anywhere, anytime, and can involve absolutely anything. This often translates into a tremendous loss of time and energy in the person fantasizing, and to do so frequently would involve the inevitable loss of that person's ability to reach their full potential. Frequently, this person would suffer from the inability to establish intimacy with long-term partners, would have difficulty in maintaining relationships (though intense, passionate relationships might be common — and would tend to end suddenly). In a worst case scenario, they would begin to lose touch with reality, and find it difficult to differentiate between what is real and what is fantasy. At this point, a state of delusional fantasy might exist.

Delusional fantasies exist when a person's perception of a relationship (or themselves) is greatly exaggerated from reality. Most commonly, delusion fantasies consist of highly intense, passionate relationships which are carried out under the guise of love. Frequently, this fantasy is not reciprocated by the target of the affection. Examples include: the man who "falls in love" with a woman he sees on television; the woman who, on a first date, declares her unyielding love and intent to eventually marry this person; a boy's sincere belief that he has found yet another "soul mate" — which makes this person the sixth 'soul mate' in the past five years. Some other examples include the woman who believes that her love will change the abusive patterns of her partner; the man who refuses to commit himself to his current partner because "the one" might be right around the next corner; the examples are endless.

Delusion fantasies, when they have progressed to the extreme, are often one-sided, obsessive and destructive. Sometimes playfully passed off as hyper-romantic, other times harshly judged as stalkers, the person who uses delusion fantasies to create a false feeling of love, does so for the intense feelings that accompany those thoughts. They seek love's mind-altering characteristics and will distort reality to achieve it.

III. Danger

Danger is the calling card for your body's "fight or flight" response. When danger is perceived, your autonomic nervous system engages by releasing adrenaline into your body, thus causing such changes as heightened awareness, increased strength, rapid heart beat, pupil dilation, etc. At times, this response becomes so powerful that temporary paralysis sets in — as with the fear reaction of staring down the barrel of a gun, or being violently raped.

Those suffering from compulsive sexual behavior often find many ways to enhance their arousal by including danger in their activities (or in the rituals leading up to the sexual act). Some examples are: the voyeurist, the exhibitionist, the rapist — those who perform their acts with a distinct risk of getting caught; the compulsive masturbator who brings himself to orgasm while driving on the interstate at seventy miles an hour; the lover who asks her partner to hold a knife to her throat, or to make love on the edge of a tall building, or in a public place, or in her home when she knows her husband could arrive at any moment, or with a complete stranger...there are many, many ways of adding danger to the sexual act — and all are rewarded by the adrenaline rush that accompanies the danger.

IV. Suspense

As danger is to the fight or flight response, suspense is to what could be called the "gambler's high". Like a gambler, sexually compulsive people have learned to reach mind-altering highs in the rituals that precede the sexual/romantic act. The waiting, the wondering...they combine with fantasy to produce a state of euphoria which often transcends the concept of time. A voyeur waits, waits, waits by a window — all the while thinking things like, "Will I see her tonight? Will she close the blinds or leave them open? What time will she go to bed? Will she undress in front of the window or in another room? Will she masturbate in her bed?" Each thought triggering further arousal. And, when the answers to those questions are negative (as in, she DID close the blinds...she DID undress in another room), further stress is created — increasing the need to "score" the next time — and thus, receive an even greater relief. Like a gambler, the voyeur will return to the "machines" that have been good to him — the places that have produced the most "jackpots".

An exhibitionist waits in his car, or hotel room, or apartment, or on his bicycle for the right set of circumstances to arrive. The circumstances that will allow him to expose himself to an unsuspecting and/or shocked victim. Some days, he will have gone the entire day without a single "hit"; other days, he will have struck the "jackpot" several times. The key to suspense is in realizing that a "jackpot" does not have to be hit to achieve a mind-altered state. The excitement of not knowing what will happen can also produce such an arousal.

V. Accomplishment

One of the most powerful ingredients in the sexual compulsive wheel is that of accomplishment. The promiscuous woman who beds a new lover; the business man who gets masturbated in a public rest room; the voyeur who discovers a couple having sex — these are all examples of sexual accomplishment. The feeling is no different than when value-oriented goals are achieved — except that these goals frequently come with guilt and are short-lived. Still, short term feelings of success can become quite intoxicating — especially when the alternative is to face a reality that is filled with perceived failure. Accomplishment's allure is also found in the thoughts following a behavior. Consider the behavior of a compulsive masturbator. Usually, compulsive masturbation combines sensory stimulation and fantasy to reach the predetermined goal of achieving orgasm. Let's say that a particular masturbation session last one hour and the goal of orgasm is reached, thus providing the combined high of those three elements of the wheel (fantasy, sensory stimulation and orgasm) as well as the additional high from having succeeded in accomplishing a goal. The pleasure obtained from the sexual act(s) quickly diminish after orgasm, but the feelings of accomplishment give the person a booster shot — allowing the euphoria to continue. The same person who sets out to reach orgasm and does not, will still feel some of the pleasurable effects (sensory stimuli, fantasy), but rather than reinforcing those feelings with success, they are accompanied by failure, which creates an even greater need for orgasm. This is the scenario of compulsive masturbators who do so to the point of injury, or complete physical exhaustion.

This same "goal-oriented" behavior can be found in the pleasure received when bringing a partner to orgasm. Often, it can be taken to the extreme in that the sole purpose of the sexual activity becomes the partner's achievement of orgasm — to the detriment of intimacy and pleasure. Some focus so intently on the need for accomplishing orgasm in their partners, that they cannot themselves orgasm until their partners do.

Returning to the "cookie" reference, one only needs to ask themselves, "What good is baking your favorite cookies, if you don't get to eat them (or see others enjoy them)?" The answer is, there is some pleasure derived from the baking itself, but you baked those cookies with a goal in mind — for someone to eat them — and until that happens, the pleasure obtained will be short-lived.

VI. Power

Holding power over another living being can be quite intoxicating. As can voluntarily placing yourself under the power of another (sadomasochism). In the most violent forms, like rape and sexual murder, the sexually compulsive person can be stimulated by the most gruesome acts — ejaculating into the wounds of a stabbing victim; performing sexual acts on dead bodies; a middle-aged man forcing anal sex on an infant. Fortunately, such extreme hideous behaviors are rare, and are performed by a minute percentage of the population. But in milder forms, the physiological response obtained by controlling others can be seen in the hiring of prostitutes, abusive relationships, exhibitionism, stalking and nonviolent rape...of course, the term "milder" is used in reference to the person performing the behavior, not necessarily to the victim. In this context, nonviolent rape refers to the perpetrator making no threats of bodily harm to the victim — and is not to imply that it is a more tolerable form — only that, from the standpoint of power, there is a distinction.

VII. Past

Each of us carries our own history. Some of us have been molested by our fathers, some by our mothers. Some have grown up in an environment of control, humiliation and/or degradation. Some have had a stable, nurturing environment. Some a strictly religious environment. No matter how you were raised, there is the highest probability that it affects who you are today. Good or bad, your past is used as a filter for your current experiences. For most, this is a natural and unnoticed part of life; for others, certain behaviors and situations take on a much more significant role...and amplify the emotions that accompany these situations.

Carrie was raped by her uncle when she was sixteen. The following ten years were lost to frigidity, until she married an understanding, patient man who helped her to regain a sense of her own sexuality. After several years, Carrie began to enjoy sex, but was unable to reach orgasm. Though she loved her husband, she found herself engaged in a series of illicit affairs with men she hardly knew. Affairs that, surprisingly, led to orgasm rather frequently. In time, she learned to orgasm while with her husband, but only by fantasizing that he was raping or molesting her. It was a secret that she was too ashamed to admit and too powerless to control. For Carrie, reliving the early rape produced intense feelings. These feelings, accompanied by sensory stimulation, fantasy and orgasm, reinforced the anxiety/relief cycle that is so prevalent in compulsive behavior and addictions.

It is important to understand that the feelings generated by the past do not have to be pleasurable to be effective — merely intense.

VIII. Poly-Addictions

Poly-addictions, or multiple addictions, can be easily understood with a return to the compulsive wheel. The goal of sexually compulsive people is to use the ingredients on the wheel to create the psychological and physiological responses that will most effectively alter their state of mind. Obviously, since it is rarely the behavior that is key, but the process itself — adding additional behaviors to that process may help to create a more intense pleasure, or a more lasting relief. Alcohol, drugs...these are common additions to the sexually compulsive world. But it certainly is not limited to these alone. Any non-sexual behaviors that can be used to intensify or expand the mind-altered state would classify as a 'poly-addiction'. And no, this is not intended to say that this type of behavior actually qualifies as an "addiction", though frequently this does become the case. Multiple addictions are common, and most frequently occur in those who have failed in previous recovery attempts (after being forced to control their compulsive sexual behavior, they begin managing their emotions with other compulsive behaviors (most often eating, shopping, smoking or drugs). Once the recovery attempt fails, they now have two (or more) problematic behaviors. And until the underlying pattern is resolved, the behaviors continue to pile up. Eventually, the person believes that he/she is incapable of managing their lives because just about every aspect of it is dominated by compulsive behavior.

The behaviors associated with multiple-addictions can serve to heighten the overall sexual experience. And vice versa. Sexual experiences can also heighten the relief gained by other forms of acting out.

IX. Orgasm

We all know what it is, and we know how intoxicating it can be. Because it plays such a large role in sexually-compulsive behavior, it has its own section on the wheel, although it could just as easily be left off of the wheel as it is more a byproduct of the other elements. Because of the absolute euphoria that it brings at the time of orgasm, it should be seen as having its own role in sexual compulsion.

That is not to say that all sexual acts require orgasm to achieve mind-altered states...absolutely not. Many sexually-compulsive acts not only do not require orgasm, but it is the absence of orgasm that produces pleasure — as in the situation of a male partner wanting to prove to their mate that he is "different" from other guys, and will forsake his orgasmic needs.

Additionally, the physiological changes that are produced during the time of orgasm are real. They are powerful. And they are addictive.


This overview of nine traits involved in sexually compulsive behavior is not meant to be either inclusive or exhaustive. You will soon be completing your own compulsive wheels and may have other behaviors that you want included. That is fine. Some people actually expand their wheels to include the entire range of their compulsive behaviors (not just sexual) — that is fine, too.

Next, we will explore the three filters that each element of the wheel must pass through to achieve a practical measurement of the stimulation being produced. These filters allow you to better measure the specific effects of each element of a compulsive ritual so that you can more accurately identify and measure the power of your compulsive rituals.

Lesson 17 Exercise:

I. Consider a particular compulsive ritual that you have engaged in. Identify the elements of this ritual and post them in your recovery thread. It is important that you understand the principles involved in identifying the stimulating elements of compulsive if you are not comfortable with this concept, ask questions! Also, recognize that the elements listed above are not the only elements associated with compulsive behavior. And so, you will want to identify those elements that are specifically related to YOUR compulsive behavior.

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