Finding Healthy Sexuality After Sex/Porn Addiction

Scott Brassart

Recovering sex and porn addicts inevitably ask, “What does healthy sex look like?” We ask this question because at some point we realize that we have no idea what non-addictive sex looks like. In our addiction, we so thoroughly separated our compulsive sexual behaviors from all other aspects of life that we are now clueless about how we might reintegrate sexual behavior in ways that are healthy and life-affirming. Often, we are in despair because we fear that “healthy” sexual behavior is not possible for us.

Happily, a healthy and richly rewarding sex life is possible for all recovering sex and porn addicts. In fact, developing a healthy and enjoyable sex life is the whole reason most of us enter into a process of recovery and healing. (Remember, sexual sobriety is not the same as substance abuse sobriety, where total abstinence is the goal. Instead, sexual recovery is more like recovery from an eating disorder, where the goal is learning how to engage in a natural, enjoyable, and life-sustaining activity in healthy rather than unhealthy ways.)

But when so much of our lives have been devoted to non-intimate, highly compartmentalized sexual behaviors, how can we move toward healthy sexuality? First and foremost, we must work to heal our sexual shame. We must become aware of our negative self-talk surrounding sex, such as, “My sex life is so compulsive and so messed up, there is no way I’ll ever be able to enjoy sex in a healthy way.” This type of self-defeating talk, if allowed to continue unchecked, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In recovery, when we catch ourselves having thoughts like this, we should counter those thoughts with affirmations, such as:

  • I can be sexual in healthy ways.
  • I can integrate sexual behavior and emotional intimacy.
  • I can enjoy healthy, non-compartmentalized sexual behavior.

As we work on defeating our negative self-talk surrounding sex, we should focus on building healthy nonsexual intimacy with our partner (if we have one), our family members, our friends, our community, and ourselves. When we focus on the joys of emotional intimacy, rather than on sexual intensity, we take away the stress and pressure that surrounds sexual behavior. This does not mean we forget about sex; it simply means we place sexual contact on the backburner while we slowly learn (or re-learn) how to connect with others in emotionally meaningful ways.

At some point down the line – a few months or so into recovery – we can think about reintegrating sexual behavior into our lives. Typically, the best way to start this process is to focus on and explore the seven dimensions of healthy sexuality, outlined below. As we do this, we must remember that the process of reintegrating sexuality in healthy ways is not a race. We should take our time with it, working our way through the seven dimensions gradually and deliberately, making sure we are comfortable with each dimension before focusing on the next dimension.

Seven Dimensions of Healthy Sexuality

  1. Self-Nurture: The process of taking care of oneself and feeling better about oneself. As we work on self-nurture, we should focus on activities, environments, and experiences that enhance and nurture us, preferably things that involve healthy interaction with other people. Example: Taking a spin class at my gym helps me to feel better physically, to feel better about how I look, and to socialize in a healthy way.
  2. Sensuousness: Developing body awareness and learning to stimulate all of our senses. As we work on sensuousness, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that add to our body awareness and stimulate our senses. Think about colors, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, etc. Example: Keeping freshly cut flowers in the house creates pleasure through smell.
  3. Relationship Intimacy (General): Enjoying the company of others without being sexual. As we work on relationship intimacy, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that help us develop nonsexual relationship intimacy. We look for ways we can enjoy being with others without being sexual. Example: Asking my friends about their lives helps me to know them better and to care more about them.
  4. Partner Intimacy: Enjoying the company of our significant other without being sexual. As we work on partner intimacy, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that help us enjoy the company of our partner and feel connected with our partner without being sexual. Example: Sharing with my spouse about what I am feeling, and not being rejected because of that, helps me to trust and rely upon him/her in new ways.
  5. Non-Genital Physical Touch: Giving and receiving physical pleasure without genital contact. As we work on non-genital physical touch, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that let us and our partner please one another without genital contact. Think about back rubs, showering together, dressing one another, kissing, and the like. Example: When I watch TV with my partner, we can hold hands and snuggle.
  6. Genital Sexuality: Enhancing, sustaining, and enriching genital sexuality. As we work to incorporate genital sexuality, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that help us and our partners enhance, sustain, and enrich this contact. We can think about ways to build emotional intimacy during sex. Example: I can look into my partner’s eyes and talk about how much I love him/her while we make love.
  7. Spiritual Intimacy: Adding meaning and turning sex into an expression of feelings, values, and connection. As we work on spiritual intimacy, we should focus on activities, behaviors, environments, and experiences that help us develop spiritual connection. We can think about being honest with our thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs, and life priorities. Example: I can view my spouse as a child of God with important thoughts and feelings.

In addition to exploring the seven dimensions of healthy sexuality, we may also need to grieve the loss of intensity provided by our addiction. We must accept the fact that healthy, intimate, connected sex is not as extreme as addictive sexual behaviors. With healthy sexual behaviors, we will not get the same “rush” of dopamine and adrenaline that we got with addictive sex. The good news about healthy sexual activity is that it brings other (and ultimately far greater) rewards, including integrity within the self, connection with loved ones, and a sense of being truly known and still loved, cared for, and wanted. To me, and to most of the recovering sex and porn addicts I work with, those gifts, over time, prove to be a welcome and more than fair trade-off for the loss of addictive intensity.