Drugs (especially amphetamines) and sex are sometimes referred to as super-stimulants because they create a heightened sense of intensity through large bursts of dopamine, adrenaline, and related neurochemicals. Because of this, they are powerful mood changers and, for vulnerable individuals, highly addictive.
Dr. David Fawcett, our Vice President for Clinical Programming, says that with stimulant drugs, sexual behavior, and paired substance/sex use, it is often the search for intensity that drives the behavior. He also states that tolerance and escalation are common with these intensity-driven addictions.
Basically, the brain adjusts to consistently high levels of dopamine and related neurotransmitters by reducing the production of and/or the ability to receive and experience the effects of these neurochemicals. Essentially, the brain turns down the volume on the intensity of these behaviors. This is known as tolerance. As tolerance develops, more of a drug or behavior, or a more intense version of a drug or behavior is required to experience the high – the intensity – the user seeks. This is known as escalation.
The escalation needed to overcome tolerance can take many forms, such as switching from one kind of drug to another. For example, a substance abuser might move from beer to hard liquor or from marijuana to methamphetamine. Escalation with substances can also include changing methods of ingestion – from smoking or snorting to injecting, for instance. With a behavior, escalation generally involves upping the stakes or engaging in the behavior for longer periods of time. For example, a person might move from penny slots to $5 minimum tables at the casino, or from vanilla porn to kink/fetish porn.
Adding sex to substance use (or vice versa) also creates a more potent effect. For example, a person might combine cocaine use with porn or prostitutes. Other elements that evoke a heightened level of excitement include intense emotions like fear and anger, behaviors that add novelty (such as a new sexual position or fetish), new sex partners, breaking taboos, etc.
It should be noted that not every addict who pairs drug use and sexual behavior is seeking intensity (though most are). Sometimes these individuals use substances to anesthetize themselves against overwhelming feelings, particularly those concerning sex and sexual behavior. Dr. Fawcett says he has had clients who ingested excessive amounts of alcohol, benzodiazepines, or even opioid drugs to basically knock themselves out enough to have sex.
If you or someone you care about is dealing with an intensity-based addiction or compulsion like sex addiction, porn addiction, or sexualized drug use, help is available. Dr. David Fawcett hosts an online weekly Chemsex discussion group every Tuesday at 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific on IntheRooms.com. The group is free to anyone who wishes to attend. Specialized treatment can be found at Seeking Integrity, and free resources can be found on our affiliated website, SexandRelationshipHealing.com.