AND HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE
by Kathy Labriola, Counselor/Nurse
ARE POLYAMOROUS PEOPLE A BUNCH OF SEX ADDICTS?
Polyamorous people have become accustomed to people confusing us with sex addicts or accusing us of being sex, love, and relationship addicts. Many people erroneously believe that if you have more than one sexual or romantic partner concurrently, you must be a sex addict. If you try to explain that polyamory is not just about sex, it is about loving more, then they accuse you of being a love and relationship addict.
On the other hand, many polyamorous people believe that the very concept of sex addiction is just a sex-negative backlash being promoted by monogamists who seek to pathologize polyamory. Many polyamorous people do not believe that sex addiction really exists, but rather that it is a convenient fiction to attack those of us who do not conform to traditional models of sexual behavior. In my professional experience as a counselor and my personal experience as a polyamorous woman for over twenty-five years, I have seen many happy healthy polyamorists and I have seen many bona fide sex and relationship addicts. I feel it is important for “poly” people to understand both sex addiction and love and relationship addiction, for at least two reasons, First of all, being knowledgeable allows us to articulately counter charges that all poly people are addicts. Second, if we know and recognize the signs and symptoms of sex and relationship addiction we can avoid getting involved with addicted people.
Some people who claim to be polyamorous are really sex or relationship addicts using polyamory as a philosophical excuse to act out compulsive and destructive relationship patterns. Just as some people choose monogamy for unhealthy reasons or to hide their dysfunctional relationship behaviors, people may choose polyamory as a cover-up for their addictive behavior. People who have an addictive relationship with sex or love make very poor relationship partners in general, and they are not good candidates for successful poly relationships. They are too self-centered and too caught up in their own addictive disease to be capable of real intimacy or of truly loving anyone. If you recognize the warning signs, you can save yourself and your other partners a lot of grief by avoiding involvement with them. If you recognize some of these traits in yourself or in someone you are involved with already, you can minimize the damage to your relationships by seeking counseling or other types of healing support.
WHAT ARE SEX AND LOVE ADDICTION?
First of all, what is sex addiction, and what is love and relationship addiction? These are two sides of the same coin, the same disease manifested in two different ways. Let’s start with sex addiction: this is a compulsive need to engage in very frequent sexual activity with many partners, and a belief that pursuing and procuring sex is the number one priority in life. Sex addicts feel driven to pursue any and all sexual feelings and attractions they experience, without thinking through the pros and cons of the particular situation. Sex is the only thing that creates feelings of comfort and satisfaction in their lives, and they experience sex as a “high” similar to a drug. They feel powerful in their lives only when having sex, and they feel alive only when pursuing or having sex. Their desire for more sex with more partners often clouds their judgement and they will do almost any thing to manipulate people into sex. They often violate their own values and break existing agreements with partners in order to get more sex, usually lying in order to cover-up their betrayals. They use sex very much as other addicts use drugs or alcohol: to experience an intense high they can’t get any other way and/or to numb loneliness and emotional pain. And like other addictions, sex addiction is a progressive disease that worsens over time. At first a sex addict will bend the rules and break minor agreements with partners, stretching the truth but not overtly lying. The addict may try to exercise some restraint to avoid sexual situations, which are sure to have disastrous consequences. But eventually, they take more and more risks, engaging in very dangerous sexual behaviors regardless of the consequences. Finally they lose all self-respect as well as the respect of their partners because of their lying and inability to keep agreements they have promised.
Love and relationship addiction manifests in a slightly different way. Instead of being primarily focused on sex, a love and relationship addict is excessively dependent on being in love and being in a relationship. Love addicts organize their lives around their relationships and sacrifice their own needs, their careers, and even their own self-respect in order to stay in relationships no matter how badly they are treated. Their self-esteem and identity are heavily dependent on the relationship and they literally believe that they could not survive without it. Their attachment to their relationship partners provides their only sense of being valuable and worthwhile human beings. The majority of sex addicts are men, and most love and relationship addicts are women. Why is this? Men and women are socialized in very different ways in our society. Men are taught to prioritize sex and women are trained to value relationships over all else. And recent research indicates that men and women may be “wired” very differently in their sexual desires and sexual response as well as in their experience of sex and relationships. Sex hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone may play a greater role than previously believed. While the jury is still our on the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, at this point in history, men are much more likely to use sex addictively while women are much more likely to become addicted to relationships.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN POLYAMORY AND SEX ADDICTION?
Healthy poly people prioritize sex and intimate relationships in their lives and devote a significant amount of time and energy to creating and sustaining love relationships. Some focus more attention on emotional intimacy and relationships, while others are more oriented towards recreational sex and emphasize sex more than long-term relationships. However, despite our focus on sex and/or relationships, we are not addicted to sex or relationships. I don’t mind getting personal and using myself as an example. I often jokingly explain “I am a sex maniac, not a sex addict,” and I often describe myself as a “relationship enthusiast” rather than a love and relationship addict. I use the terms “sex maniac” and “relationship enthusiast” despite the negative connotations, as I feel they convey that I love sex and relationships and make them a priority in my life. However, sex and love are not the only focus in my life and I have a fulfilling and well-rounded life outside my relationships. Sex and relationships enhance my quality of life and bring me physical, emotional, and spiritual satisfaction. However, I am a whole person on my own, and could live a happy and meaningful life without sex and relationships. I call myself a sex maniac because I find that intense and loving sex makes me a warmer, more compassionate, and more open person in every other area of my life.
Being a sex maniac requires being “sex-positive,” seeing sex and sexuality as a positive force, and rejecting negative beliefs about sex being shameful or wrong. I am a relationship enthusiast because connecting lovingly with others gives me a deeper understanding of people and encourages me to pursue needed personal growth, to know myself better and become a more loving person. However, I know that even without romantic relationships, life would still be vibrant and delightful, and I would focus on other meaningful experiences and activities that are equally valid. Since I feel secure that I am a lovable and valuable person, I don’t need to constantly validate my desirability through sexual or romantic conquests as sex and love addicts feel compelled to do.
So the difference between polyamorists and sex addicts is approximately equal to the difference between social drinkers and alcoholics. Social drinkers can enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine to socialize with friends or relax at home after work, and they make responsible choices about when, where, what, and how much to drink. And they can enjoy life without drinking, and will not become anxious and depressed if there is no alcohol available. Poly people enjoy sex and relationships, and we exercise good judgement about whom to get involved with and under what conditions, what kind of relationships to have, and how many sexual relationships we can handle at one time. Alcoholics cannot control their drinking, and allow their drinking to ruin their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Sex addicts cannot control their sexual behavior, and have sex with all the wrong people without any regard for how this may disrupt their lives or damage their relationships.
EXAMPLES OF SEX AND LOVE ADDICTION
As you can see, the main differences between polyamory and sex or relationship addiction is the addicts’ lack of control over their behavior and their inability to make rational choices about sex and relationships. Here are a few examples of sex and relationship addicts to give you an idea of the broad range of addictive beliefs and behaviors. These examples are clients from my counseling practice. Their names and identifying details have been changed to protect their privacy.
Alan is a heterosexual man who identifies as poly. He has been married and divorced twice, both times to poly women. In his first marriage he made unwelcome sexual advances to every one of his wife’s female friends, and eventually she lost all her friends because they got tired of being sexually harassed by him. His wife finally left him because he spent half his paycheck every month on prostitutes and phone sex. .During his second marriage, he again tried to seduce his wife’s friends, even after agreeing to her request that he only have sex with women outside of their immediate social circle. His second wife left after he was fired from his job for taking three-hour lunches to go to strip clubs and massage parlors.
George is a straight man in a poly marriage with his wife and an outside lover he sees a few times a week. Despite having sex every day with his wife and/or his lover, he feels compelled to cruise the Internet seeking additional sex partners. He ignores his work at the office and spends 2-3 hours a day surfing the Web trying to meet women for sex. He has lost several jobs because his productivity is significantly lowered by the time he spends in the Internet looking for sex. He met two young women through a computer bulletin board, and manipulated them into sex by falsely implying that he could get them jobs as fashion models. Although he suspected that they were underage, he pressured them into sex anyway and eventually ended up in jail for having sex with minors.
Lisa is a bisexual poly woman in a primary relationship with a man. She likes to go dancing at clubs and pick up both male and female partners, and she often goes to sex parties to meet sex partners. She has such a strong compulsion to have sex that she often makes poor partner choices and goes home with questionable and even dangerous men. She drinks alcohol and often makes decisions while under the influence, and frequently forgets to use birth control and safer sex. She has accidentally gotten pregnant twice and had two abortions, has had gonorrhea, chlamydia, and venereal warts. She was beaten and robbed by one partner she picked up at a party, even though other women at the party were suspicious of him and warned her. Despite these consequences, she continues to engage in very risky behaviors without thinking through possible ways to create safer conditions for herself.
Dina is a lesbian who is a love and relationship addict. She had a relationship for several years with a woman who was very controlling, was jealous of her friends, and didn’t want her to visit or talk to her family. Although they had agreed to an open relationship, and her partner had other girlfriends from time to time, whenever Dina was interested in dating others, her partner always found a reason to veto them. Dina turned over her paycheck to her partner every month and allowed her to make most decisions in the relationship. She was very unhappy but was afraid to express her needs or concerns. She felt she couldn’t leave because she felt her only value as a person was in being in a relationship, and felt terrified of being alone.
John is a bisexual man in a committed primary relationship with a man, and both are poly. John is a love and relationship addict. He has had a long series of outside relationships with other men, and each one follows the same pattern: He meets someone new and immediately falls madly in love, jumping into an intense romantic relationship for a few months. Then, as the infatuation starts to wear off and he gets to know the person, he loses interest and dumps the guy. Soon he starts looking around for someone new, because he is addicted to the fantasy and romance of New Relationship Energy and has to get another “fix.”
Jason is a heterosexual college professor who is a love addict. He and his wife were in a poly relationship and both dated other partners. However, his wife eventually left him because he consistently picked inappropriate partners. He repeatedly had brief, intense affairs with his students who were 30 years younger than him, because he needed constant validation that women found him desirable. He always picked naïve, vulnerable, teen-aged women who would fall in love with him and become very dependent on him. He was addicted to relationships where he could feel powerful and be worshipped. Of course, as soon as each woman got hip to him or started asserting her own needs, he dumped her and moved on to his next victim.
Lorraine is a heterosexual poly woman who is a sex addict. She lives alone but has three male lovers and sees each one approximately two nights a week. Despite having sex nearly every day with one of her partners, she is not sexually satisfied and masturbates daily. She pressures her lovers for sex even if they are tired or sick with the flu, and becomes depressed and angry if they say no.
Huey is a sex addict who had a poly relationship with his wife. Both are bisexual and enjoyed “swing parties” and SM play parties, but he became sullen and withdrawn if he didn’t “score” sexually at every party. He frequently pressured his wife into having sex with men she did not feel comfortable with, just so he would be allowed to sleep with their wives. He sometimes become coercive and threatening if she didn’t consent. When his wife was quite ill during a pregnancy, she felt very vulnerable and asked him to refrain from having other partners for a few months until she had the baby. He refused to honor her request and immediately placed a personals ad in the paper and began having an affair with another woman for the duration of the pregnancy.
COUNSELING AND SUPPORT GROUPS CAN FACILITATE POSITIVE CHANGE
As a counselor, I have worked with many sex, love, and relationship addicts who have decided to work on their issues and develop healthier beliefs and behaviors. If they are unhappy with the problems their addictions are causing them in their lives, and are willing to seek out help, they can dramatically improve their relationship patterns. Individual counseling or hypnotherapy can help people understand how they developed these beliefs and attitudes in the first place, and how they can meet their sexual and relationship needs in a healthier way. Couples or triad counseling can also be helpful in rebuilding trust between partners and undoing whatever damage the addiction has done in current relationships. Joining a polyamory support group or discussion group or going on-line to talk to other poly people can help people differentiate between addictive and healthy behaviors and provide positive role models of healthy poly relationships. There are 12-step recovery groups called Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) which are based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model, and free, confidential meetings of these groups are available in most cities. Many sex and love addicts find these groups extremely helpful in learning new skills and attitudes about sex and relationships. However, some poly people experience these meetings as sex-negative, or complain that many people in 12-step groups are hostile to polyamory. People often have to try a few different kinds of groups before finding one that meets their needs. In addition, there have been a number of excellent books written on sex addiction in the past ten years, which can be an important resource for people trying to understand and change their addictive patterns in relationships.