Defining and Understanding the Cycle of Sexual Addiction

All addictions are cyclical in nature, with no clear beginning or end and one stage leading to the next (and then the next, and the next, and the next), leaving the addict stuck in an endless, downwardly spiraling loop. With sexual addiction, various models for explaining the cycle have been proposed. In 1983, Dr. Patrick Carnes provided the first of these in his book, Out of the Shadows.[i] Carnes broke the cycle into the following four stages:

  1. Fantasy (Preoccupation)
  2. Ritualization (The Bubble)
  3. Compulsive Sexual Behavior (Acting Out)
  4. Despair (Shame)

Over the years, this cycle has been modified and expanded upon, and there are now many versions of the sex addiction cycle, each with merit. I generally prefer and utilize a six-stage model that is strongly based on Carnes’ initial offering.

Stage One – Triggers (Shame/Blame/Guilt)

Triggers are catalysts that create a need/desire to act out sexually. Most often, triggers are some sort of “pain agent.” Pain agents include both emotional and physical discomfort, either short- or long-term. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, stress, shame, anger and any other form of emotional or psychological (or even physical) discomfort can easily trigger an addict’s desire to escape, avoid and dissociate. Positive agents can also serve as triggers. So if a sex addict gets fired from his or her job, he or she will want to act out sexually; and if that same addict gets a great new job, he or she will want act out sexually. If triggers are not dealt with in a healthy way (dissipated via a healthy, non-addictive coping mechanism like talking to supportive friends, family members or a therapist), then the addiction inevitably progresses to stage two.

Stage Two – Fantasy (Control)

After being triggered and therefore needing/wanting to escape and dissociate, sex addicts automatically turn to their primary coping mechanism – sexual fantasies. They start thinking about how much they enjoyed past sexual encounters and how much they would enjoy a sexual encounter either right now or in the near future. (Such encounters may occur in person or online.) At this point, the addict is preoccupied to the point of obsession with his or her sexual fantasies. Every person encountered by the addict (again, whether in person and online) is viewed as a sexual object. The addict’s fantasies do not involve memories of bad experiences or unwanted consequences. Once the addict is mired in fantasy, it is very difficult to stop the addictive cycle without some sort of outside intervention.

Stage Three – Ritualization

Ritualization is where fantasy moves toward reality. This stage adds excitement, intensity and arousal. The addict logs on to the computer and goes to his or her favorite porn site, or hops in the car and drives to a place where sex workers congregate or begins the process of booking an out-of-town business trip on which he or she can act out sexually without restraint. This stage of the cycle is also known as “the bubble” or “the trance” because the addict gets lost in it. Real-world issues and concerns disappear as the addict focuses more and more intently on his or her sexual fantasies and preparations. This stage of the addiction (rather than actually having sex) provides the escapist “high” that sex addicts seek. As such, sex addicts typically try to stretch this stage for as long as possible – looking at porn, cruising for casual sex, chatting via Webcams and the like for many hours (or even days) before moving to the next stage.

Stage Four – Acting Out (Release)

Most non-sex addicts think that this stage, rather than stage three, is the ultimate goal of sexual addiction because this is where actual sex and orgasm takes place (either solo or with another person/people). However, as alluded to above, the fantasy-fueled escape and dissociation of stage three is the real objective. In fact, most sex addicts try to put off actual sex and orgasm for as long as they possibly can because orgasm ends the escapist high and tosses the addict back into the real world with all of its issues and problems. Worded differently, sex addicts are looking to escape emotional discomfort, not to experience the pleasure of orgasm. Orgasm actually brings their high to an abrupt halt.

Stage Five – Numbing

After acting out, sex addicts attempt to distance themselves emotionally from what they’ve just done (again!). They justify their behaviors, telling themselves, “If my spouse was nicer to me, I wouldn’t need to do this.” They minimize their behaviors, telling themselves, “Nobody knows that I just spent six hours looking at and masturbating to pornography, and nobody got hurt by what I did, so it’s no big deal.” They rationalize their behaviors, telling themselves, “Hooking up with people online for mutual masturbation isn’t really cheating, because I don’t actually touch the other person and I don’t even give that person my real name.” In other words, in this stage of the cycle the addict’s denial kicks in in full force as a way to temporarily protect him/her from the next stage.

Stage Six – Despair (Shame/Blame/Guilt)

Eventually, numbing and denial will dissipate for most sex addicts. And when it does, they start to feel ashamed, guilty and remorseful. Exacerbating these unwanted emotions is the fact that they also feel powerless to stop the cycle of their addiction. Plus, whatever reality it was that they were trying to escape in the first-place returns, bringing with it the self-loathing, anxiety and depression they were probably already experiencing. And, as you may recall, this is exactly the sort of emotional discomfort that typically triggers sexual addiction, which spins the self-perpetuating sex addiction cycle back into stage one.

Stopping the Cycle

The easiest place to intervene and halt the sexual addiction cycle is in stage one. As such, in treatment and 12-step recovery groups, sex addicts try to learn what their triggers are and to develop healthier coping mechanisms that they can turn to when necessary. If the cycle can be stopped in stage one, then stage two never arrives, nor do any of the successive stages. If, however, the cycle moves forward into fantasy and then ritualization, then it gathers momentum like a boulder rolling down a steep hill, which makes acting out sexually (and the consequences that follow) almost inevitable.