Intimacy & sexual avoidance ISA
“Some of us have found ourselves ‘shut down’ sexually in recovery, afraid of sex because of its association in our minds with our addiction or with past trauma, or because of a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. Trying to control our sexuality in this way is just another symptom of our disease.” Sex Addicts Anonymous p.72
People from all over the world may join our intimacy-focused meetings. Some group members have worked the 12 Steps of SAA in order to stop acting out sexually and are now examining the role of intimacy avoidance in their lives. Others have been drawn to SAA because of the focus on intimacy in our meetings. Partners whom you suspect struggle with intimacy and want to learn more may also attend our open intimacy-focused meetings. Whatever brings you here, welcome!
What is intimacy & sexual avoidance, also known as sexual anorexia
Intimacy and sex are not necessarily the same thing. A person can have friendships or relationships that are intimate but not sexual and many sex addicts have learned that a person can have sex without being intimate”. Learning what intimacy is and cultivating healthy intimacy with ourselves and others, including our Higher Power, is our work in recovery.
- some people struggle with compulsively having sex
- whilst others struggle with compulsively avoiding sex
Some of us have experienced the avoidance of sex as addictive, in some cases choosing to identify as ‘sexual anorexics.’ In the same way that compulsive starving of oneself, or anorexia, is considered an eating disorder, avoidance of sex can be seen as an addictive sexual behaviour. Trying to control our sexuality is just another symptom of our disease.
The solution lies in turning our will and lives over to the care of our Higher Power, knowing that however unfamiliar we are with the challenges of healthier sexuality, we can put our trust in the God of our understanding.
Recovering in ISA
Here are some suggestions that might help you on your road to recovery:
It is suggested that newcomers attend at least 6 meetings before deciding if a meeting is right for you. Attending as many intimacy-focused SAA meetings as possible will give you opportunities to hear about the solution to intimacy avoidance as found in the 12 Steps of SAA. Listening to what others share with the intent to identify with their feelings will help you gain understanding about your own patterns and issues. Meetings provide a safe space to listen and to share without crosstalk - people responding directly to another’s share.
Fellowship and outreach
It can be very challenging to find the courage to talk with strangers about sex addiction or sexual avoidance.
Deeper connecting and bonding usually happens outside the meetings. After many meetings there is usually a period of fellowship, during which time it is appropriate to ask questions and respond to each others' shares. Often, participants will exchange phone numbers and contact each other for support. These outreach calls are necessary for building a network of support.
Read the literature
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that even though the majority of SAA literature talks about stopping acting out sexually, the spiritual principles of the SAA program also apply to “acting in” or intimacy avoidance. Here are a links to our ISA pamphlets:
Developing Our Own Healthy Sexuality
Reading SAA literature with the “lens” of focusing one’s recovery on cultivating greater connection with self and others can lead to powerful insights.
Sponsors are SAA members who are committed to sobriety. They guide us through their experience of the steps so that we may also find recovery. To find a sponsor, speak to people and attend ISA focused meetings to find people you identify with. Ask them about their program and when you find someone who has what you want ask them to be your sponsor.
It can be difficult to find an SAA sponsor with experience in healing from intimacy or sexual avoidance. One alternative is to work the steps with an accountability partner, forming a co-sponsorship relationship with a programme friend. Or you could join a Step Study, which is a group of people who work the steps together.
Another idea is to ask an SAA sponsor who, though unfamiliar with avoidance, is willing to help a sponsee work the steps with this focus using their own experience, strength, and hope. Open-mindedness and adaptability are helpful qualities that are beneficial to both sponsor and sponsee in this situation.
What is intimacy?
Intimacy means having a close, familiar and connected relationship. It involves being vulnerable and revealing the innermost self. Some people like to define intimacy with the phrase, “into-me-you-see.”
Intimacy develops gradually. Over time, as people see each other in various circumstances, or allow each other to see different parts of themselves, they may get to know each other more fully. They may cultivate a loving, trusting relationship in which each feels free to be genuine and sincere.
Many people use the words “sex” and “intimacy” interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. A person can have friendships or relationships that are intimate but not sexual and many sex addicts have learned that a person can have sex without being intimate. Using sex as a drug to medicate uncomfortable emotions does not promote connection. Anonymous sex is non-intimate, but even sex within a committed partnership can be non-intimate for someone who is relying on fantasy or other stimulation to accomplish a goal without becoming emotionally vulnerable.
Healthy intimacy with others is built upon a foundation of intimacy with self. Many cultivate a connection with themselves by feeling and expressing their emotions, practicing awareness of their own thought patterns, identifying their needs and trying to get them met in positive ways. Learning not to fear solitude, but to enjoy one’s own company without feeling uncomfortable, is part of experiencing intimacy with self. Nurturing and caring for one’s own body, mind and spirit are essential to increasing intimacy with and love for oneself.
As a deeper connection with self is being established in recovery, a person may begin exploring ways to reach out to and connect with others in healthier ways. Many have found that sober members of the SAA fellowship tend to be less judgmental and a little more open and receptive to attempts to connect emotionally and spiritually than most other people in their lives. Practicing skills like setting and maintaining boundaries, actively listening to others, and sharing honestly from the heart helps them bond more deeply and intimately with others in the fellowship.
What is intimacy avoidance?
Being vulnerable and reaching out to connect with others takes courage and trust. However, for some people, risking the potential pain of rejection or abuse is much more difficult than it is for others, sometimes even becoming pathological. Just as sexual acting out can take over one’s mind and behavior, the compulsive avoidance of intimacy can become an obsession that dominates one’s life.
Due to past experiences, some people have a visceral fear of letting down their walls and trusting anyone enough to let them get close emotionally, spiritually, or sometimes even physically. They avoid intimacy by preventing or sabotaging activities that cultivate closeness and connection with self or others. Intimacy avoidance is described as “behavior that serves to avoid or block sexual, emotional, or spiritual intimacy with others, ourselves, or our Higher Power”.
Instead of tuning in to their feelings, for example, a person can disconnect from their emotions by denying, stuffing, or medicating them. Rather than be fully present in their bodies, many prefer to live in fantasy by reading novels or magazines, binge-watching television, or continuously using their imaginations to escape what is happening around them. They may even do this to the extent that they ignore bodily needs such as food, rest and other self-care requirements. People may avoid intimacy with others by staying at home for days or refusing to answer the phone.
However, intimacy avoidance can also be far more subtle. On the surface, someone can appear to be present with themselves and others. A person may be convinced they don’t avoid intimacy because they have a job, a family and a social life. But many people have found that, once they started allowing themselves to recognize their submerged feelings of loneliness, detachment, depression, or anxiety, they realized something was missing in their lives. Perhaps they recognized that they restricted all of their conversations to impersonal topics, or they didn’t have anyone they could really be honest with about their struggles. Looking closer, they gradually became aware of a range of subtle but overt behaviours that enabled them to avoid authentic closeness or intimacy.
It is common for sex addicts to avoid emotional intimacy without avoiding physical intimacy or sex. Many people in recovery have realized that their compulsive or addictive sexual behavior did not include sharing their genuine feelings or being fully present in the moment while being sexual. Their minds were usually focused on fantasy rather than reality. As someone put it, “Whether we were acting out or not being sexual at all, our addiction involved being emotionally unavailable”.
There are a number of ways active sex addicts avoided emotional connection or intimacy during sex. Some of us chose anonymous partners, had sex with the lights off, or numbed ourselves with drugs or alcohol. Some of us gained weight to keep a wall of fat between ourselves and others. For some of us, voyeurism or peeping was a way to keep a wall of secrecy, distance or glass between ourselves and those to whom we were attracted. The glass of the computer screen could be seen as just a new or more sophisticated ‘window’ that provided a similar barrier between others and being known by them.
What is compulsive sexual avoidance?
The compulsive avoidance of sex - also known as “acting in” - can be seen as the other side of the spectrum of addictive sexual behaviours. Sometimes preventing closeness is taken to an extreme. Due to painful experiences in the past, trusting others may have become increasingly difficult, culminating in the inability to respond emotionally and/or physically when someone invites connection or intimacy. Though this ‘shutting down’ may have caused feelings of grief and shame, it also gave us the illusion of power or control.
For some of us, the compulsive avoidance of sex and intimacy became a destructive pattern, dominating our thoughts and actions. We may always have felt unable or unwilling to be sexual. Or we may have experienced periods of feeling ‘shut down’ alternating with other periods of sexual acting out.
What is sexual anorexia?
Sexual anorexia is another way of describing compulsive sexual avoidance. It refers to starving oneself of sexual nurturing and affection as a means of control. Some of us have experienced the avoidance of sex as addictive, in some cases choosing to identify as ’sexual anorexics.’ In the same way that compulsive starving of oneself, or anorexia, is considered an eating disorder, avoidance of sex can be seen as an addictive sexual behavior. Some of us have found ourselves ’shut down’ sexually in recovery, afraid of sex because of its association in our minds with our addiction or with past sexual trauma, or because of a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. Trying to control our sexuality in this way is just another symptom of our disease.
What do I do now?
Phone or text our helpline on 07766 075247 to leave a message on our voicemail.
Email us at [email protected]. We will get back to you as soon as we can.
Attend an SAA meeting
Search for UK SAA meetings or use the spyglass to search for intimacy and sexual avoidance ISA meetings on line, in person or by telephone, which allows connection with other ISA fellows to share the message of recovery. Or search for international meetings
Check out our programme literature, which can be accessed for free online or ordered through the SAA website Shop. There are a number of ISA pamphlets:
Developing Our Own Healthy Sexuality
And our main text is Sex Addicts Anonymous - The Green Book
We get together at our annual Recovery Day in London - and at local SAA Recovery Days - check the calendar for event dates.
Sex addicts of every gender, sexual orientation, race and belief system are welcome in SAA. There are no fees, forms or waiting lists. We practise strict anonymity and confidentiality and we don’t oppose other forms of therapy or treatment – we just offer our experience and you’re free to take it or leave it. It's a simple programme and it is working for us.