[Note: I couldn’t find this article online anywhere, so I’ve typed it up myself from a photocopy that I had pasted into my journal in January 2010. This is from a publication called, “Recovering Together” – May 1992 – page 7.]
Addiction to Fantasy: Subtle Nuances of Sex Addiction
by Ted W. Allison, M.A.
When I first heard about sex addiction several years ago, I thought of porno shops, strip joints, massage parlors, prostitutes, multiple affairs, pornography and compulsive masturbation as outlets for sex addicts. Later I learned that exhibitionism, voyeurism, incest, rape and child molestation are also sometimes, but not always, part of sex addiction.
There is one aspect of sexual addiction that escapes many therapist and people in recovery: fantasy sex addiction.
In Patrick Carnes’ book, “Don’t Call It Love,” the term fantasy sex is used to describe “thinking/obsessing about sexual adventures; inordinate amounts of time spent losing self in fantasy about future and past; neglecting commitments because of fantasy life; dramatizing a particular role in your fantasy; creating sexualized or seductive atmospheres that you prefer to keep as fantasy and not act on; spending a large amount of time preparing for sexual episode.” In this form of addiction, the addict can escape into an altered state simply through mental obsession and fantasy.
The difficulty in diagnosing this aspect of sex addiction is that everyone has thoughts and fantasies about sex. For the fantasy addict, however, obsession and fantasy become the primary tool used to regulate one’s emotional life, particularly in relieving tension and reducing anxiety. The following passage in the daily meditation guide, “Answers In The Heart,” demonstrates what I mean:
Most of us who are sex addicts are all too ready to turn our backs on reality and take refuge in fantasy when the going gets rough. In our addiction we sustain our fantasy world and extend our childish dreams of omnipotence. There we are all-powerful and our sexual gratification knows no bounds. Other people become marionettes who dance on strings to the tunes we call. Reality is a distant smudge on the horizon.
Sex addicts are “obsessed by fantasies that spin inside us like endless whirring wheels. In our affliction, we are unable to imagine real people in live situations. We keep repeating images that are real only in our fantasies. These fantasies close us off from a world of truth.”
For the fantasy sex addict, these images and the rituals that tie into the fantasies, make true intimacy impossible, both with one’s self and with others. As one of the pieces of literature read at Sex Addict’s Anonymous meetings states:
We could never know real union with another because we were addicted to the unreal, the chemistry, the idol, the lust. We went for the instant “hit,” the excitement, the connection that had the magic, because it bypassed intimacy and true union. The fantasy corrupted the real; lust killed love. We took from others to fill up what was lacking in ourselves. First addicts, then love cripples. Conning ourselves time and again that the next one would save us, we were really losing our lives.
For the fantasy addict, the “instant hit,” the connection one gets to the fantasy image or images, is the primary mode of acting out.
When the relationship to the fantasy image or images becomes mood altering, when one loses oneself in the images, and lable, then addiction is likely to be present. Poet David Mura writes that in sexual addiction,
A man wishes to believe there is a beautiful body with no soul attached. Because of this wish he takes surface for truth. There are no depths. Because of this wish, he begins to worship an image (1987, p.3).
Mura asks what danger lies beneath the surface? How can it hurt the addict? “It reminds him of the depths he has lost in himself.” As the image or fantasy is used as a way of numbing psychic pain, it lasts only as long as one stares at the image, and then the pain reasserts itself. The promise of power is only an illusion. To worship an image is to “pray for a gift you’ll never receive” states Mura.
One cannot find the dept of one’s soul through a person or image. Yet the chasing after what is unattainable is part of the ritual of fantasy sex addiction. Once the image or images enter the mind, preoccupation in the form of a trance or mood cause the mind of the addict to become completely engrossed with thoughts of sex. Certain ritualistic behavior then follows in the addictive cycle, from playing out a scenario in one’s mind, to masturbating, to feeling shame and anxiety. Fear, excitement, shame and secrecy become fuel for the ritualization. Even panic at having a sexual thought or image can become part of ritualizing behavior.
According to Carnes, compulsive sexual behavior follows preoccupation and ritualization. For the fantasy addict, replaying scenes and images in one’s mind can become compulsive, even if there is no acting out behavior such as masturbating. When the fantasies and the feelings that follow become uncontrollable, despair is the final stage that can start the whole cycle over again, unless there is intervention. When one looks at a fantasy addiction a objectifying others, a dysfunctional means of mood altering, and avoidance of true intimacy, it is not hard to imagine the loneliness, emptiness and isolation that the fantasy addict feels.
Fantasy addiction has much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Steven Levenkron, an authority on OCD, defines the disorder as a pervasive condition
that causes individuals to overexamine their thoughts, spoken words, actions, productivity, and relationships. In this overexamination, they always find what they have done—whether words, thoughts or actions—inadequate and wanting. This mental examination process is repeated over and over throughout the day, often generating a dangerous level of tension. They are never satisfied with themselves. Rarely, if ever, are they happy.
Preoccupation with sexual fantasies, can in fact, be one of the signs of OCD. According to Levenkron, OCD has much of its origin from inadequate parenting from childhood. Much of the repeated activities or rituals are actually attempts at self-soothing used to fill an emotional emptiness caused by underparenting or by a child’s impaired receptivity to parenting. This belief corresponds to Carnes’ research which found that a majority of fantasy addicts suffered from covert incest in childhood. [emphasis by author]
It is interesting, yet tragic, to connect one’s earlier sexual trauma to one’s form of acting out in fantasy. For instance, a man who fantasizes about being in a dominant sexual position may be overcompensating for a situation in which he was in a more submissive position by overt and/or covert sexual abuse. A man who has a sexual fantasy about an infant may be, in fact, experiencing a memory of his own sexual abuse that may have occurred at a time of infancy. A woman who has sexual fantasies about her father may be experiencing a situation where she was sexualized by her father, though no overt sexual abuse had taken place.
When there is covert incest in a family, where a parent sexualized a child or initiates sexual transactions where no touching occurs, the sexuality can be denied although the impact is still there. A child who is being sexualized represses the sexualization on an unconscious level and the child’s imagination becomes sexualized. This later feeds fuel to sex addiction where others become sexualized and objectified similar to what happened to the addict in childhood. It is the writer’s opinion that, with very little exception, sexual addiction has its roots in sexual abuse, whether overt or covert. An essential part of recovery for sex addiction is dealing with incest and sexual abuse at some stage of the process. [emphasis by author]
Flirtation and seductiveness can also be a result of covert incest. Flirtation and intrigue up to the point of being sexual, is similar to the way the perpetrator of covert incest plays upon his or her victim. Carnes defines this seduction as “being emotionally engaging while being misleading about your intentions. Therapists use the phrase ‘high warmth with low intention’ to describe seductive behavior.” Between trusted partners, seduction scenes can revitalize romance, but used as a predatory means to gain power or medicate pain, they become destructive. Individuals who do not contain their sexual energy are often re-enacting what was done to them by parents or caretakers who themselves had poor sexual boundaries.
A final thought on the subject of fantasy sex addiction is to differentiate between compulsion and addiction, since fantasy sex can occur in either category. In her book “Women, Sex, and Addiction,” Charlotte Kasl states that compulsive behavior relieves tension, tension caused by “inner feelings a person wants to avoid or control.” One does not derive pleasure so much from the actual behavior as from the tension release it provides. ‘Can’t’, ‘must’ and ‘ought to’ are words associated with compulsions. Compulsive behaviors are more set than habits, and more difficult to stop.
Addictions, on the other hand, split the personality into two parts, each denying the existence of the other. The addict part of the personality goes to any length to avoid pain, achieve euphoria, and have control. It seeks immediate gratification and gradually takes control of the personality. Compulsions tend to limit relationships while addictions destroy them. Once addiction has been formed in the personality, it cannot be extinguished, but appropriate boundaries can be set and one can begin to strengthen the healthy side of the personality.
Recovery cannot be done alone. This is especially true for the fantasy addict, whose isolation tends to fuel the fantasy life. Support groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, sponsorship, psychotherapy, and a variety of tools and techniques are useful in stopping the progression of the addiction.
SAA’s “Three second Rule” is helpful in stopping the fantasies, as is dialoguing between the addict side and the healthy side of the psyche. Many people relapse from chemical addiction because they have not dealt with their sexual addiction or co-sex addiction. Fortunately the more progressive treatment centers and therapists are now addressing sexual addiction and compulsivity. If you feel you have a problem or would like more information, please read any one of the books mentions or write to any of the 12 step programs on sex addiction listed. (ED, the references are on Page 4, Col 1)
Ted Allison, M.A., has a Master’s degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. He has a previous article published in the “Arizona Psychologist” (April, 1990).