Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance
“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.”
INTIMACY AND SEXUAL AVOIDANCE MEETINGS OF SAA
Men and women from all over the world are joining SAA’s intimacy-focused telephone 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 intimacy-focused meetings. Still others have a spouse or partner whom they suspect struggles with intimacy issues and want to learn more by attending the open intimacy-focused meetings. Whatever brings you here, welcome!
Most of SAA’s intimacy-focused groups are in English and use a North American-based conference call system. There are several economic ways for participants living outside the United States to join the telemeetings.
WHAT IS INTIMACY AND 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” (First Step to Intimacy). 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,
WHILE 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 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. 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” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 72).
INTIMACY AND SEXUAL AVOIDANCE MEETING INFORMATION
Although there are a couple of women-only telephone meetings and a men-only telephone meeting, many of us have found the Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance (ISA) mixed gender meetings to be very beneficial to our recovery. Learning to view each other as human beings and not objects helps us interact with members of the opposite gender in a healthier way.
For information about additional ways to join the avoidance telephone meetings, including access codes from different countries, please contact the
INTIMACY-FOCUSED VIDEO CONFERENCE MEETINGS
Our video conferencing system allows participants to experience a meeting which is similar to a face-to-face meeting. Although some may be hesitant to join a video meeting due to fear of being triggered (especially if computers and videos were part of their former acting-out behavior), many who were concerned about this have found the Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance video meetings to be safe and healthy, and not triggering as they feared. In fact, for some members, the level of camaraderie and healing is greatly increased on video meetings. If you have questions about the video meetings, please contact
FACE-TO-FACE INTIMACY-FOCUSED MEETINGS
Currently, there are few intimacy-focused face-to-face meetings available. If there is not one in your area, consider starting a meeting.
INTIMACY-RELATED SAA LITERATURE AND RESOURCES
Recovery From Compulsive Sexual Avoidance – A Return to Intimacy
First Step to Intimacy – A Guide for Working the First Step on Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance or Sexual Anorexia.
A third document in development will feature SAA members sharing brief stories about their intimacy avoidance or sexual anorexia. Another developing document offers insights on working the Twelve Steps of SAA on intimacy and sexual avoidance. Contact the for more information or to be a part of these projects.
WORKING THE TWELVE STEPS OF SAA ON INTIMACY AND SEXUAL AVOIDANCE
Working the steps alone is neither effective nor recommended, but it can be difficult to find an SAA sponsor with experience in healing from intimacy or sexual avoidance. 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 group is right for you. Additionally, 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.
FELLOWSHIP AND OUTREACH
It can be very challenging to find the courage to talk with strangers about sex addiction, and there can sometimes be an even greater level of fear and shame regarding sexual anorexia or even just intimacy avoidance in general. Meetings provide a safe space to listen and to share without crosstalk (people responding directly to another’s share). However, the 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 other’s 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. Reading SAA literature with the “lens” of focusing one’s recovery on cultivating greater connection with self and others can lead to powerful insights.
One alternative to having a traditional sponsor is to work the steps together with an accountability partner, forming a co-sponsorship relationship with a program friend. 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. The can provide support for sponsors who would like more information about working the steps on intimacy avoidance. There are also some intimacy-focused step study groups that are working the steps together. For more information, please contact the or the .
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” (First Step to Intimacy).
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, and 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” (Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance).
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 behaviors that enabled [them] to avoid authentic closeness or intimacy” (Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance).
It is common for sex addicts to avoid emotional intimacy without avoiding physical intimacy (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” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 6).
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” (Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance).
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 behaviors. “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” (First Step to Intimacy).
“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” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 6).
The SAA pamphlet “Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance – A Return to Intimacy” offers examples of how some people experience the compulsive avoidance of sex.
“We may have been so ashamed of a physical or other personal defect – real or imagined – that we could not bear the thought of revealing it. Instead, we may have cloistered ourselves in harsh religiosity or ‘churchliness’ that bore no resemblance to authentic spirituality. We may have shrouded ourselves in ‘if-only’s’ or ‘someday-when’s’ to delay, postpone or defer connecting with others until we were finally perfect.
“Some of us knew intuitively that we had a tendency to become emotionally dependent on others, and could not risk losing ourselves in the needs or demands of a close relationship. Others stayed in loveless relationships for fear of being alone – or of becoming attached with partners of one gender to disguise a more authentic attraction to members of the other.
“Some of us were obsessed with romantic or sexual fantasy and intrigue, often having more relationships in our minds than in actual fact. Some reported feeling ashamed of how few people we had been with, and yet felt powerless to initiate even the simplest overtures because of social anxiety or awkwardness. Many of us could not bring ourselves to trust a partner, believing that we would be hurt or abandoned if we allowed ourselves to become vulnerable. Some cultivated a blissful ignorance of others’ romantic or sexual interest in us, while many more were all too anxiously aware – and often felt threatened, engulfed or smothered by personal attention or flirting.” (Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance)
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” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 72).