Intimacy means emotional
closeness. It often develops over time with people we trust and with whom we
feel safe sharing our innermost thoughts and feelings. Doing things that prevent
or sabotage physical, emotional, or spiritual closeness and connection is what
we call intimacy avoidance. We can avoid intimacy with ourselves or others,
including our Higher Power.
is sexual anorexia?
“For some of us,
the compulsive avoidance of sex and intimacy became a destructive pattern,
dominating our thoughts and actions.” (Sex
Addicts Anonymous, page 6)
“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)
8.3 Is intimacy
avoidance a disease?
Before looking at the intimacy avoidance in
our lives, we were often unaware of the many ways we disconnected from
ourselves and others. Some of our behaviors were not directly sexual, such as
avoiding eye contact, texting with someone else instead of talking with
whomever we were with, or using distractions to prevent ourselves from becoming
emotional. On the other hand, some of the behaviors we admitted powerlessness
over were sex-related, such as our inability to be emotionally or mentally
present during sexual experiences, the compulsive use of pornography, or using
things like fault-finding, starting arguments, or going to bed at a different
time than our partners to avoid opportunities for sexual connection. Many of us
experienced these behaviors as ones “we returned to over and over, despite the
consequences.” We found that compulsively avoiding intimacy “altered our
feelings and consciousness.” We may have been consumed with “a mental
preoccupation with sexual behavior and fantasies.” (See Sex Addicts
Anonymous, page 3)
Many of us
experience intimacy avoidance and compulsive sexual avoidance as parts of the disease
of sex addiction.
“Sex addiction is
not just a bad habit. Nor is it the result of poor self-control, a lack of
morals, or a series of mistakes. If it were something we could stop on our own,
the negative consequences would be enough to make us stop. Many of us tried to
cure ourselves with religious or spiritual practice, moral discipline, or
self-improvement. Despite our sincerity and our best efforts, we continued to
act out. Our behavior eluded all rational attempts at explanation or correction.
We had to face the fact that we had a disease, and that we could not stop the
addictive behavior by ourselves.”(Sex Addicts
Anonymous, page 9)
Another indication that intimacy avoidance is part of the disease of sex addiction was that when we stopped avoiding emotional and/or sexual closeness with others, many of us experienced withdrawal symptoms such as those listed in the section called “Withdrawal and Relapse” in the book Sex AddictsAnonymous(see page 66). The good news is that applying the spiritual principles of the Twelve Steps of SAA led us to “an awakening that allows us to live a new way of life according to spiritual principles.” (Sex AddictsAnonymous , page 20)
8.4 How can I be an intimacy avoidant if I’m
compulsively having sex?
“In our addiction we experienced sex as compulsive. We felt driven, as if by an irresistible force, toengage in sexual behaviors, rather than freely choosing to be sexual. For many of us, it often seemedthat we weren’t being sexual to satisfy our sexual needs, but were using sex as a way to escape fromreality, cope with anxiety, or deal with emotions we didn’t want to face. In our disease we usedcontrol and isolation in order to feel safe. We would spend increasing amounts of time in fantasy,which tended to alienate us from others and from a real sense of ourselves. For some of us, ouraddictive sexuality was centered on power and ego. Our fantasies were about having the power to besexual whenever, however, and with whomever we wanted. Or we constantly looked to relationshipsto “fix” us, fill our emptiness, and make us feel worthwhile. Some of us were abusive to others andtreated them as objects. We were unaware of, or failed to respect, others’ sexual rights andboundaries. No matter how much sex we had, we still felt unsatisfied. We were afraid ofvulnerability and intimacy.” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 70)
8.5 How can I be a sex addict if I don’t have sex?
addiction can manifest in many different ways, and it’s not uncommon for the
addict to have no physical contact with another person. Often, sex addicts
experience a mental preoccupation with sex, sometimes fantasizing about
themselves, and sometimes being obsessed with the sexual behavior of others,
including constantly thinking about avoiding sex. Some of us had not considered
behaviors such as flirting, romantic obsession, phone sex or cybersex, internet
pornography, compulsive cross-dressing, excessive fear or avoidance of sex,
voyeurism or exhibitionism as “sexual behavior.” However, we learned that if
these behaviors were negatively impacting our lives and we could not stop them,
we might benefit from the SAA program. And we have!
intimacy avoidance meetings separate from SAA?
Intimacy and Sexual
Avoidance (ISA) meetings are SAA meetings that have a general focus on
recovering from aspects of sex addiction such as the avoidance of intimacy,
closeness, and/or sex.
8.7 What SAA literature is available on the topic of intimacy avoidance?
The following are available for purchase in the online SAA Store, or can be read online:
Sex Addicts Anonymous(sometimes referred to as the “green book”), has many great insights about intimacy in recovery from sex addiction.
Recordingsof intimacy and sexual avoidance-related convention workshops are available in the ISO online store. One idea is to look for titles with words such as intimacy, sexual anorexia, avoidance, intimate, healthy sexuality, etc.
Don’t forget to watch for articles in the SAA bi-monthly newsletter, The Outer Circle, that talk about intimacy avoidance, sexual avoidance, or sexual anorexia.
For questions or support regarding intimacy and sexual avoidance recovery, contact the at email@example.com.
8.8 Do I need to work the Twelve Steps again?
In SAA, the
decisions about which way to work the steps how often to work them, etc. are up
to each individual, preferably with the guidance of a sponsor or fellow sex
“There is no one correct or SAA-sanctioned way to complete the Twelve Steps.…The program offers a spiritual solution to our addiction, without requiring adherence to any specific set of beliefs or practices.” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 21)
Some learn more
about the intimacy avoidance side of sex addiction by attending meetings where
topics related to intimacy are brought up. Some work the steps with an intimacy
focus or incorporate intimacy-related exercises into their existing SAA step
8.9 How is working the Twelve Steps of SAA focused on intimacy avoidance different from working the steps on sex addiction?
There may be aspects of intimacy-focused step work that are the same or similar to a more conventional way of working the steps, and there may also be differences. It might depend on the choices of the person doing the work or the experience and guidance of someone who is helping (such as a sponsor). More about Intimacy-Focused Step Work.
8.10 Why do people work the Twelve Steps of SAA focused on intimacy avoidance recovery?
There are many reasons why members work the
steps with this focus. Some are:
We wanted to stop acting out.
Some of us felt disheartened or frustrated when we kept returning to our inner-circle behaviors despite our attempts to follow our sponsor’s suggestions. However, highlighting ways we avoided connection with ourselves and others offered us some new clarity and insights into our compulsive sexual behavior.
For example, in examining the ways we prevented ourselves from feeling and expressing emotions, we may have become aware of beliefs such as, “It’s not okay to feel how I do,” “Nobody understands me,” or “I will be rejected and abandoned if I share what I’m really thinking or feeling.” Applying recovery principles such as trust, faith, courage, wisdom, and self-compassion helped us open up to our sponsor, group members, and friends in recovery in ways we had not done before. This made it possible to more deeply receive the help and support that we needed to stay sober.
We wanted to overcome fear of dating.
Once we were sober
from our acting out, many of us were unsure how to handle feeling attracted to
someone. Some of us shut off our sexual thoughts and feelings in order to
abstain from acting out, and could not imagine a healthier sexual expression.
Or, we had no idea how to get to know someone and build a relationship of trust
before becoming sexual with them.
Others 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.” (Intimacy Avoidance – Another
Aspect of Sex Addiction)
Working the Steps
focusing on intimacy helped us cultivate a deeper trust and connection with
ourselves, our Higher Power, and others. We cultivated intimacy with ourselves by experiencing our
emotions with curiosity and compassion, and expressing them in ways that
promote unity and understanding. Others felt safer to share thoughts and
feelings with us because we were less judgmental and more empathetic. We
learned to take time to move through various stages of intimacy when getting to
know someone. This work strengthened the foundation for us to be able to
interact in healthier, more sober ways with people we found physically
Instead of creating
a false sense of intimacy by sharing very personal things early in a
friendship, or being sexual right away with someone we’ve just met, many
recovering sex addicts use guidelines we’ve established with the help of our
sponsor or others in recovery to pace ourselves while getting to know someone.
For some of us, having a plan for safely interacting in a dating or committed
relationship is part of our Ninth Step amends to ourselves and others.
Ultimately, our interactions with others have improved through applying
spiritual principles such as accountability, honesty, respect and kindness ̶ spiritual principles we learned through
step work. Many of us discovered that a sexual partner is better able to
connect physically, emotionally, and spiritually with us if we’re connected
We wanted to move from shutdown into healthier sexual attitudes and
A number of us had
assumed that staying sexually sober meant abstaining from sex for the rest of
our lives. Though some make that choice and are happy with it, others of us
found that we lacked a sense of joy or fulfillment when we denied ourselves of
sexual pleasure. Yet, we were unsure how to start experiencing healthier
sexuality without acting out.
Our intimacy step
work helped us view ourselves and our past through a new lens, releasing us
from unhealthy thinking and choices that didn’t serve us. We learned how to
take better care of ourselves and treat ourselves with gentleness and respect.
Once we started getting in touch with what was going on inside us, we began to
have greater trust in our intuition and became more aware of how our Higher
Power works with us. We learned how to live in the present instead of obsessing
about the past or worrying about the future. Our capacity to observe
uncomfortable emotions without changing or suppressing them increased. Our
self-confidence grew as we practiced receiving and following guidance from our
Higher Power. We deepened our emotional connections with others and learned
when and how to set appropriate boundaries. Before long, with the help of our
Higher Power, some of us were able to combine emotional, spiritual, and sexual
intimacy in a way we’d never experienced before.
do I put intimacy avoidant behaviors into my Three Circles?
Here are some tips that have been helpful to some of us in putting intimacy avoidance and/or sexually anorexic behaviors and symptoms into our Three Circles tool.
We worked Step One first.
A first task that many SAA sponsors might typically assign a new sponsee is beginning to fill out their three circles (see Sex Addicts Anonymous, pages 16-19, or the Three Circles pamphlet). However, many intimacy and/or sexual avoidants weren’t even sure what most of our intimacy-avoidant behaviors were until after working our intimacy-focused First Step. Some of us found the First Step to Intimacy pamphlet helpful in “spotlighting … powerlessness and unmanageability of intimacy avoidance or sabotage.” (An Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance-Focused First Step Guide) Others have found some of the questions in the SAA Step Working Guide for Sponsors – Step One to be helpful in starting them thinking about the more nuanced ways sex addiction shows up in their lives. Once we had a better understanding of how our avoidant behavior manifests, then we could consider putting them in our three circles.
● We remembered that the three circles tool is optional in SAA, not a requirement.
of us found the circles to be helpful in defining our abstinence from
compulsive intimacy avoidance, while others were baffled. Our sponsors helped
us decide what would be most beneficial.
● We kept a
flexible, open mind and adapted wherever necessary.
At first glance, some SAA literature (including Three Circles: Defining Sexual Sobriety in SAA) may appear as though it doesn’t apply to people suffering from the sexual anorexia side of sex addiction, since many examples are about acting out sexually with others. However, if read with an open mind (and perhaps a little creative adaptation), the basic concepts of the inner, middle, and outer circles can still apply to anorexia.
the questions from Sex Addicts
Anonymous pages 15-16 with intimacy
avoidance in mind was helpful for some of us in determining which avoidant
behaviors belong in the inner or middle circles.
avoidant behaviors in the three circles can be very challenging. Because many
of us reset our sobriety day count every time we engage in inner-circle
behavior, we needed clearly defined boundaries to avoid ambiguity about whether
or not if what we did qualified as “inner circle.” We learned that avoidant
behaviors that are specific and more easily definable, such as viewing porn or
mentally escaping into fantasy during sex, are appropriate for the inner
circle. “Having sex when I don’t want to” or “Having sex while
not being mentally present” are clearer and more definite than “not
wanting to have sex.”
clarity is important, it can be difficult to quantify avoidant behavior. For
instance, a common symptom of sexual anorexia is “practicing avoidance of
sexual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.” (Intimacy Avoidance – Another
Aspect of Sex Addiction) If a person is purposely diverting
their attention from all of their sexual thoughts and feelings, or finding
themselves avoiding being sexual with a safe and loving partner, that is likely
compulsive sexual avoidance. However, if a person doesn’t naturally have many
sexual thoughts or feelings, it may be difficult to determine if the person is
avoiding them or if that’s simply normal for them. Furthermore, the other extreme ̶
“obsessive sexual thoughts (about having sex and/or avoiding
it)” is a symptom of intimacy avoidance as well. (Intimacy Avoidance – Another Aspect of Sex Addiction) It is
difficult to measure sexual thoughts and feelings in the first place, let alone
determine what a “suitable amount” of them would be.
● We realized that motivation
thing we had to keep in mind is that not all intimacy avoidance is undesirable.
Several different factors may determine whether a particular avoidant behavior
is actually part of our addiction, versus being acceptable – or even healthy.
For example, leaving a social event early could be considered intimacy
avoidance if the decision was based on fear of taking a healthy risk to get to
know someone better. However, leaving early could be an act of healthy
self-care if one is feeling physically ill or emotionally unsafe, or if the
atmosphere isn’t conducive to one’s recovery. Often, our inner-circle behaviors
were more about the motivation for certain actions rather than the actions
themselves, so we needed to be very specific.
also needed to leave room for circumstances that would cause us to reset our
days unfairly. For example, although going to bed earlier or later than a
partner is a way to avoid opportunities to connect sexually, putting that in
the inner circle doesn’t allow for illness, travel, or other circumstances
which might make sense for partners to go to bed at different times. So, it
made sense to put that behavior in the middle circle.
● For some of us, our middle circle
includes behaviors that aren’t overtly sexual.
Many intimacy-related inner-circle or middle-circle behaviors may not be overtly sexual. Feelings or vague behaviors such as having a “victim” attitude, not speaking up, or avoiding feelings might be placed in the middle circle. Some other examples of ways to avoid connecting with self and others are:
-Dressing in a way that objectifies self
-Escaping into fantasy while having sex (often a 3-second rule is helpful)
-Having sex when not wanting to
-Focusing on others’ body parts (3-second rule)
-Reading/watching erotic or suggestive material (i.e. novels, porn)
-Remaining in bed all day or not leaving the house for days
-Being lost in the fantasy of novels or TV
-Failure to adequately care for or groom oneself
-Wearing baggy, unattractive clothing to decrease the chances of attraction
-Having near-constant background noise to reduce quiet moments of self-reflection
We needed the help of a sponsor or others in
recovery to determine what boundaries to set, and in which of the circles to
place behaviors that were contributing to the unmanageability of our
● We focused on the outer-circle behaviors.
Rather than focusing on not doing the inner-circle behaviors, many of us found it more productive to focus on the positive things in our lives by putting as many things as possible in our list of outer-circle behaviors. It was far easier to try to do several “yes” activities daily than to not do the “no” activities, especially when that often meant trying to avoid avoiding something! Some of us put expressions of the opposite of intimacy-avoidant behaviors in the outer circle.
Some “anti-anorexic” outer-circle activities needed to be regularly occurring, while others were occasional. It was imperative to have self-care items on the list for most of us, and our sponsors learned to ask questions about our grooming, food and water intake, and hours of sleep, especially during the beginning of our recovery. Activities such as listening to or making music, exercise, sports, or practicing yoga, journaling, creative outlets, and things to do outdoors were often helpful in building the foundation for greater intimacy with self and others, including our Higher Power. Of course, recovery-related activities such as meetings, step work, and outreach calls needed to be included in our outer circle. We were also encouraged by our sponsors to list potential intimacy-building activities that we weren’t quite ready for but could work towards, such as interacting with others in a faith community, sharing a meal with a friend or family member, or doing community service. Outer circle behaviors that helped many of us develop elements of healthy sexuality in our lives included regular self-nurturing exercises, relaxation, and/or mindfulness exercises.
● We learned to be flexible and open
When creating our three circles, we reminded ourselves that they aren’t carved in stone. “As our recovery progresses, and we gain new understanding about ourselves and our addiction, we are free to add or delete behaviors, or move them from one circle to another, in order to reflect new growth and insights. We have found, however, that changing our three circles should not be done on a whim, but only after careful consideration and prayer, and with guidance from our sponsor and our groups.” (Sex Addicts Anonymous, page 16)
8.12 What do I do about my sobriety day count?
People have wondered what to do with their sobriety day count if
they’ve been abstinent from acting-out behaviors for a time, but now they’re
adding avoidant behaviors to their circles. Of course, this is something each
person needs to work out with their sponsor; there are no “clear-cut”
answers. Some of us felt we didn’t necessarily have to change our sobriety day
count just because we adjusted our circles. Many of those who have attempted to
count acting out and intimacy avoidance days separately found it to be extra
work and rather confusing, since they can be difficult to separate. Whatever we
decided, we realized that counting days is only a tool to help us maintain
abstinence and spiritual growth — it is not a requirement.
working the steps with this focus help me develop healthy sexuality?
“While exploring healthy sexuality is
a part of life in recovery for many of us, it is not the primary purpose or
goal of SAA. Our program offers freedom from addictive sexual behavior. Where
we focus our energy in our new way of life is a choice that is left up to each
member.” (Sex Addicts
Anonymous, page 71)
Steps are an expression of spiritual principles that can be practiced in all
aspects of life. Honesty, willingness, courage, humility, forgiveness,
responsibility, gratitude, and faith are just some of the names we give to the
spiritual principles that gradually come to guide us in our lives” (Sex Addicts
Anonymous, page 60-61).
● For example, applying the principle of
honesty included making sure our partners are capable of giving us informed
consent, sharing our genuine thoughts and feelings with our partner, waiting on
physical intimacy until we are sure of our partner’s and our motives, and
exploring whether we have shared values.
● Applying the principle of openness
sometimes involved listening respectfully to our partner and being open to
seeing the world from their perspective.
● For some of us, applying the principle of
willingness meant committing to a future together through troubles and
difficult choices. We showed a willingness to communicate respectfully, even in
conflicts. We also learned to be willing to let go when our desire was not
Those of us who are single benefitted from cultivating a genuine connection with ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically. By looking to our Higher Power, our sponsor, and our group to guide us, we became comfortable with our own sexuality. We celebrated our sexuality as an expression of our humanity.” (Developing Our Own Healthy Sexuality in SAA).
Many of us have
discovered that in order to have true intimacy with another person, we needed
to increase our closeness and connection with ourselves and with our Higher
Power. Then we will be better prepared
to connect with friends and family, as well as with a significant other in a
8.14 How can I find a sponsor that can help me work the Twelve Steps of SAA with the focus on intimacy avoidance?
Most people work the steps with a sponsor or accountability partner.
However, there are not many SAA sponsors with experience in working the steps
with this focus. Here are some ideas if a sponsor with experience in intimacy
and sexual avoidance (ISA) is difficult to find in your area.
● We asked an open-minded sponsor
Some of us asked an SAA sponsor who, though unfamiliar with avoidance,
was willing to help us work the steps with this focus drawing on their own
experience, strength, and hope.
● We sought a long-distance sponsor
Many of us have successfully worked with a sponsor
from another area of our country or another part of the world, using electronic
means of communication.
● We teamed up with a co-sponsor
Others of us formed a co-sponsorship relationship with a program friend, working the steps at the same time together. We shared what we were learning about the spiritual principles of recovery and were accountable to each other as we put those principles into practice in our lives. For more information on co-sponsoring, see page 10 of January-February, 2021 (Volume 15, issue 1) edition of The Outer Circlenewsletter.
● We joined an intimacy-focused step-study group
option is joining an ISA Step Study in which members work the Twelve Steps of
SAA with the focus of recovery from intimacy avoidance and/or sexual avoidance
as a group. For example, in some steps studies, participants are invited to complete
assignments and meet weekly with a sharing partner, as well as attend a weekly
group video meeting. These groups typically meet for six months. The group
approach for working the SAA Twelve Steps has been a creative alternative for
some of us, giving us the opportunity to develop trust within a group setting.
let the Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance Awareness Committee know if you would
like to be informed when the next ISA Step Study begins by to firstname.lastname@example.org.