What Is "Sexual Sobriety"?

The concept of "sobriety" for sex addicts can be confusing for many people.  As an Atlanta counselor specializing in problematic sexual behavior patterns such as chronic pornography use, repeated acts of cheating and infidelity, risky sexual behavior and flat-out sex and porn addiction, I decided to write this brief article to sort out some of the basic concepts for understanding this tricky topic.

What exactly does "sobriety" mean for a sex addict?  It's obvious that for substance abuse sobriety means completely stopping the use of alcohol or drugs, but it's a little more complicated for a sex addict.  While it's true that usually some sexual behavior has to cease completely, the ultimate goal for most people is not to go without sex for the rest of their lives.  Instead, it is to manage sexuality in manner that is safe, sane and healthy for them.  This makes recovery for sex addiction more similar to compulsive overeating where the goal is to manage food appropriately, not stop eating altogether. 

For many people, a good definition of sexual sobriety is to engage in sex only with a primary partner when true emotional intimacy is present.  For other people the goal is simply to have no sexual secrets.  For still others the definition of what constitutes sexual sobriety may be defined by whether or not a person is engaging in certain behaviors or activities. So sobriety may look different for different people.  

A core concept from 12-step recovery programs is that there is a profound difference between true sobriety and mere abstinence. From this perspective, sobriety is much more than staying away from unwanted behavior.  It includes a deep sense of serenity and a consistent ability to "live life on life's terms", often with deep connections with other people and a sense of meaning in daily life.   

The Role of An Initial Period of Abstinence In Sex Addiction Recovery

Even though refraining from all sex is usually not a sex addict's ultimate goal, an initial period of sexual abstinence (such as 90 days) can be a good idea.  Here's why:.

  1. A person who overly relies on sexual thoughts, impulses and behaviors is likely to have some numbed emotions and distorted thoughts without being fully aware of it.  Taking a break from all sexual activity provides an opportunity to get back in touch with your true self. If you manage a period of sexual abstinence correctly you will learn some important lessons about yourself that will help you for the rest of your life, especially if you combine it with other constructive actions.  
  2. There are many people who can go 90 days without sex with relative ease.  But if you are a person whose sexual behaviors have taken you where you don't want to go time and again then you may find a 90 day period of sexual abstinence to be a serious challenge.  Any justification or rationale your brain can throw at you to undermine your resolve is likely to surface at different times.  The fact that it's difficult is itself evidence that the way you are managing your life deserves your full attention.  
  3. If you are in a relationship with someone you have sexually betrayed, an agreed-upon time without sex can allow for some relationship healing to begin by giving you an opportunity to focus on developing nonsexual emotional safety and connection.  (I wrote a lengthy article about what it takes to heal from chronic sexual deception, because there's a lot to address.)
  4. Especially when it comes to  problematic pornography use there is evidence that a 90 day period of total sexual abstinence can help some people "reboot" their brain so that continued abstinence becomes easier and they become significantly happier and more productive as time progresses. This benefit of getting some forward momentum is captured in an old recovery saying that "it's easier to stay sober than to get sober". 

The Role of Masturbation in Sexual Sobriety

You may be wondering how masturbation relates to the concept of sexual sobriety, especially for people without sexual partners.  For some sex addicts compulsive masturbation can become a heavily reinforced behavior that is central to the addictive cycle. Masturbation almost always includes fantasy and for true sex addicts such fantasy can amplify into a downward spiral of obsession, objectification and eventually full-fledged compulsion. This is especially true when pornography is included as part of a masturbation ritual. From this perspective masturbation may need to be considered off-limits for many sex addicts.

For other people, however, non-compulsive masturbation can actually aid the biological urge for sexual release, provide a venue for self-nurturance and contribute to an overall sense of sexual health.  Figuring out which side of the line is right for a particular person can depend on many factors, making this a topic worth discussing with trusted resources of support and guidance.  Either way, during an initial period of sexual abstinence it's best to keep masturbation off limits just like any other form of sexual expression.

Bottom Lines, Border Lines and Top Lines

All this discussion of sexual sobriety leads to the need to discuss exactly what constitutes a "relapse" in sex addiction.  The simple answer is that relapse is defined as any sexual activity that falls outside of pre-determined boundaries.  Sometimes people in 12-step recovery refer to acts that would constitute a relapse as "bottom-line behaviors".

In addition to “bottom lines”, two other "lines" are helpful to understand. The first is what I call a border line, which is any behavior that increases the risk of relapse and therefore must be carefully monitored. Borderline behavior isn’t the same as a relapse but it can be the beginning of a gradual slide back to one. Finally,top lines are all forms of healthy behaviors that promote sobriety and good self-care.  People establish and maintain appropriate top lines to keep from crossing their bottom lines.

Support for Maintaining Sexual Sobriety

Most self-identified sex addicts who want to maintain their sexual sobriety find it extremely beneficial to have regular contact with other people who are on similar journeys.  This is often best obtained by attending 12-step meetings. This is where you can find a sponsor, which is a person who has extensive sobriety who provides ongoing personal support and mentoring.  Meeting attendance is also a good way to develop relationships with people who are sources of accountability and support.  It can be confusing to discover that there are several different 12-step groups for sex addiction, each with a somewhat different definition of sexual sobriety.  

This article provided some basic information about the concept of what sobriety means in sex addiction.  If you're in the Atlanta area and would like more personalized assistance for your own needs, please call me at 404 345-1570, email me at bill@billherring.com or use the contact form on this site.


Bill Herring LCSW, CSAT is an Atlanta certified sex addiction therapist (CSAT) and an expert in helping people overcome problematic sexual behaviors that violate their promises, values and/or self-control.  If you'd like to schedule an appointment with me I will be glad to meet with you in person.