Overcoming shame: Healing from sex addiction

What you need to know:

  • Finding help for a problem that isn’t ever ackgowledged in any society is difficult and discouraging. In many of our societies, problems related to sex are hardly ever addressed and sex addiction is one major problem many opt to ignore

In Tanzania, sex addiction is a topic that is often masked in secrecy and the act of sex is often kept hidden and vilified as demonic or evil in society.

This deep-rooted cultural stigma creates a unique set of challenges for individuals struggling with sex addiction. It hinders them from seeking the necessary help and support, leading to devastating consequences.

According to mental health experts, sex addiction, also known as hypersexuality, is characterised by an individual's compulsive and uncontrollable urge to engage in sexual activities.

A resident of Dar es Salaam, Mr John Edward*, 36, who was once addicted to sex says he never thought he had a problem with sex instead, he thought he was just 'living life to the fullest', exploring his sexuality, and having a good time. But then things started to unravel as he noticed that he was constantly thinking about sex to the extent that he couldn't go a day without it.

“I couldn't focus on anything else and it was taking over my life. It was like a constant need, a desire that I couldn't control. It felt like I was never satisfied, no matter how much I indulged in it," he explains.

He reveals he couldn't maintain a healthy, intimate connection with anyone because he was always looking for the next sexual encounter.

“It was damaging my self-esteem, my mental health, and my overall well-being. I knew I had a problem, but I didn't know how to stop,” he says. He reveals that it was incredibly difficult for him to talk about his addiction to sex because of the deeply ingrained cultural taboos surrounding sexuality in the country.

“Sex is kept as a closely guarded secret, and any discussion of it is met with shame, judgment, and contempt. Admitting to having a sex addiction was not only embarrassing, but it also felt like I was betraying my community and family," he says.

“Seeking help for my addiction seemed impossible. I struggled in silence for far too long (three years), and it has taken a lot of courage to finally break free from the stigma and shame and seek the help I needed."

He shares that he was very hesitant but it turned out to be the best decision he could have made when he sought psychological help. "I was able to talk to a psychologist about my addiction. I learned coping strategies and healthy ways to manage my urges. It wasn't easy, and it took nine months of work and I eventually broke free of the behaviour,” he reveals.

He continues: "It was a long and challenging journey, but it was worth it. I finally feel like I have control over my life and my desires. I can enjoy sex in a healthy way without it consuming me."

He adds that he never thought he could overcome his addiction, but with the help of therapy, he was able to break free from its clutch.

Dr Jennifer Raymond, a psychiatrist at Muhimbili National Hospital, Tanzania says one of the main reasons why people keep sex acts in Tanzania a secret is the prevailing conservative cultural and religious beliefs. Sex is often seen as a taboo subject and discussing it openly is considered inappropriate.

“Individuals who are struggling with sex addiction feel ashamed and fear being judged by their families and communities. This fear of social consequences forces them to keep their struggles hidden, making it even more difficult to seek help,” she explains.

She went on to say another factor contributing to the secrecy surrounding sex addiction in Tanzania is the dominant societal narrative that portrays sex as demonic or evil.

“In our country, sex is associated with negative connotations, and those who engage in sexual activities outside of marriage are condemned and disliked.

She says this stigma creates a culture of silence and shame, further isolating individuals who struggling with sex addiction and preventing them from seeking the assistance they desperately need.

Commenting on the line between sex addiction and a healthy relationship with sex, Dr Jennifer explains that the key differentiator lies in the impact of these behaviours on an individual's life.

While it is normal and natural to have a healthy sexual appetite, sex addiction becomes a problem when it starts to have a detrimental effect on a person's personal and professional life.

"Individuals struggling with sex addiction find it difficult to control their sexual impulses and often engage in risky behaviours without considering the consequences," Dr Jennifer shares.

Furthermore, she says the symptoms of sex addiction can vary from person to person, but common signs include an overwhelming preoccupation with sexual thoughts and activities, engaging in multiple sexual partners, excessive pornography consumption, and using sex as a coping mechanism for emotional distress.

“Those who suspect they may be struggling with sex addiction may start to notice an increasing desire for sexual activities, difficulty in controlling these urges, and continued engagement in these behaviours despite negative consequences,” she notes.

However, she says that when most people think of addiction, their first thoughts are of substances like drugs or alcohol. Addiction can take many forms, and one of the most commonly misunderstood and stigmatised is sex addiction.

On the other hand, a medical doctor from Aga Khan Hospital, Dar es Salaam, Dr Abduel Kitua says sex addiction is a complex and often misunderstood condition that can have serious consequences on a person's mental and physical well-being.

“Some individuals may notice that they are addicted to sex when they find themselves unable to stop engaging in sexual activities despite negative consequences, such as ignoring responsibilities, engaging in risky behaviour, and experiencing emotional distress,” he shares.

On top of that, a psychologist and an assistant lecturer at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (MUHAS), Mr Isaac Lema says that individuals who are addicted to sex may notice that their engagement in sexual activity starts to interfere with their daily life and responsibilities.

“They may also find that they are constantly seeking out new sexual experiences and are unable to find satisfaction. Also, they may experience feelings of shame and guilt related to their sexual behaviour,” he says.

He went on to say the negative effects of not getting help for sex addiction can be severe and far-reaching. Individuals may experience a breakdown in relationships, a decline in mental health, and a fall in their overall quality of life.

“Unchecked, sex addiction can lead to risky sexual behaviour, emotional distress, and a sense of disconnection from oneself and others,” he says.

He adds: “It is crucial for those struggling with sex addiction to seek support as soon as possible.

On her part, Dr Jennifer says: "People who are addicted to sex may experience feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. They may also struggle with maintaining healthy relationships and may isolate themselves from others. Sex addiction can also lead to risky sexual behaviors and potential exposure to sexually transmitted infections.”

How to break the habit

Dr Jennifer says breaking the habit of sex addiction often requires professional help and support. Therapy and medication may all be part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

“It's important for individuals struggling with sex addiction to seek help from a qualified mental health professional who can help them understand and address the underlying issues contributing to their addiction.

“Breaking the pattern of sex addiction is a difficult but essential step towards healing and a healthier, more balanced life,” she reveals.

She says the most crucial step to breaking the habit of sex addiction is to acknowledge and accept that there is a problem.

“In our society, there is a great deal of shame and embarrassment surrounding issues related to sex, and admitting to an addiction can be particularly difficult," she says, adding that seeking help and support is the best way to begin the process of recovery.

“Therapy can help individuals identify the underlying causes and triggers for their behaviour, as well as providing tools and coping strategies to manage and overcome the addiction,” she explains.

On top of that, Mr Lema says therapy, specifically cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), can be beneficial in helping individuals understand and change patterns of behaviour related to sex addiction.

He also says that another important step in breaking a sex addiction is to establish healthy boundaries and routines.

“This might include setting limits on the amount of time spent engaging in sexual activity, as well as finding alternative, healthier activities to fill the time previously dedicated to the addiction," he explains.

He adds: “Building a new routine and finding other outlets for emotional and physical fulfillment is essential to breaking the addiction.”

Additionally, he says it’s essential to address any underlying mental health issues that may be contributing to the addiction.

“Depression, anxiety, and trauma are common co-occurring conditions with sex addiction, and seeking treatment for these issues can help to reduce the frequency and intensity of the addiction," he shares.

On his part, Dr Kitua says: “By acknowledging the problem, seeking therapy, establishing healthy boundaries and routines, and addressing underlying mental health issues; individuals can begin to break free from the clutch of their addiction and move towards a healthier, more balanced life.”  He adds: “It is essential to destigmatise sex addiction and create a safe and supportive environment for those struggling with this issue to seek the assistance they need.”

Having gone through the hard but necessary work to overcome his sex addiction, John still finds it difficult to speak about his experience because of our social construct.

After having gone through therapy, he shares that he tried to speak about it with his friends and peers but quickly realised that he was the butt of all their jokes.

Sadly, this discouraged him, and the aftermath is one of the many reasons why addicts shy away from seeking help. As a people, we must be able to create safe spaces for those amongst us who struggle with a sex addiction; the challenge to us then is how exactly can we change the negative perceptions around sex?