Having Sex in Recovery: A Meeting Between the Sheets
Think about what we’re told about sex and dating when we come into recovery for the first time, and we’re not already spoken for: don’t do it.
That’s pretty much it, right? Maybe someone will drop a line about replacing a drink or a drug with sex, or tell you to be careful, because all matters of the heart and body are huge triggers. Honestly, it’s pretty solid advice. But just telling someone “not to do something” when it comes to sex, whether you’re a teenager or an adult, is pretty much the worst thing we can do to promote their emotional and physical health and safety.
Because….what if you are having sex? Or planning on it? And what if things suddenly become strange or complicated in your relationship once you enter recovery? Chances are you’re kind of nervous to go against your sponsor’s suggestion, and she may not be qualified to walk you through the particulars.
That’s where Jennifer Matesa comes in. While speaking about her third book, The Recovering Body, entire Q&A sessions were full of questions about sex, which was only one chapter in her book. That made one thing clear: we need to talk about sex in recovery. So, she set out to write another book, Sex in Recovery, by interviewing experts alongside people of different ages, genders, races, religions, and lengths of sober time.
“Recovery isn’t just to quit drinking and using, but finding out who we are and what we want, it’s crucial we acknowledge this very alive and healthy part of ourselves,” Matesa says.
Joined by two other women in recovery, Matesa weighs in some of the most important topics we’re not talking about when it comes to sex, whether we’re spoken for, single, or anything in between.
The One-Year Rule
Numerous people reported to Matesa that their 12-step sponsors told them that if they wanted to have sex outside of a committed relationship, they “must be using sex as a drug or a sex addict.” The way Matesa sees it, there are two problems with The One-Year Rule. Firstly, that the timing could be considered arbitrary.
“Some people I talked with only needed five months of celibacy to get clear about what they wanted, and others I talked with needed five years,” she said. “Second of all, celibacy isn’t usually talked about with married people or those in committed relationships, who also might need time off from having sex with anyone but themselves. But how to do that in a relationship?”
Olivia Pennelle, a sober woman who created an online magazine about life and wellness in recovery called Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, initially abstained for about ten months into sobriety, and, after that, “approached relationships like a teenager.”
“It was a reflection of my emotional age at that point. I literally hopped into bed with guys that paid me attention because I still associated sexual attention as connection. I thought, somehow, I was attending to my needs,” said the Portland, Oregon based writer. “I had neither considered the message that sent, nor the poor basis on which a relationship could be founded. Consequently, I felt very hurt and had a number of unsuccessful encounters.”
For Sarah in Cleveland, Ohio, early sobriety left her extremely sexually frustrated and unfulfilled, especially since she felt her sponsor imposed her own views on her in a pretty intense way.
“There was a lot of sexual stigma amongst the people in the program, so I avoided the topic altogether, including with my sponsor, who had more of a conservative view,” she says. “I couldn’t relate to her, and I felt like I was being shamed and bullied for my natural desires, so sex became very confusing early on in recovery.”
Her truth: simply being open about her intent with any given partner helped remove that shame, and reaffirm what she’d always believed about sex being healthy.
“Emotional honesty, in particular, is important,” she says.
To Catch a Predator
Unfortunately, there are “sexual predators” everywhere, not just in the rooms, and contrary to what stigma states, it’s not always a man who’s seeking out this “prey.”
Pennelle believes that the phrase is thrown around “too flippantly,” and that over the past five years, while attending meetings all around the world, she has observed that while guys get the “brunt” of the warning, there are other ways people can be considered “predatory.”
“I have witnessed women coming to meetings in short skirts and low-cut tops. Could that not be considered predatory? The real issue here is using meetings as a place to hook-up, when in fact we should be focusing on our recovery. Having said that, I do feel that we should be mindful of being human beings, with sexual desires.”
While it is expected that people with more time know not to “go near” newcomers during the first year—mainly because their sobriety is largely considered to be more fragile and vulnerable—it takes two to tango.
The first line of defense, says Matesa, is helping new members of the recovery community understand that their newly awakened sexuality might leave them open to sexual advances.
“It’s important to learn our own desires, and to know that we may be giving conflicted signals to people who are clearly interested,” she says. “Blaming the victim is unacceptable, and, at, the same time, one important thing I’ve learned in my recovery is not to identify myself as a victim.”
Change in Sexual Response and Desire
In general, says Matesa, who is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, those who detox from stimulants like cocaine, crack, meth, and Adderall will experience low sexual response, sometimes for many months; people recovering from stimulant abuse need to learn to have a great deal of patience as their dopamine receptors heal and their sexual response reawakens.
“On the other hand, those who abused depressant drugs like alcohol, opiates, and benzos usually find that their sexuality wakes up in detox. I talked with one former heroin user who had spontaneous orgasms without any physical contact whatsoever,” she said. “We feel like we’re 16 years old. If we’re not actually 16, it’s best to act our ages. That means we need to learn how to take care of ourselves, which could include looking for a psychiatrist or a therapist, including a sex therapist, to help us if we don’t understand the changes in our sexual response.”
Also, your sexual response could improve in positive ways, and continue to get better from there; Sarah says that once alcohol was out of the equation, she became a lot more sexually sensitive and enjoyed it a lot more.
“When I did have sex I would enjoy it a lot more and with heightened sensitivity,” she says.
Consider Your Limits
If safety is based on self-knowledge and we understand our sexual limits, we are less likely to allow anyone to breach them, and our behavior will not issue invitations to others to do so.
“That self-knowledge comes from actively practicing the disciplines that lead to recovery: meditation; physical exercise; healthful eating; spiritual awareness; self-inquiry,” Matesa says.
The way Sarah sees it, we could use a lot more support in this area within our recovery communities—she believes that this, along with unconditional love, is key to understanding our motives and desires while in recovery.
“This way, when I decide to have sex, I’ll know it’s an honest desire, I’ll understand it comes from a desire to connect to another human being, and I won’t use or feel used,” she says. ”Even if I screw up and have sex at the wrong time with the wrong person, if I’m practicing recovery, I’ll be able to learn from it. So what changes is my connection with others, and my ability to learn.”
She adds that because we all come from different backgrounds, culturally, religiously and otherwise, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ on the topic, other than learning how to be true to ourselves and living with dignity and integrity when it comes to sexuality.
Fortunately, Pennelle’s sponsors over the years have helped her to discover love,” first in a platonic sense, then in a self-love sense and then with others.”
“They showed me how my actions, sexually, didn’t match my values or my desires in life and they taught me about emotional intimacy, which helped me to keep myself accountable,” she says. “Second to overcoming the addiction itself, this has been my greatest area of development.”
If nothing else, she says, it’s important to be clear about your boundaries and make sure that “it doesn’t affect your recovery, or your commitments.”
“The minute it compromises anything, consider stopping it,” she says.
Know That Hindsight is 20/20
A lot of people Matesa spoke with who had had sex “super early” in recovery wished they had waited a bit longer, since they did ultimately realize that they wanted to date as a distraction from their loneliness instead of learning to live with themselves.
“Because they didn’t know much about who they were, there was no way they could know what they wanted in a partner,” she said. “Because they had so much to learn about how to take care of themselves, there was no way they could take care of a relationship.”
On the other hand, Sarah says that even though she didn’t follow the one-year rule, she stayed sober and has no regrets.
“I stayed sober and have been sexually active from the beginning, however, I have stayed away from having sex with people in AA, because I’ve wanted to keep the program and the people in it only there for the purpose of staying sober.”
Continuing the Conversation
Sarah has only been to one meeting in four years where sex was the topic, and chose to keep to herself because of it. Penelle says that even now, while we are beginning to approach the subject, it feels more like a teetering around the periphery.
“I find that it is kind of brushed under the carpet as a subject that you discuss with your sponsor. When people do talk about it at meetings, it is generally a newcomer,” she said. “I feel like the silence on the one hand increases the shame and taboo around sex, but it also is a method of protecting the vulnerable.”
She continued, “We only talk about these issues when they become a problem, in sex anonymous or sex and love addicts anonymous. NA’s steps do cover relationships, and AA sexual harms. But not everyone undertakes the steps. Not everyone has therapy.”
The consensus among all three women is that there needs to be more open discussion around these issues in recovery in an attempt to make it a less “taboo” subject. In order to do that, Matesa suggests that if you feel like you can’t bring up these matters at ordinary recovery meetings, have a private meeting in your home.
“In an ideal world, we’d be able to take care of our sexuality the way we take care of our skin, teeth, and eyes. We’d learn to recognize when something isn’t right and with relative ease be able to find a practitioner who could help us,” she says. “Sexuality is just another part of us that we can appreciate, another strength that we can use to do our work in the world.”
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