Sexual addiction, like other addictions, is cyclical in nature, with no clear beginning or end and one stage leading to the next and then the next. Generally speaking, there are six distinct stages in the cycle of sexual addiction: triggers, fantasy, ritualization, acting out, numbing, and despair.
Triggers are catalysts that create a need/desire to act out sexually. Emotional and psychological (and sometimes physical) discomfort are common triggers. For instance, depression, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, stress, shame, anger, or any other uncomfortable feeling can trigger a desire to escape into compulsive sexual behaviors. Triggers can be physical as well—seeing a sexy image on a billboard, smelling the perfume of a past sexual partner, etc.
After they are triggered, sex addicts almost automatically slide into sexual fantasy, thinking about how much they would enjoy a sexual encounter either right now or in the near future. When this occurs, they rather quickly become preoccupied to the point of obsession with sex, and pretty much every person they encounter (both in-person and online) is viewed as a sexual object.
Ritualization is where fantasy moves toward reality. Sex addicts log on to the computer and go to their favorite porn site, or they hop in the car and drive to a place where sex workers congregate, or whatever. This stage of the cycle is sometimes referred to as the bubble (or the trance) because addicts “lose themselves” in it. Essentially, when sex addicts are in the bubble their real-world issues and concerns (temporarily) disappear.
It is this stage of the addiction, rather than actually having sex, that provides the escapist high they seek. As such, they typically try to stretch this stage for as long as possible—looking at porn, cruising for casual sex, chatting via webcams, and engaging in other sexualized behaviors for many hours (or even days) before moving to the next stage.
4. Acting out
Most non–sex addicts think that this stage, rather than ritualization, is the ultimate goal of sexual addiction because this is where actual sex and orgasm takes place (either solo or with another person or people). However, as stated above, the fantasy-fueled escape and dissociation of ritualization (getting lost in the bubble) is the real objective. Because of this, most sex addicts try to put off actual sex and orgasm for as long as they possibly can because orgasm ends their escapist high.
After they act out, sex addicts attempt to distance themselves emotionally from what they’ve just done. They justify their behaviors, telling themselves, If my spouse was nicer to me, I wouldn’t need to do this. They minimize their behaviors, telling themselves, Nobody knows I just spent six hours looking at and masturbating to pornography, and nobody got hurt by what I did, so it’s no big deal.
They rationalize their behaviors, telling themselves, Hooking up with people online for mutual masturbation isn’t really cheating because I don’t actually touch the other person and I don’t even give that person my real name.
Eventually, numbing dissipates. And when it does, sex addicts feel ashamed, remorseful, anxious, powerless, depressed, etc. Unfortunately, these are the same feelings that triggered their addictive cycle in the first place. As such, Stage 6 spins the self-perpetuating loop right back to Stage 1.
Happily, the stages of the sex addiction cycle can be identified, and when addicts learn to recognize where they are in the cycle they can better intervene, stopping their addiction and preventing further consequences. The easiest places to stop the cycle are the trigger and despair stages.
If and when sex addicts learn to recognize their emotional discomfort (and other triggers), they can engage in contrary actions designed to stop their sexual fantasies before they escalate to ritualization and acting out, and deal with their unwanted uncomfortable feelings (and other triggers) in an emotionally healthy way—reaching out to others, going to a 12-step meeting, meditating, etc.