There’s no naughty list on cancelled Christmas, or is there?

You can have any treats this year... unless you want sex.

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This year’s Christmas’ Tesco advert ‘there’s no naughty list’ evokes something profound faced with adversities: emotional soothing through ‘treats’. We have all seen movies with a break-up storyline in which the heartbroken character reaches for the tub of ice-cream or the chocolates in the middle of a pile of tissues. Most of us have been socialised to receive ‘treats’ when we’re feeling down. It is therefore quite normal to discuss comfort eating without raising an eyebrow, especially in the challenging times of a global pandemic cancelling Christmas.

However, it is quite another to discuss soothing ourselves on a bad day with sex. By sex, I mean a variety of activities: masturbation, watching pornography and masturbation, cybersex, sex with committed partner, sex with casual partner and so on. If you say you ate a whole box of chocolate on the cancelled Christmas Day, people would understand and you would probably receive empathy. But if you say you spent the day masturbated to pornography or logged on a cybersex website, you would probably not receive the same empathy; many might even think there’s something wrong with you, maybe you have some dark sexual sickness, like ‘sex addiction’. Indeed, when it comes to sex, there is always a ‘naughty list’ and it is not the sexy kind.

The fact is that soothing difficult and painful emotions through sex is just as good a method as comfort eating and it is one of the many common and functional reasons why people have sex. Yet, it is not talked about because we are not socialised to think that way, and it is loaded with shame.

This usually festive period is going to be very difficult for many people. We are told that the beginning of next year will be equally hard with maintained restrictions. It is not a surprise many people will have turned to sexual activities to soothe themselves. The problem is that they do it in shame, thinking it’s ‘wrong’. For many people, the sense of ‘wrongness’ is reinforced by their partner when they find out about it and take offence that the sexual behaviours did not include them. Some sexual activities can indeed constitute a breach of their agreement and be a betrayal causing chaos in the relationship. But often, it is just about misunderstanding. For example, many people watching pornography do not do so because they’re unhappy in their relationship, yet it is often perceived as a threat.

This January, I’m convinced many people will call therapists asking for help for their ‘sex addiction’ or ‘porn addiction’ because of the shame they feel for soothing their emotions with sex rather than the ice cream.

If it is you, before you make a call, consider this first: watching pornography, masturbating, cybersex or any other consensual sex is not bad or harmful in itself, according to numerous sexology research. In fact, there has never been any adequate evidence that sex and pornography are addictive, which is why the notion of ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ has been consistently rejected by scientific communities.

There is no denying that some people struggle with sex and pornography, but it is not because of an addiction problem, it is because the sexual behaviour is the only method they have to soothe themselves. Just like food, if your only way to feel better is to eat chocolate, you could be eating a lot of chocolate in challenging times, to the point that it might feel out of control, like an addiction, but it is not. The best way to resolve these issues is to add more soothing resources, not to take away your existing one (adding more resources and becoming fully aware of your erotic processes will automatically reduce the compulsive feeling of the sole existing resource).

The ‘sex addiction’ and ‘porn addiction’ programmes are primarily focused on helping you stop unwanted behaviours. There is hardly any good clinical evidence that these programmes are effective. They actually often have poor outcomes, just like diets have poor outcomes, because if you stop doing the one thing that makes you feel better, you will have a strong sense of deprivation, and you will struggle to stop for the long term (by the way, ‘food addiction’ is also a myth). When you ‘fail’ at the addiction programme, you will feel more shame, blame yourself for it, and… feel worse about yourself. In this pandemic time, nobody deserves to feel worse than they’re already feeling.

If your sexual behaviours did betray your relationship commitments, you might definitely feel bad and guilty for hurting your partner. There are many ways that you can learn about your behaviours in a non-shaming sex-positive way so that you can make better future decisions that are aligned with your sexual desires, relationship commitments and values. I recommend psychotherapists who are educated in sex-positive, evidence-based modern sexology such as the graduates from CICS (Contemporary Institute of Clinical Sexology): https://www.theinstituteofsexology.org

 You can also contact me, I’ll be very happy to point you in the direction of good therapists. But for now, if you want some extra tools for soothing your unpleasant emotions and navigate this difficult Christmas, you can head over to my Instagram page: @silvanevespsychotherapy; I posted Self-Care tips throughout November during the second England lockdown (#SelfCareNovember). These tips are obviously good all year round, in any difficult circumstances. Here’s a summary:

  • Connecting with nature
  • Taking a break from social media and news
  • Yoga practice
  • A cup of tea
  • Crying
  • Soothing scent
  • Sexiness
  • Sleeping
  • Connection with friends
  • Pets
  • Quiet
  • Baking
  • Kindness
  • Gratitude
  • Doing nothing
  • Masturbation and orgasms
  • Know your people
  • Music
  • Laughing
  • Accepting bad days
  • Reading
  • Comfort food
  • Sex
  • Talking to yourself
  • Swearing
  • Water
  • Happy Place
  • Breathing
  • Exercise
  • Therapy

 Don’t despair. Your out-of-control sexual behaviour is not an addiction or a disease. It can be resolved with permanent positive change with the right treatment. If sex is one of your ways to soothe yourself, make sure it doesn’t breach the trust of your partner, and indulge, in moderation.

 Take care of yourself in these challenging times.

Silva Neves. Psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist. Accredited by COSRT. UKCP registered.

Psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist. Accredited by COSRT. UKCP registered.