Healthy Sex In Recovery: What Does It Mean?

by Guest Blogger, Rose Lockinger

Sex is a complicated issue and there is a lot of variability as to what is normal.  Prior to drug addiction or alcohol addiction, people may struggle with sexuality; what constitutes healthy sex, and what their feelings about sex are. There are many reasons that contribute to this confusion around this issue: perhaps sex wasn’t talked about at home, perhaps sexual abuse occurred, or perhaps sexuality was considered immoral or “dirty” due to religious or cultural beliefs.

Sex in Addiction vs. Sex in Recovery

Addiction has a significant impact on our behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs about sexuality-- for many reasons. Sex is often used as a means to support addiction, or a way of getting others to give the addict drugs, and drug use can lead to erratic behaviors, which can lead to sexual violence and abuse.   It is common for addicts to feel guilt and shame around drug use, sexual behaviors, and habits, which can lead to body issues and low self-esteem.  They also lead to a lack of boundaries and fear of intimacy, which adds to the confusion and frustration. By the time a person gets into recovery, sex and sexuality is often seriously distorted.

What Happens When You Get Sober?

When someone gets sober issues around sex and sexuality are not automatically resolved, and for some, may seem more difficult to cope with. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Sober Sex Can Feel Scary

It is not uncommon for people to become sexually active around the same time they begin using alcohol and drugs. This is partly because both tend to occur in adolescence, and partly because drug and alcohol use often leads to premature sexual activity. The problem is that the person who becomes an addict may rarely or possibly never experience sex when sober, which is why sober sex can lead to feelings of awkwardness, inadequateness, and intense fear.  

Trauma and PTSD are real issues

A recent study stated that up 70% of people entering treatment for substance use had experienced trauma, and many in early recovery have experienced trauma and PTSD as a result of sexual violence.  If left unaddressed childhood sexual abuse and other issues may lead to continued substance abuse. Sexual violence can range from sexual assault at the hands of strangers and acquaintances, to sexual violence within a relationship. When entering recovery trauma creates challenges to staying sober, but can also contribute problems in new relationships. It is strongly advised that individuals seek support in order to heal from their past experiences. Some treatment centers offer EMDR which helps with PTSD and trauma.

Lack of boundaries creates bad relationships and unhealthy sexual relationships

Boundaries are a common issue for newly recovering people. Active addiction creates unhealthy and unsafe behaviors that don’t just go away when you stop using. Some examples of poor boundaries include:

  • Having unprotected sex
  •  Engaging in sexual activity when you don’t really want to
  • Using sex as a means to gain love, affection and approval
  • Engaging in sexual behaviors you don’t feel comfortable with because you feel     unable to say no
  •  Alternately, it also creates abusive and predatory behaviors, such as: Coercing, intimidating or manipulating people into having sexual relations
  • Not taking no for an answer
  • Ridiculing, spreading rumors, bullying or other forms of sexual harassment Using sex to manipulate or control people

 Using Sex as a Substitute

Addiction isn’t just about drugs or alcohol. It can manifest itself in a variety of ways. It’s not uncommon for the newly recovering person to quit using and then find other ways to feed their addiction. Common replacements include food, shopping, gambling, working, exercise...and sex.

Acting out sexually has consequences. It can create additional guilt and shame, damage self-esteem and create wreckage.

Difficulty with real intimacy

Most people long for a romantic connection, lifelong love and meaningful relationships. The problem is that many of us are ill-equipped to actually create these things. It takes time to undo years of damage, and to learn the skills of communication, respect, honesty and openness necessary to actually have those relationships. Yet, we tend to barrel, head first, into relationships that we have no idea how to manage, searching for our soulmate, only to be disappointed time and time again, or worse, to end up relapsing over heartbreak or unhealthy or abusive relationships.

Real intimacy is a challenge for addicts who have repeatedly been hurt, who have built up sturdy walls to keep themselves safe, or who don’t know how to have a real, honest relationship, because they don’t even really know what that looks like.

So, what does healthy sex In recovery look like?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, because each person is different and has a different story, different needs and different values.

At its most simplistic, one could say that healthy sex in recovery is consensual sex that doesn’t violate either party’s personal values, that doesn’t manipulate, harm or cause wreckage. In other words, a real, adult relationship based on love and respect, not fear-based self-centeredness. But how does this happen? It takes work, and patience.

Doing the work necessary to allow yourself to get to a place where healthy relationships are possible is not easy, but it’s so worth it!

Consider temporary celibacy

This is something that is strongly advised in early recovery. We are told to “avoid relationships.” Some people take this to mean “avoid relationships, but casual sex is fine.” The idea of being celibate, even for a brief time, is often met with alarm. We want what we want, and we want it now! Fear of missing out tends to drive many recovering addicts to act without regard to consequences. Impulse control also plays a part. But, there are huge rewards to reap when you take a break from sex, and romantic relationships, including:

  •  You get a chance to actually work on yourself.
  •  You are less likely to harm yourself or others.
  • You are more likely to maintain long-term sobriety.
  • You are more likely to attract a quality relationship when you do decide to start dating again
  • You will quickly find that exercising these boundaries increases your overall self-esteem, self-worth and self-trus t.

And, here’s the deal: You aren’t going to miss out on anything. Sex, relationships and love will still be there, so don’t worry.

Work on you!

et help for yourself. Yes, participating in recovery, working steps and the help of a sponsor and support group can work wonders, but there are some issues that do require some outside help in the form of therapy. If you have been sexually abused or assaulted, or have other unaddressed trauma, or behavior patterns that you just can’t quite shake, know that they won’t just fade away with time. Do yourself and any future partners a favor and get some help.

Figure out what you want

If you have never entertained this seriously, it’s time to. What do you want? Often, people get so hung up on trying to be everything to everyone else and trying to please others that they never even bother trying to figure out what they want, what they need and just as important, what they don’t want. Take your time and explore this.

Don’t compare yourself to others

This is a dangerous trap. What seems to work for someone else may not work for you. Take the time to find out what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what others are doing. Some people are more naturally open and free with their bodies, some are more reserved. Some don’t get as emotionally attached, and some do quickly. Some people aren’t interested in monogamy. One person may be excited about the prospect of finally exploring their sexuality, while the next person may benefit from a period of extended celibacy in order to give their attention to other areas of their lives. Some may need more time to heal, and some may bounce back quickly. You are an individual, and it’s important that you respect your journey.

Be kind to yourself

Learn how to be content and comfortable with yourself. Do things that inspire confidence, self-worth and self-trust. Don’t depend on outside validation from others, it will never fulfill you.

Here’s the good news: Healthy sexual relationships when you are in recovery will be a completely new experience and worth waiting for. You are completely present in the moment.  It’s also important to note, that wow, you will be able to feel the whole process both physically and emotionally. You can have the open, honest, satisfying and intimate connection you’ve always been searching for.  First you have to work on you, get the healing you deserve and need, so that your past does not become your future again!

Rose Lockinger is passionate member of the recovery community. A rebel who found her cause, she uses blogging and social media to raise the awareness about the disease of addiction. She has visited all over North and South America. Single mom to two beautiful children she has learned parenting is without a doubt the most rewarding job in the world. Currently the Outreach Director at Stodzy Internet Marketing.

You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, & Instagram.





Shannon Egan

Shannon Egan is an author, international journalist, and advocate for addiction recovery. Despite training as a writer on humanitarian issues for the United Nations, Shannon prefers sharing her personal stories of addiction and recovery to infuse hope in those still struggling and spread the message that recovery is possible.