7. Intimacy-focused step work

Some of us have experienced the avoidance of sex as addictive, in some cases choosing to identify as “sexual anorexics”…afraid of sex because of its association in our minds with our addiction or with past sexual trauma, or because of a fear of intimacy and vulnerability. Trying to control our sexuality in this way is just another symptom of our disease. The solution lies in turning our will and lives over to the care of our Higher Power.

— Sex Addicts Anonymous, p. 72

Return to ISA landing page

7.1    How is step work focusing on intimacy avoidance different than working steps on recovery from acting out?

Traditional step work in SAA is likely to focus on the powerlessness and unmanageability of ‘acting out’ behaviors such as ‘promiscuity, infidelity, compulsive masturbation, prostitution, sexual assault, molestation, and exhibitionism.’ (Intimacy Avoidance – Another Aspect of Sex AddictionSome people, however, want to examine their behavior that serves to avoid or block sexual, emotional, or spiritual intimacy with others, ourselves, or our Higher Power.” (First Step to Intimacy – A Guide for Working the First Step on Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance or Sexual Anorexia

For more information on step work, see 12.7.

For more information on sponsorship and Step Study groups, see 7.4.

7.2    Why work the steps focused on intimacy avoidance?

  • to learn how to cultivate connection and relationship before becoming sexual

Once we were sober from our acting out, many of us were unsure how to handle feeling attracted to someone.  Some of us shut off our sexual thoughts and feelings in order to abstain from acting out, and could not imagine a healthier sexual expression.  Or, we had no idea how to get to know someone and build a relationship of trust before becoming sexual with them. 

Working the Steps focusing on intimacy helped us cultivate a deeper trust and connection with ourselves, our Higher Power, and others. We cultivated intimacy with ourselves by experiencing our emotions with curiosity and compassion, and expressing them in ways that promote unity and understanding.  Others felt safer to share thoughts and feelings with us because we were less judgmental and more empathetic.  We learned to take time to move through various stages of intimacy when getting to know someone.  This work strengthened the foundation for us to be able to interact in healthier, more sober ways with people we found physically attractive.

  • to heal from emotional, social, and spiritual deprivation

For some of us, acting out sexually was a symptom of our sexual anorexia.  We could use our sexuality like a drug, but we were powerless over our inability to allow emotional and spiritual closeness with our sexual partner.  Others of us felt “shut down” sexually, or alternated between acting out and “acting in.” (link to Tile #3)

Upon further examination, most of us realized we were also anorexic in social, emotional, and spiritual ways.  We may have had difficulty leaving the house or doing other activities besides work.  We deprived ourselves of nurture and care.  We may have denied, repressed, suppressed, or medicated uncomfortable feelings.  Even for those of us who didn’t act out with others sexually, the shame and isolation of our avoidant lifestyle became so painful that we sought help through the Twelve Steps of SAA.  In recovery, we focused on getting to know and love ourselves and cultivating a closer relationship with our Higher Power.  With this healing came the courage to venture out and begin connecting with others in safe and healthy ways.

  • to move from shutdown to a healthier sexual expression

A number of us assumed that staying sexually sober meant abstaining from sex for the rest of our lives.  Though some make that choice and are happy with it, others of us found that we lacked a sense of joy or fulfillment when we denied ourselves of sexual pleasure.  Yet, we were unsure how to start experiencing healthier sexuality without acting out. 

Our intimacy step work helped us view ourselves and our past through a new lens, releasing us from unhealthy thinking and choices that didn’t serve us.  We learned how to take better care of ourselves and treat ourselves with gentleness and respect. Once we started getting in touch with what was going on inside us, we began to have greater trust in our intuition and became more aware of how our Higher Power works with us.  We learned how to live in the present instead of obsessing about the past or worrying about the future.  Our capacity to observe uncomfortable emotions without changing or suppressing them increased. Our self-confidence grew as we practiced receiving and following guidance from our Higher Power.  We deepened our emotional connections with others and learned when and how to set appropriate boundaries. Before long, with the help of our Higher Power, some of us were able to combine emotional, spiritual, and sexual intimacy in a way we’d never experienced before.        

Working the steps with the focus of recovery from intimacy avoidance and/or compulsive sexual avoidance (sexual anorexia) made it possible for a number of us to move from a kind of superficial abstinence into deeper sobriety” (Intimacy Avoidance – Another Aspect of Sex Addiction).

7.3    Should I work the Twelve Steps traditionally (focusing on acting out) before working them with the focus of recovery from intimacy avoidance?

There are many ways to work the Twelve Steps of SAA. Some of us found that it was helpful to work the steps on acting out when working them for the first time. Then we worked the steps again with the focus of intimacy avoidance recovery. If we had previous experience with the steps, some of us incorporated intimacy-related questions or exercises into our traditional SAA step work. A sponsor or others in recovery helped guide us in those decisions.

7.4    Sponsorship

Most people work the steps with a sponsor or accountability partner.  However, recovery from intimacy avoidance is still relatively new in this fellowship, and there are not many SAA sponsors with experience in working the steps with this focus.  Here are some ideas if a sponsor with experience in intimacy and sexual avoidance (ISA) is difficult to find in your area.

  • Ask an open-minded sponsor

Some of us asked an SAA sponsor who, though unfamiliar with avoidance, was willing to help us work the steps with this focus drawing on their own experience, strength, and hope.  Draft literature is being written to help people in this situation.  For more information,

  • Long-distance sponsor

Many of us have successfully worked with a sponsor from another area of our country or another part of the world by using electronic means to communicate regularly about step work.

  • Co-sponsorship

Others of us worked the steps together with a fellow member, forming a co-sponsorship relationship with a program friend. We shared what we were learning about the spiritual principles of recovery and were accountable to each other as we put those principles into practice in our lives.  For more information on co-sponsoring, see page 10 of January-February, 2021 (Volume 15, issue 1) edition of The Outer Circle newsletter.

  • Step Study Groups

Another option is joining an ISA step study in which members work the Twelve Steps of SAA with the focus of recovery from intimacy avoidance and/or sexual avoidance as a group.  Typically, participants are invited to complete assignments and meet weekly with a sharing partner, as well as attend a weekly group video meeting. These groups typically meet for six months.  The group approach for working the SAA Twelve Steps has been a creative alternative for some of us, giving us the opportunity to develop trust within a group setting.

Please let the Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance Awareness Committee know if you would like to be informed when the next ISA step study begins,

For more information, see FAQ # 12.13

7.5    SAA Resources for intimacy avoidance step work

To read the Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance Newcomer Information Document, Literature Committee approved November 8, 2020, click here. (This is a Google doc.  Can we put the Word/PDF document on another page and link to it here?)

Intimacy Avoidance – Another Aspect of Sex Addiction

First Step to Intimacy – A Guide for Working the First Step on Intimacy and Sexual Avoidance or Sexual Anorexia

Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA basic text, sometimes referred to as the “green book”)

Recordings of intimacy and sexual avoidance-related convention workshops are available in the ISO online store. Look for titles with words such as intimacy, sexual anorexia, avoidance, intimate, healthy sexuality, etc.

Articles in the SAA bi-monthly newsletter, The Outer Circle, that talk about intimacy and sexual avoidance or sexual anorexia can be found at https://saa-recovery.org/news-events/saa-newsletter/

For questions or support regarding intimacy and sexual avoidance recovery, contact the ISA Awareness Committee at avoidance@saa-recovery.org or call them at 724-2HEARTZ (724-243-2789)

Return to ISA landing page