2021 – What is Your Favourite Dessert?

Many clients at Phoenix have a fear of being touched intimately so part of trauma therapy is about developing safe boundaries, enabling clients to be comfortable in their own bodies, and processing childhood sexual abuse memories so they are empowered and have good self-worth. However, there are also clients that present with concerns of compulsive sexual behaviours (CSB) who feel ashamed of regularly seeking out sex workers, watching pornography, and/or going to sex clubs.

Silva Neves is an expert psychotherapist, specialising in sexology, relationships, and trauma. In his book and training course he dispels some of the myths about CSB and gives a helpful therapeutic framework to treat CSB. He starts by asking us to consider our favourite dessert and as you explore in detail the type of dessert that brings you pleasure and note the associated body sensations, when, where, and who it tastes best with, you begin to paint a unique picture of your dessert preferences that can change over a lifetime depending on influences and experiences, and so it is for one’s Erotic Template. There is no normative standard for sexual activity even if it appears uncommon, somebody’s peak turn on can be somebody else’s disgust, and monogamy is not the gold standard, but rather we all have our own unique sex preferences. To understand a person’s Erotic Template is the start of being able to understand what is and importantly what is not problematic compulsive sexual behaviours.

 Many clients come to Phoenix feeling shame for their CSB and believe they should try and stop these behaviours so it useful to share the erotic equation:

  • Attraction + Obstacle = Excitement.

This equation can help clients see when they try to refrain from thinking about their sexual fantasies or stop unwanted sexual behaviours their sexual longing only increases. It is also a desire equation as Neves reminds us during the pandemic when toilet roll supply was low there were fights in the aisles to get at what we couldn’t have.

 To guide our clients in understanding their erotic world Neves sites Jack Morin (The Erotic Mind-(1995) using the ‘four cornerstones of eroticism’:

  1. Longing and anticipation – The feeling of waiting can increase the temperature of the meeting.
  2. Violating prohibition – The forbidden is more delicious and can be cultural e.g seeing an ankle where everybody is covered up.
  3. Searching for power – This isn’t just for BDSM community but includes power role play such as manager and employee, Doctor and patient.
  4. Overcoming ambivalence – Wanting what is not in accordance with your values can be exciting e.g., Cuckolding, sexual arousal from their partner having sex with someone else.

Neves then talks about ten erotic boosters including touch, fantasy and environment, and somatic pathways which add to the depth of an Erotic Template. With a fuller understanding of a client’s Erotic Template Neves explores the six principles of sexual health:

  1. Consent
  2. Nonexploitation
  3. Protection from HIV, STIs and unwanted pregnancy
  4. Honesty
  5. Shared values
  6. Mutual Pleasure

Using this sexual health lens helps clients to explore where there may be breaches and what this means to them e.g., if a client has a consensual non-monogamy need, they must make sure they find someone with the same need and values. It can also be a point of honesty, negotiation, and compromise with a person agreeing to their partner cross-dressing when they are out of the house.

 Neves helps us to realise that CSB thrive in not knowing, avoidance, and shame which is perpetuated by myths of CSB including:

  • CSB is not the same as an addiction and to suggest a person should stop or refrain from their sexual behaviours will only increase the likelihood of wanting to do the behaviour, not less.
  • Neves goes into detail evidence of how compulsive watching of pornography and masturbating does not cause a bad society, induce erectile dysfunction, lead to sexual violence towards women or cause relationship problems, but that the problem is the shame people feel about watching porn or masturbating to it, so by normalising these behaviours clients can be free of guilt and depression. For a client of mine watching porn and masturbating was the way he had learnt to sooth his negative emotions, and so we worked to look at other ways to self-soothe so he had a range of coping strategies.

 When a client’s Erotic Template has been explored and understood in the context of the above framework, it can be helpful to explain how CSB are driven by:

  • Impulsion – the moving towards pleasure and then followed by the
  • Compulsive behaviours that are driven by a desire to reduce unpleasant emotions caused by chronic stress.

Rather than trying to stop the repetitive behaviours, we work with the client to identify what is underneath the compulsivity, which for many Phoenix clients it is unresolved childhood sexual trauma, but it is also useful to explore all current areas of their life that can cause and maintain chronic stress e.g., work, health, family, finances etc.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be a treatment to process underlying trauma but Neves stresses that one must not treat a client’s sexual behaviours or sexual desires as this is like doing conversation therapy. The target for treatment is the client’s core negative belief and associated trauma memory that maintains their sexual compulsive behaviours e.g., ‘I am inadequate’ associated with child sexual abuse by grandfather to his 6-year old grandson.

I think Neves’s work is an important contribution to trauma counselling as it helps us move past the stigmatising addiction model and unrealistic goals of sexual abstinence and it opens up a dialogue and education about people’s different sexual pleasures. If we embed this approach with teachings on consent and respect, we can help clients to normalise their sexual practices and identify and attend to the root cause of their chronic stress issues.


References: – Silva Neves (2021) Compulsive Sexual Behaviours A Psycho-Sexu­al Treatment Guide for Clinicians

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