Interview: Craig Perra - Helping People With Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Craig Perra is a Certified Professional Life Coach on a special mission. A sex mission, so to speak. The adult victim of childhood sexual trauma, Perra found himself mired in a web of sexual habits that were affecting his daily life in myriad negative ways. As a sex-positive person, Perra learned he needed a new approach to his sexual life, without getting moralistic about it or blaming the porn industry. Is sex addiction a myth, as Dr. David Ley posits, or is it a legitimate disorder? Well, for Craig Perra – a friend of Dr. Ley’s – that’s really beside the point.

Talk to me about your background. What led you to become a public voice on the matter of sex addiction?

Sex is a very taboo topic. I’ve struggled with what’s commonly called sex and porn addiction from when I was 8ish years old and an older neighborhood boy showed me porn and used it to lure me into a sexual relationship. This led to a lifetime of lies, porn, strippers, prostitutes, cheating, poor intimacy, and incredibly low self-esteem.

Ultimately, my out of control behavior caught up with me… When I lost my job and almost lost my wife and kids, I decided to stop hiding, embrace my passion and gifts, and start helping others.

My counselor saw my gift in helping others and encouraged me to become a coach to help other men. At first I thought he was crazy, but then I saw the powerful and positive response my wife and I were getting from what started as an anonymous blog and podcast. This led her to the Anderson Cooper Show, and then both of us appeared on Katie Couric.

I also knew that I could do better; I knew that I [could] create a behavior change modality that could drive results quicker than anything that was out there. And that’s exactly what I did. I created a goal-centric, habit based, action oriented modality that isn’t rooted in the disease-based addiction model. It’s rooted in the science of habits, mindfulness, and action. I call it The Mindful Habit Method.

I now work with clients one on one in 15 countries, and recently launched a powerful online program that I believe moves men forward faster than anything out there. I’m honored to be one voice for healthy sexuality and want to remind men that this part of themselves is powerful and needs to be respected and honored from a masculine, power-based perspective.

How do you, personally, define sex addiction?

I don’t. I think human sexuality is too diverse for an objective definition and, as you know, “sex addiction” is not a disorder recognized by the American Psychological Association.

I do believe, though, that our sexuality is one of the most powerful forces inside us and when it’s screwed up, bad things happen — like shitty relationships, underachievement, mediocrity, and malaise at best. It may not be a diseased-based addiction in the technical [sense] but porn can be “addictive.” When you look at sex through a biological, psychological, evolutionary, and spiritual lens it’s easy to see its power. I teach men to use this power to create healthy sexuality and live a great life.

Like I did personally, I empower my clients to find their healthy sexuality. It’s different for everyone and the notion that there is one-size-fits-all is preposterous.

When you were in the throes of your addiction, what was it you were looking for? Would you compare it to the high that a heroin addict seeks?

Sex wasn’t healthy for me when I was in the throes of my compulsive behavior. I sought out sex (and drugs) to escape, to numb, to run away, and for the rush. I loved the pursuit, all my problems went away, and the secrets – I loved my dark little secret fantasy world, until they weren’t secrets anymore.

Yes, I would compare it to the high a heroin addicts seeks, and this is based from my own personal experience, since I’ve used both sex and drugs as unhealthy coping strategies. Here is where I think traditional addictions can give us some guidance because sex and porn can certainly be addictive. This doesn’t make it a diseased-based medical addiction, but we can borrow some tools from the addiction world to help us get control back in our quest for healthy sexuality.

What was your rock bottom?

My rock bottom was when I was fired from my fancy-shmancy high-paying executive job. I was abusing myself, I was abusing drugs, and my sexual behavior was out of control. Work didn’t catch me doing anything. I got fired simply because I wasn’t performing. It got to a place where I could no longer talk my way out of my repeated failures to get shit done. It was obvious that I was struggling to keep it together, so they fired me.

I remember hating my kids for a brief, fleeting moment because they were “keeping” me from acting out sexually. This is when I knew I needed help.

Sometimes substance abuse develops not out of the suppression of a traumatic experience, but out of a predisposition. Some believe it to be genetic. Does genetics or predisposition apply to sex addiction?

I haven’t studied this so I don’t want to guess. I can say personally that I was adopted as an infant and reunited with my birth family in my 30s. I’m now 42. I learned that my biological father was a sex fiend who statutorily raped my biological mother, among many other transgressions. He also struggled, and still struggles, with drug and alcohol addiction. I still have never met this man, but do I think there is a connection? Yes.

Interview: Craig Perra - Helping People With Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Some argue that the words addiction and disorder are misleading terms and that being extremely sexually active and/or obsessed with porn and sex is neither harmful nor life threatening. Where do you yourself draw the lines between an obsession and an addiction and a disorder?

It’s easy for a couple of reasons. First, I don’t care what you call it. Instead of initially focusing on the problematic sexual behavior, which is what everyone wants to talk about when they call, I ask callers how they are performing and succeeding in other important areas of their lives like their career, their relationships, their health, their hobbies, finances, and their spirituality (as they define it). This completely eliminates a debate over whether or not sex and porn is an addiction. “Are you successful? Are you in the aggressive pursuit of a great life? Or are you underachieving? Contently living in mediocrity or worse?”

Second, I don’t draw that line. My clients do. I ask them, “Is your obsession getting in the way of your life and impacting your performance in or out of the bedroom in your relationship?” If the answer is yes, I empower them do something about it in a structured goal-centric way.

I interviewed author and psychologist David Ley, who is a friend of yours, several months ago. He is very outspoken and controversial, having written The Myth of Sex Addiction. So how did your friendship come about and how do you bridge the gap between your experience and his stance?

As a student of human sexuality, I vowed to regularly challenge myself by learning from people who disagreed with me. Early in my career I was in the sex addiction camp (now I’m in my own masculine, goal centric action oriented camp) and David just published The Myth of Sex Addiction. I was incensed. I hated him. I felt like he was mocking my pain and the millions of others all over the world who were struggling to find healthy sexuality.

Then I read his book. Then I called him. Then I had him on my podcast, Sex Addictions and Porn Afflictions. What I found was a deeply compassionate man who had an important message, [which was] human sexuality, even if it feels out of control, does not belong in the disease-based addiction model framework! This helped me a lot personally and professionally. I don’t agree with everything David says because, clearly, out of control sexual behavior is a problem and I think we can all agree that porn is hurting some people — not everyone, but some are struggling in a big way. These are the guys I want to help and I do it without judgment.

How do you define healthy sexuality?

I don’t. My clients do. It’s impossible for me to define it for someone else and wrong for me to project my definition onto them. Healthy sexuality does not exist in a vacuum. It’s different for everyone and must be viewed from each individual’s historical, cultural, religious, psychological, and personal lens. It’s different for everyone so it’s my role to empower my clients to define it, make it, and live it.

I love simple questions and your readers can use these tools to self assess: Is my sexual energy and actions making my life better? Am I happy? Am I living the life I want to lead? Am I acting with integrity and living an open and honest sexual life? Or is my sexuality shrouded in shame and lies? Is porn helping my relationship with the person I love or is it making it worse?

Interview: Craig Perra - Helping People With Compulsive Sexual Behavior

What were the steps you took to face your addiction?

Ironically, I stopped focusing on the “addiction.” I stopped obsessing over the thing I didn’t want to do (in my case excessive compulsive porn and prostitutes), and instead started aggressively moving towards the life I did want. I stopped blaming others for my poor decisions. I owned my shit and took action. I dove into mindfulness and started living in the present.

And guess what? All of this is consistent with the “Golden Rule” of behavior modification. To break a habit you have to make a habit. I found that I accomplished more by moving towards the life I wanted to create for myself instead of running away from the life I loathed. This is one of many reasons why my approach, The Mindful Habit, is so successful.

How do you feel about the porn industry now?

The individuals in the industry I’ve met and spoken too have been smart, open minded, and waking up to the impact that their product is having on so many men and relationships. Heck, porn is cited as a contributing factor in 47% of divorces in the U.S. It’s a serious problem for some people. People are starting to see that.

The industry, I believe, is evolving and beginning to recognize that too much of their product hurts some people. [They] want to help, they just aren’t sure how and they certainly don’t want to say or do anything that’s going to undermine their product. I get that. That’s why The Mindful Habit is such an effective solution because it’s not based on the “porn addiction is a disease model.” It’s grounded in hardcore science, habits, mindfulness, goals, success, healthy sexuality, and action.

And some industry players are taking action. Heck you’re talking to me — that’s a great start. The industry is also smartly realizing that if it doesn’t regulate itself, government will step in. That’s what happened in the UK with mandatory filtering. I’m a strong supporter of free speech so I hope the industry continues to do the right thing by its users, the talent, and kids.

I watched your interview with Katie Couric and you used the term “porn consumption.” I thought “consumption” was an interesting word choice. It feels more illustrative of your experience as opposed to “addiction.” “Consumption,” in this case, not only pertains to the volume of porn you were consuming, but that the behavior associated with sex and sexual trauma was consuming you.

That’s true. It wasn’t just the porn. It was the porn combined with my traumatic lens through which I saw and used the product. I certainly felt consumed. I was numbing and reliving my childhood sexual trauma. And this is true for a lot of men that I work with. Shame and trauma are powerful drivers of unhealthy sexuality and, along with porn, I was consumed by these feelings.

You described your secret life of watching porn as something that felt lonely and sad. Was watching porn ever something you engaged in with your wife, or could it ever be as long as it felt healthy and enjoyable for both of you? Do you abstain from porn completely?

Porn was always a deep dark dirty secret and I didn’t want it to be part of my relationship with my wife. She was willing to try anything to bring intimacy back into our marriage but I wanted my secret all to myself. It simply wasn’t healthy. I don’t watch porn although I have watched erotica and some Game of Thrones with the Mrs. I really want my sexual energy to be directed to my wife. I love her so much and this is something special and fun that we share together.

Interview: Craig Perra - Helping People With Compulsive Sexual Behavior

Sexual imagery is ubiquitous and permeates all aspects of our culture. Is that ever difficult for you to be faced with?

I love a challenge! It’s everywhere. It’s forced me in a good way to redefine my relationship with the human body and sexual imagery.

As men, we can’t run away from it. You’d have to live in a cave to avoid it. We live in a hyper-sexualized culture, yet we’ve preserved our puritanical belief systems as they pertain to sex. We have a cultural split personality, so to speak.

We don’t have to maintain the same sexuality we had as a child where boobs and asses send us into a tizzy and a downward spiral of sexually compulsive behavior. It forces us to ask the question, “Who do we want to be as men? What is our relationship with the human body? And why is it used to sell us products and stuff we mostly don’t need?” Sexual imagery is powerful because sex is powerful.

I choose not to be a slave to a childish relationship with the female body and my sexuality.

Do you consider yourself cured?

If cured means, living a wildly successful, passion filled life with great kids, an amazing wife, awesome friends, cool hobbies, and helping people for a living, then the answer is yes. That being said, I take my sexual health very seriously and recognize in every fiber of my being that the “cure” for this affliction is the aggressive pursuit of a great life. As long as I’m on that path I’m good.

What do you hope to achieve by sharing your story?

There is so much shame and denial surrounding this issue. I want to use my story to help discharge the shame and lead a dialogue of what constitutes healthy sexuality in our hyper-sexualized culture. I want to help men escape from the shame trap and find their own healthy sexuality, free from sexually compulsive behavior, and lead great lives.

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