Why We Should Talk about Sex

Article excerpt

A California program allows for frank discussion of the link between sexual and substance-using behaviors

Individuals entering addiction treatment are usually asked a lot of questions as part of the initial assessment process. Family history, alcohol and drug use, employmenr and criminal justice involvement are routine data elements used to build a profile of the new client. Many treatment units also seek information about sexual practices, but often limit this information to questions designed to determine the clients risk for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/ AIDS.

For example, federally funded programs that utilize the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) data collection instrument ask about the nature of sexual contacts in the past 30 days (i.e., vaginal, oral, or anal), and follow up with additional questions about whether the contacts were unprotected, were with an injection drug user, or were with someone who is HIV-positive or has AIDS.

We know that many individuals entering treatment are conflicted about sexual activities and behaviors in which they have engaged. We also know that shame is a key component in initiating and perpetuating addiction to drugs and alcohol. We are beginning to understand that without addressing problematic sexual behavior and the shame attached, the likelihood of relapse triggered by sexual behavior is high. Despite this linkage, however, traditional treatment procedures tend to avoid the sexual domain.

For example, the Addiction Severity Index (ASI) is perhaps the most widely used questionnaire designed to elicit information from those entering addiction treatment. The ASI includes nearly 200 data elements that cover the medical, employment, drug/alcohol, legal, family and psychiatric domains. Missing are any questions regarding the client's sexual functioning or satisfaction.

Included in the ASI are items of arguably minor significance, such as:

* Have you experienced trouble understanding, concentrating or remembering?

* Have you ever been charged with shoplifting or vandalism?

* With whom do you spend most of your free time?

The AS Is only question about sex asks if the client has been the recipient ol forced sexual advances or acts.

Direct approach

At Stepping Stone of San Diego we have learned that addressing sexual behavior and sexual shame are important elements in providing comprehensive addiction treatment and in laying a solid foundation for long-term recovery. Our experience indicates that a thorough understanding of a client's sexual behavior and psychological "comfort" level with that behavior are as important as understanding the clients drug use patterns, psychosocial triggers and significant relationships.

We thus have adopted a "sex positive" approach to treatment, creating a nonjudgmental environment in which a client is encouraged to explore sexual desires and behavior with the dual goals of eliminating feelings of shame and reducing activities that place the individual at risk. To this end, each client participates in our Discovering Sexual Health in Recovery (DSHR) program, which is designed to explore connections between addiction and sexual behavior. The 1 2-week format includes didactic presentations, personal experiential exercises and facilitated process group interactions leading to the following outcomes:

* An understanding of expectations and boundaries while participating in a treatment/recovery program with a sex positive philosophy;

* Heightened self-awareness about the relationship between one's addiction and the role played by sexual behavior and shame in the development and maintenance of problematic drug and/or alcohol use;

* Comprehensive knowledge about human sexual functioning and the ability to assess levels of risk associated with specific behaviors and activities; and

* A relapse prevention plan that specifically addresses each clients sex/risk profile and incorporates both avoidance and compensatory strategies. …