We Are Sex Addicts: 6 Distinctly Un-Sexy Realities
For anyone famous enough that getting caught sticking their pants-parts in places they shouldn't is grounds for a press conference, the go-to tactic is tearfully admitting that they Have A Problem. Some are dignified enough to carry on the time-honored tradition of blaming it on the booze, but more and more (Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, Charlie Sheen, the list goes on and on) have taken the novel route of claiming that they're addicted to sex.
"Oh, sure!" the public inevitably responds. "And I called in sick to stand in line for Half-Blood Prince because of my wizard addiction. Oops, I just socked you in the face! Damn my punching addiction!" But according to people who study this sort of thing, three to six percent of the general population is said to exhibit some kind of compulsive sexual behavior -- regardless of whether or not those celebrities are bullshitting us.
So what is it like for these regular folks who can't retreat to a glorified spa for six weeks and be absolved of all their sins? We spoke to several of them, and the reality is nowhere near as sexy as what you're imagining. In fact, let's start there ...
It's A Lot Less Fun Than It Sounds
It's easy to look at a famous actor or athlete crying "sex addiction" and think, "Gee, what is this horrible disease that's causing him to have sex with so many beautiful women, and how can I catch it?" But for a regular person with those compulsive urges, having sex is less like enjoying a glass of fine Scotch and more like rushing to a convenience store at 3 a.m. to dump armloads of MD 20/20 into your cart. It's only pleasurable in the sense that it's pleasurable to scratch an angry rash. "I can't think of a way to describe how incredibly powerful this urge is," Oliver says. "It's not like how normal teenagers think about sex; it's an overpowering 'I don't think I can function without doing this.' Drug addicts talk about this a lot. 'What's the thing that could lead you to screw over your mother?' That's what it's like."
The gist of which you bottle up instead of exposing yourself to the worst pillow talk of all time.
So after losing his virginity to a prostitute, "because I couldn't fucking stop it," he "started going out and having sex with anyone who would sleep with me -- which, when you're 15, is not a great idea. So what I would do is end up sleeping with a lot of older men." Did we mention he didn't identify as gay at the time? "I didn't want to. I could feel it shrieking in my head, 'I DON'T WANT TO DO THIS,' but it was almost like a dissociative state ... I was 21 before I said 'No' to someone I didn't want to sleep with."
To understand how this is different from simply having a high sex drive and poor impulse control, ask yourself: How hard up would you have to be to have sex with someone who isn't the slightest bit attractive to you, or even your preferred gender? But in a world full of people who are desperate to get laid, good luck getting anyone to feel sorry for you. As another source, Erica, says, "It would be multiple guys in one day or in the same week, or I'd be walking 20 minutes across town to give this guy a blowjob, and my friends thought it was funny, because it's like, 'Oh you have this harem of men.' I was never the one that they really wanted, so when they would leave, I would cry and do things like self-harm, and I felt so guilty and dirty. I don't even know why I kept doing it, but I did."
When sex leaves you lonelier than when you started, you're officially doing it wrong.
Unlike pretty much every other kind of addict, the fun parts of sex -- that nice crotch-warming tingly feeling -- often have nothing to do with it. "There were plenty of times where I ended up having sex with somebody because I had to," says Brian Whitney, who has written multiple books centered around the theme of dysfunctional sexuality, which he is all too familiar with. "It wasn't about how badly I wanted to have sex with this person; it was just this ritual. There were plenty of times when I didn't want to have sex at all." And like with any other addiction, you can build up a tolerance, needing more and more merely to get back to baseline. "I would masturbate like four or five times a day, no matter how much sex I was having," Brian goes on. "We would have sex, and then they would wake up and catch me beating off like 20 minutes later."
There Are Some Weird Psychological Mechanisms Behind It
The psychological field isn't really sure what to do with sex addiction. It's been added to, removed from, and had numerous asterisks applied to it in various versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders over the years. Most scientists believe that sex becomes addictive the same way video games or gambling do -- you get that dopamine rush and the reward centers of our brain light up, until it gets to the points that you feel like shit if you're not doing it. Except other studies have shown that the brains of sex addicts don't behave that way at all. Except still other experts insist that, given what we've already told you, telling sex addicts their behavior is controllable is kind of like telling them they have the power to stop bullets, brain scans be damned. What the possible hell could be going on here?
"You have what we in the field call a ..." *shrugs*.
We're no scientists, but our sources did give us some potential insight. One obvious factor is past sexual trauma. It might seem like a weird reaction to deal with being violated by repeatedly violating yourself, but people deal with trauma in all kinds of different ways. Some eat ice cream, some leave nasty comments on Internet articles, and some bone the pain away. "I'm sure if I had a wonderful father, I wouldn't have been a sex addict, but I think that sets it off," says Sue William Silverman, author of the memoir Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction. "It was a way to be numbed out, a way to avoid feelings. There were several reasons I numbed out, and being fully obsessed with this man or that man meant I didn't have to look at the real problems I had. When I was married, it meant I didn't have to look at the state of my marriage."
As another source, Seth, puts it, "The abuse was just kind of this explosion that fucked up the trajectory of my normal life, and then it became really easy to use sex to get around and get through life. I felt like I physically enjoyed [the sexual abuse], so I must be evil ... so I figured I'm going to just be evil." Meanwhile, Erica simply felt so worthless that having sex was the only way to feel good about herself. All three agreed that it wasn't really about sex; it was about having power over another person. That feeling is incredibly addictive when you normally feel powerless, but it's so far removed from the physical act that it's not surprising it doesn't show up on a brain scan while you look at wangs.
"Either they didn't get as excited by pornography as we thought, or they were REALLY into the calibration screen."
But then there are others who have no trauma in their pasts, and that's where it gets really interesting. They suspect (as do some researchers) that their form of sex addiction may simply be an unusual symptom of an underlying disorder, such as OCD. Some people wash their hands until they bleed, some people blow strangers. "I have anxiety disorder ... and I would use [sex] to ease my anxiety," Brian says. "All I would do is plan it, think about it, run it through my head, and think about the conquest."
"I noticed things in me that I didn't notice in other sex addicts," Oliver says. "I have these intrusive thoughts, different from normal because I'll, like, think about family. They don't do anything to set it off -- like, my dad won't do anything to make me think he wants to sleep with me -- it'll just pop into my head ... Someone touches me and I'm like 'Huh. They made contact. Why would they make contact? Wait, they did it five minutes ago. Do they want to have sex with me? I don't want to have sex with them,' and now I'm horribly uncomfortable and I can't stop thinking about it. It's there in the back of my head and it itches and it pushes and it pushes."
To the point where ...
You'll Do Dangerous Things to Get Your "Fix"
Most addicts have stories about losing jobs, homes, or loved ones, and sex addiction is no different. It's not hard to see why loved ones go -- spouses are not known to buy "It wasn't my fault! I have a condition that makes me have sex with people who aren't you!" as an excuse. But how can someone sex their way into joblessness and homelessness?
"Every job I've had, I've ended up at least trying to start relationships with everybody, usually succeeding," Brian says. "I was married, having an affair with another woman, and eventually an affair with a third woman, and the first woman found out, so I quit that job. Another job, I was sleeping with my boss and two other women." You'd think that sleeping with your boss would be a good way to keep your job, but it's not such a great way to keep your spouse, resulting in two ex-wives and two houses lost in the divorces. It was the least he could do, really.
Needing a raise to pay for all that alimony might not be a great way to keep the boss, either.
While you may not have to worry about overdosing (science knows of only one such incident, which can be traced to a Poison after-party back in 1988), you can still put your life in danger. Since Oliver found as a 15-year-old boy that the easiest people to get sex from were middle-aged men, he was by definition hanging out with sex offenders. "A lot of them set off my 'This guy could hurt me' alarm, but I did it anyway," he says. Seth's quest for sexual power eventually led him into teenage prostitution. "I was very underage, and you could tell I was a little kid," he says. "It was just sex, and sex was so divorced from my self-worth, and then they would hand me the money and it was like, 'Fuck yeah, you're a nothing and I would have done this for free.' Even if they were a gross old man, I still would have."
Although Erica was above the age of consent during her most chaotic years, her habit of inviting complete strangers into her home did eventually have the obvious consequences. "I moved to Philadelphia with my sister, and I was anxious because I didn't have any sexual contacts to go to in that city. So I'd meet guys online and they would come to my apartment and have sex," she says. "We never went to dinner first or anything. One guy suddenly started trying to choke me during sex, and I was like, 'Okay, I guess I won't call that guy again.' I told my sister, and she got so upset that I would be inviting these violent guys into our house. I moved out, went home, told my parents, and they staged an intervention, and then I was on a plane to Utah."
Where we're reasonably sure sex is illegal on weekdays or after 6 p.m.
That's where she entered the wonderful world of rehab, where things got much, much weirder ...
Treatment Means Completely Avoiding Sexual Arousal
Treating sex addiction is a little different from treating, say, drug addiction, because heroin is not a perfectly healthy part of life for most people. It's more like food addiction -- not something you can effortlessly put down and quit forever. That's why overeaters are instructed to focus on moderating their cravings. But doctors, being doctors, know that sex addicts aren't going to die from a lack of sex, so at least while they're in rehab, they have to squelch their boners by any means necessary. That meant no sex -- or even masturbation -- whatsoever. For 30-plus days. Given that 99 percent of the people reading this couldn't manage that, imagine what it's like for someone who can't even stop long enough not to ruin their lives.
OK, fine. Finish up, come back to this browser tab, and then try to imagine it.
Not only was porn strictly verboten (although, of course, "there's definitely people sneaking in porn," according to Erica), the staff fervently discouraged even thinking sexy thoughts, like a bunch of Bizarro Tinkerbells. This meant essentially cutting yourself off from pop culture. According to Sue, you were not allowed to listen to "overly romantic" music, and "they would get us videos, but they were all basically things 10-year-olds could watch." No Tarantino. No Taylor Swift. That's got to be some kind of human rights violation. Wardrobe was another potential pitfall: "Even in, like, SAA meetings, there was this whole thing about how low your shorts could be, or not wearing open-toed shoes because some people have a foot thing," Brian says.
So not only do you have to give up an addiction, but treatment is from the "Catholic school dress code" playbook.
It seems like that part, at least, could be mitigated by separating genders, as some facilities do for obvious reasons, but aside from the fact that bisexuals would have to be put in solitary, Erica and Sue report that their mixed-gender facilities did them a lot of good. "I became so close just on a platonic level with so many of the men," Erica says. That's a huge step when you've become so accustomed to using them as self-worth dispensers. Sue agrees: "I could see them as more than sex objects -- as friends and people."
But rehab is only the first step. For the rest of your life ...
You Struggle To Adapt To Healthy Sex And Relationships
While Seth is talking about his experiences as an underage prostitute ("I made a lot of money. I was a cute kid," he muses), he bursts out laughing. "That's so fucked up! Why am I talking about this like it was fucking summer camp? I was part of a child sex ring! Why am I reminiscing about this?" It's just one example of how sex addiction, and all the colorful experiences that come with that, radically alters your perspective of the world. "When I'm telling a story and I get to the horrible part, my wife squeezes my hand," he goes on. "Because I don't think of it as a horrible story. I think of it as a funny story, because I've normalized it to such a degree."
Eventually, you notice how no one else has stories that begin with "This is gonna sound kinda kidnappy, but ..."
You read that right: Seth is now a married father of two. You might say that getting there was a bumpy road. "Because I always cheated on everyone, and I cheated with people who would do things that I wanted, I didn't know what normal was. If I didn't get something that I needed, I would find someone who would do it," he says. "It wasn't until I got married that I understood how to negotiate those boundaries." Even so, his wife's conservative desires have proven to be a consistent problem in their marriage: "I felt like what [my wife] wanted was normal, and I was not normal, and that made me feel evil, and then I realized that she was also in no way normal, so what the fuck even is normal?"
But the biggest relationship danger zone, according to Seth, is the dreaded question "How many people have you slept with?" It's a tough one to navigate for even the healthiest couples, and about 10,000 times moreso for someone with such a staggering resume.
For those wondering, the correct answer is always "Exactly as many as you."
"You either lie -- which is the correct choice -- and lump all your partners into these one or two partners that you just have a lot of stories about," he says, "[or you] be honest, which is what I've always been told to do, and say I've had more sexual partners than Wilt Chamberlain, and I've been a hooker. And in all three of my major relationships, it has always frightened and intimidated them, and made them constantly worried about not matching up ... If I could go back and not tell my wife how many people I've had sex with, I would. Easily, I would go back and lie."
For others, life post-recovery can be a sexual awakening unlike anything they ever experienced with randos on Tinder. "I never orgasmed until my first serious relationship post-rehab," Erica says. Her own pleasure wasn't just at the bottom of her sexual encounter checklist; it was never important enough to even jot down. "It wasn't about that [before]; it was all about them and having them revere me." Even though it was clearly game-changing, the fact that this relationship was with an older man who worked in the mental health field made her question her progress. "I wasn't sure if I was still acting out."
"And I can't really ask you, because you're the guy I'm doing it with."
You even start to question things we've all generally worked out by sophomore year of college, like your sexual orientation. It required some serious soul-searching for Oliver, who as we mentioned had been primarily sleeping with men while feeling (at the time) exclusively attracted to women. "I identify as queer, but I struggled immensely with this definition," he says, noting that what this means for him is that he's romantically attracted to women and physically attracted to both. "My attitude used to be that I would sleep with women and nothing but women if I could, but they're so much harder to sleep with. Once I came to terms with what I'm actually attracted to, it's like, if I'm sleeping with a guy, I realize that I don't actually want to sleep with a girl."
He still struggles with intrusive thoughts -- "Sometimes I think about sex so much that I can't have sex," he says -- and the only solutions he's come up with aren't exactly satisfying for anyone. "I have to have a conversation with my girlfriends, like, 'There are going to be times when I'm going to be distracted, and we can either be fine with that, that I'm sort of disconnected, or we can stop,'" he says. "I don't know if I'd be comfortable with a woman who was comfortable with that ... [That's why] I prefer having some kind of substance in me when I'm having sex." He realizes that's a dangerous Band-Aid, but you do what you've gotta do. Because...
You Develop Coping Strategies No One Wants To Know About
For Sue, life after rehab was like entering the universe of They Live, except instead of capitalist propaganda, it's boobs. "I really became aware of all the sexual messages that were reinforcing me," she says. "Before recovery, it made me feel like I was living how I was supposed to, and after, I was like, 'Oh my god, they're using this to sell cars and laundry detergent' ... The world is so sexualized that it makes it hard to recover."
But you do learn ways to stop yourself from acting out. Oliver distracts himself with video games, and it prompted Brian to start writing, because that whole office job situation was clearly not working out for him. "I don't avoid women in general, but I'm not putting myself in situations where I'm surrounded with women all the time," he says. "If I had some job at some insurance company where I had hundreds of women walking around all the time, it would be very difficult for me, sure ... I also have to avoid booze. I still drink, but if I go out and get shitfaced with my friends, that's not a good situation."
When last call comes around and all your friends want to go to Denny's, you don't want to be the one guy drunkenly pushing for a bondage dungeon instead.
But not everyone's tried-and-true strategies are quite so upstanding. "It's a two-pronged attack," Seth says. "The first is that I masturbate every night to increasingly niche porn, or get an orgasm every day at least somehow, because if I go more than a few days without, it becomes more and more difficult not to act out the voices. The other is complete mastery and control of my body in other ways -- so the working out, the running, the punishing my body ... I know my porn use and my need for an orgasm every day is part of [the addiction], but I know if I really gave into my addiction the way that alcoholics just give in, I would be one of those people who have to introduce themselves to their neighbors whenever they move."
That may seem like the sort of thing you don't admit even to yourself, but it would be impossible to overcome otherwise. "It's something that is constant, [but] those signs that are like, 'Hey, rape that stranger' -- those things are really easy to ignore," he continues, not at all reassuringly. "The messages that my brain sends me every day is staggering, but now it's just kind of in the background."
For many -- if not most -- addicts, that's as good as it ever gets.
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