Like alcohol and drugs, a dependency on sex is the stuff of broken lives.
By Carolyn Campbell
FEBRUARY 23, 1999: In the wedding video his father-in-law shot, Fred doesn't smile or look at the camera. He shifts his gaze and his eyes drift downward. The day that was supposed to be a highlight of his life is among his darkest memories more than 20 years later.
The wedding went according to plan with an LDS general authority performing a Salt Lake City Temple ceremony. But it was Fred's actions the day before the wedding that haunted him. Stressed out by the magnitude of eternal vows he was about to take, Fred "medicated" himself by indulging in the addiction that has plagued him since his early teens. He drove to a park, stopped at a restroom and acted out sexually with a man who is nameless and faceless in his memory. Though Fred doesn't recall whether they had oral sex or the man masturbated him, the shame he felt afterward is still clear in his mind.
John woke on a Sunday morning with an overwhelming urge to buy a pornographic video. He drove two hours to Wendover, where he spent $80 for videos and a pornographic magazine to "hold him over" for the two-hour ride home to his VCR. He'd thrown away pornographic videos and magazines countless times before, telling himself each discard was the last. But he still found himself buying another video every three or four months. His sexual addiction bottomed out when he became suicidal after his girlfriend of two months broke up with him, because he told her about his pornography problem.
Cindy says she "misused" sex within her marriage. "My behavior was out of control. If I was afraid we wouldn't have enough rent money, or if I worried about getting medical care for my sick child, or if someone said something mean, I turned to sex to cope." In the early stages of her addiction, when her marriage was troubled, Cindy "always fantasized a relationship better than the one I was in." One such fantasy included Scott, a neighbor who was kind to her family.
Eventually, after she and her husband separated, Cindy and another neighbor, Ray, planned to "talk to offer each other emotional support" one evening. Cindy brushed aside a gut instinct that warned her about going alone to the divorced neighbor's apartment, she says. Once there, she ignored more "spiritual warnings" to leave. Though she had no intention of becoming sexually involved with Ray, they had intercourse that night. "I was shocked and horrified at my behavior. All I could think was that I had to leave to take care of my children. I knew Ray and I were attracted to each other. If we'd dated and proceeded in a healthy way, we might have had a relationship. Getting together physically so fast destroyed that possibility."
Kathy can relate to Cindy's experience. Her addiction to romantic intrigue started in high school when she "began relying on my boyfriend [because] it felt good to experiment with sex," she says. The two began with kissing and steadily progressed to intercourse by college. Despite repeated tries to sever the relationship, she never broke up with him. In their early 20s, they married because she was pregnant. She says the marriage became unfulfilling almost immediately because her husband was critical, rather than loving and nurturing--a polar opposite to her outgoing, vivacious personality.
Kathy began to think about other men and former boyfriends. Two years after she married, she had an affair with a co-worker, then wanted to kill herself afterward. Three years later, she began an illicit relationship with one of her husband's co-workers. After her first two affairs, attractions came more frequently and she eventually became involved with 15 men in relationships she describes as 90 percent phone conversations and 10 percent intercourse. "It was as if they had some kind of magic and the attractions were absolutely overwhelming, although they went against everything I believed in," Kathy said.
Kathy discovered she could dress in a way to attract men. "That was how I got my compliments--how I was trying to fill the emptiness inside me. The more I did what I didn't believe in and hated myself, the more I needed attention from other men to feel there was something worthwhile about me," she said.
Although her marriage remained periodically troubled, Kathy says she was never looking for a partner to replace her husband. "While I chose men who were extremely handsome, powerful or rich to prove that if they liked me, I was worthwhile, most of the men I became attracted to would not make good partners. They were either already married or had some kind of problem," she recalls.
Kathy's addiction eventually reached a turning point over two incidents: In one case, she flew out of state to meet a man she'd had "pretty intense" conversations with off and on over several years. "The day I flew to where he lived, he wasn't able to get away from his wife. The only time we had to be sexual was about 10 minutes at his office before somebody started to walk in. I almost laughed at myself over how much I'd invested for so little. It had reached a point of absurdity," she says.
Her other wake-up call came when she broke off a four-year involvement with a man she sincerely thought she loved. Kathy's family life had become chaotic as she fought with her husband and children. "I'd never tried to face all the sadness in my life before. But I had become suicidal and had to go to therapy for a year and a half. I gave up trying to resist my attractions to men and understood that I didn't have the personal power within myself to do that," she recalls.
That realization led Kathy to Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), two support groups with a variety of weekly meetings in Salt Lake City. These groups are 12-step programs modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. As in AA's 12 steps, the first step in SA dictates that addicts admit they are powerless over sex addiction and their lives have become unmanageable. All addicts interviewed for this article agreed to be interviewed under pseudonyms and currently participate in one or both of these 12-step groups, which they credit with their progress toward recovery.
Nevertheless, Kathy almost quit the recovery program before even starting. She was headed for the door when a man said, "Don't leave now. You may never find the courage to come back." Within the group, Kathy discovered she "was looking for lots of options to feel safe. If my marriage didn't work out, I had a list of other guys I could call who might love me," she says.
There are many forms of sexaholism, ranging from addiction to Internet pornography, to anonymous sexual encounters and/or a compulsion to seek romantic intrigue and the "chase" of flirtation. Sex addicts and experts agree that like alcoholism or drug addiction, sexual addiction involves a pattern of self-destructive behavior that the addict is unable to stop on his or her own. Though there are no precise statistics, Todd Olson, a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City, notes that experts say the number of sex addicts could be as high as 10 percent of the population--the same percent as are alcoholics.
Olson points to Bill Clinton's recent relationship with Monica Lewinsky as an illustration of addictive behavior: "As president of the United States, his consequences for getting caught were very great, yet his addiction made him powerless to resist and he couldn't stop to consider the risks."
While alcoholism is a pathological relationship with a chemical, sexual addiction is a pathological relationship with an experience. Like eating disorders, sexual addiction is very difficult to treat. "We have to have food to live, and we are sexual beings," Olson explains.
"One of the major factors in all addictions is the search for an altered state of consciousness," adds D. Corydon Hammond, Ph.D., co-director of the Sex and Marital Therapy Clinic at the University of Utah. "Sexual excitement can create an altered state of consciousness that buys people a little oblivion from their worries or troubles."
Dr. Patrick Carnes, whose book Don't Call It Love defined sexual addiction in 1983, explains that when sexual acting out reaches the addictive stage, two sets of activities organize the addict's days: One involves obsessing about sex, time devoted to initiating sex and actually being sexual. The second involves dealing with the consequences of acting out, like lying, covering up, money shortages and trouble at work. Family breakups, financial disaster, job loss and risk to life are frequent consequences.
During his addiction, Fred acted out sexually, "maybe three times a week, sometimes three times a day," with an estimated 1,000 partners over more than 20 years. Fred's marriage ended in divorce. He was excommunicated twice from the LDS church. Self-employed, he often lost four to six hours of work time in a single day when he cruised the city in search of anonymous sexual encounters. Feeling unworthy as a father, he saw his children less often than he wanted.
Olson has seen addicts max out credit cards and spend as much as $60,000 to $70,000 a year on pornography alone. Many sexual addicts grew up in families where another form of addiction, like alcoholism, compulsive eating or compulsive gambling, were present.
Sex addicts may also suffer from or turn to another addiction. In the book, Craving For Ecstasy: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape, authors Harvey B. Milkman and Stanely G. Sunderwirth reveal that sex addicts often possess additional addictions: 42 percent are chemically dependent; 38 percent have eating disorders; 27 percent are workaholics; 26 percent are spending addicts; and 5 percent are addicted to gambling.
Sexual addiction may be easier to conceal than other forms of addiction, and also usually begins at an earlier age.
Bill knew by the time he was 12 that he was unable to control his sexual behavior. He first remembers mutual masturbation with a boy near his age at a baby sitter's house when he was 5 years old. Though that incident was isolated, another neighbor boy reintroduced him to mutual masturbation and added oral sex at the age of 11. Those incidents continued weekly into his late teens. "Between sleepovers at my house and his house, hanging out at his house after school and going on hikes into the mountains, morally and religiously I knew it wasn't right. I tried to stop thousands of times. My first step toward recovery was admitting my powerlessness."
Although his sexual acting out has always been with men, Bill--like Fred--doesn't consider himself gay, and felt that marriage might be the solution to his problem. "I told my wife [about the addiction] before we were ever engaged. I love her to death and feel that our marriage is right where I want to be." However, initially, Bill's addiction increased after the marriage, progressing beyond mutual masturbation and oral sex to emotional attachment with other men. "I'd have one three- to four-month relationship with another man and countless anonymous things each year."
During that time, he was hired temporarily at a job he considered his lifelong dream. When he wasn't hired permanently, he wondered if his work colleagues somehow knew about his secret compulsion.
Although 27 percent of sex addicts report losses of career opportunities, the relationships most commonly affected by sexual addiction are those with spouses and children, say Olson and Carnes. Seventy percent of sex addicts experience severe marital or relationship problems, and 40 percent lose their partner or spouse.
Charlotte, Bill's wife of seven years with whom he has two children, is a member of S-Anon, an organization for spouses and family members of sexaholics (similar to Al-Anon for alcoholics' families.) Sexual co-dependency is often overlooked in treatment, even though co-addicts also suffer from the extreme adverse effects of the addiction. "Spouses are so angry when they find out about the addiction, they go into a reactive mode and don't want to face their situation. What they will often try to do is have better sex or be more sexy," Olson said.
Charlotte clearly remembers the anger and frustration of her struggle to accept Bill's behavior as an illness. "So many times on bad days, I'd think it's real darn convenient for him to have a wife and children to look like a normal guy. I would ask if he was even attracted to me at all. I would say, if you need sex, come and get it from me," Charlotte recalls. "But now I see his addiction as a disease, something almost outside himself--a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of thing. It's like he gets into this mode and needs to medicate and he's trained to fix it in this certain way."
John was once a popular athlete who excelled in every sport in school. Now in his 30s, he has experienced many frustrating years of dating. "I've been able to date and have a little bit of a relationship with so many wonderful girls, but it always had to end." This is due, he now believes, to his pornography addiction and an incident where a neighbor sexually abused him. "They say it deadens your senses and I know it deadened mine. The closest I ever got to a real relationship ended six months ago today. It scared her to death when my girlfriend started asking her friends what the implications of my problem were."
Like Bill, John originally thought that a relationship would get rid of his pornography addiction. "My girlfriend and I were sexual. We had the belief that the big sin was to have intercourse outside of marriage," he recalls. "So we were trying to walk the line and do everything else but. It was like I was getting some, but not enough. I knew it wasn't working one day when I was sexual with her, then acted out by buying a porno magazine later that night."
Since joining SA less than a year ago, John has now enjoyed six months of complete sobriety. "I can sit in front of the computer now with no desire to get on the Internet."
Lonely, he still thinks of his ex-girlfriend, and has a goal of developing a healthy relationship. "I realize that my feelings may be obsession, and I pray to my higher power to take away my feelings if they are lust or obsession." His goal is to live for the moment, and cope with his obsession one day, or one minute, at a time.
Like Cindy's crisis with her neighbor, and John's with his girlfriend, there is usually a turning point that leads the addict to recovery. Fred's moment of truth happened when police caught him in a restroom with a man almost four years ago. "I was grateful I didn't have a family to go home and report to. It was embarrassing, but it was the beginning of my recovery."
Olson explains that treatment of sexual addiction includes three phases: arresting the addiction (usually through therapy), developing a support system (such as SA or SLAA), and developing a self. Of self-development, he says, "Sex addiction has been used to cover up suffering and pain or emotion. Addiction professionals are now becoming aware that underlying all addictions, there is trauma somewhere."
A majority of sexual addicts experienced abuse in childhood, Olson says: 97 percent emotionally, 83 percent sexually and 72 percent physically. During their recovery, addicts are working toward "sobriety," which, under the SA definition, means sex with no one other than a spouse.
Feeling sad the day of a recent family funeral, Fred found himself driving to his usual cruising spots to relieve his stress. But this time he didn't stop the car. Instead, he went to a phone and called his SA sponsor--a fellow member appointed to assist the addict in recovery.
Although Fred contracted syphilis in his youth, he is grateful that his "safe sex" encounters with a partner who had AIDS turned out to be disease-free. He feels lucky to be alive and hopes to be rebaptized into the LDS church. He also plans to start dating and socializing in the near future. Along with his SA support group, he now has a network of friends who can "pull me up," he says.
Cindy discovered SA through a friend who was going to Overeaters Anonymous. "When I was married and went to sexuality workshops to find answers, my husband was threatened that I would discuss our sex life in public."
For a long time, Cindy felt saddened by the understanding that her addiction changed her personality, making her angrier because of the frustration she experienced. "I grieve most of the time that I've wasted in my own life that took me away from my children. I wish I could have that time back to make amends to them."
She also wishes she could erase the incident with her neighbor. Now remarried, she attends SA once a week in hopes that she won't ever act out again. Cindy believes she's made a lot of progress in her battle to overcome addiction, and remained celibate for 10 years. "I wear clothes that don't accentuate my body so that I don't take up the drink of people's eyes. If there are people who I feel are dangerous to me as far as flirtation, I look away. I pray a lot and that's what helps me out of almost anything.
"But SA saved my soul, my sanity and my life. It changed me and my personality. Because I was focused on my addiction, I was a very angry person. Now I've learned new ways to take care of myself and my children."
Today, Kathy believes sexual addiction differs from addiction to alcohol or drugs; recovery is very clear with substance abuse: You know exactly what to stay away from. "Sexual addiction is trickier, because love is good, relationships are good and sex is good," she says.
Kathy originally attended a chapter of SA, which she describes as a group of 40 or 50 people--mostly men--who meet weekly. She then revamped her definition of sexual sobriety, as she came to understand that her addiction was to romantic intrigue and flirtation more than the sex act.
"Affairs and flirtations are considered so normal these days. Even kid's movies, like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, say that you'll live happily ever after if you just find the right partner," Kathy says. "The key is to recognize a destructive pattern of unhealthy relationships that indicate addiction."
Even though she has separated and reconciled with her husband, Kathy believes her marriage "is still not exactly what I want it to be." But now she knows her happiness is not up to him. "Whether or not I'm with him I will be OK.
"Today, I base my life and all my decisions on what is good physically, emotionally and spiritually," Kathy says. "Problems with my husband would have triggered me to act out before, but now I am able to resist attractions from men. I can be somewhat attracted to someone and not act on that. I now have a dignity, choice and peacefulness that I never imagined would be part of my life."
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