When people think of sex addiction, they think of men like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny who got caught barreling headfirst down the hedonistic rabbit hole.
But I am a female sex addict in the truest sense of the term. Thanks to sketchy DNA (I’ve also struggled with alcoholism and cocaine addiction) and sexually traumatic experiences in early adolescence, I learned to self-medicate painful emotions with sex.
I became dependent on the chemicals created by my own body during lust – a dopamine hit that could be had by engaging in sexual behaviors that had to get constantly riskier to create the same high.
This addiction took me to sex clubs and swingers’ parties where I blindly worked my way through man after man. It led me to post thousands of ads on Craigslist seeking anonymous sex with men whose looks and details mattered less than availability.
It drove me to experiment with group sex, sadomasochism, prostitution, and exhibitionism, each situation more dangerous and thrilling than the last, until arousal became synonymous with a kind of dizzying fear and shame. It led me to sell my body for money I didn’t need, cheating, lying, and breaking every value I ever held in the process.
This went on for five or six years. I somehow maintained good jobs and a long-term boyfriend, leading a double life in which everything appeared fine on the surface. Occasionally, the guilt and shame would grow so great I would be able to refrain from these behaviors for a period of weeks or months at a time. But I was always driven back into the night, seeking the encounter or the person who would finally fill the emotional hole inside of me.
I reached my bottom in one rough week in which I allowed a man I barely knew to take X-rated photos of me and another man to blackmail me into giving him oral sex midday in a bush in Central Park. I realized for the first time that if I continued this way, I was going to end up losing my job and partner at the very least, and more likely end up dead from homicide, suicide, or disease.
I called a therapist who specialized in sex addiction, dissolving into tears at the understanding voice on the phone. Since I couldn’t afford to go to rehab, he suggested an intensive outpatient program which included individual and group therapy and participation in a 12-step program for sex addiction.
I was no stranger to 12-step programs (see alcoholism, cocaine addiction), and had even attended a few sex-addiction meetings before, but was always too intimidated to return when I found myself the only woman in the room. This time, however, I had the gift of desperation, which allowed me to dive into recovery, despite the all-male environments I encountered every step of the way.
First there was my therapist himself, who was so used to working solely with men that he often accidentally referred to my inner addict as “he.” Then the downtown institution devoted to treating sex addicts of all stripes who told me that unfortunately none of their 60+ weekly therapy groups included a woman’s group. They just don’t exist.
I did eventually find a group elsewhere willing to accept a female member, but only after the issue was discussed, voted upon and approved by married members’ wives, who were perhaps understandably nervous about the whole arrangement. In the end, my acceptance was contingent on the requirement that I have no contact with group members outside the weekly sessions and that I always wear pants, sleeved shirts and closed shoes to group, lest my ankles, toes or shoulders prove irresistibly triggering to the male sex addicts.
One of the general rules for beginners in any 12-step program is, “The men stick with the men and the women stick with the women.” This is even more crucial in sex addiction recovery. But since a huge part of a recovery program is identifying with other addicts, making phone calls to them in times of temptation, and working with a same-sex sponsor, the odds were definitively stacked against me.
There were other female sex addicts in the 12-step group I began attending – about five of the hundreds-strong fellowship. However, I attended a few weeks worth of meetings before I ever ran into one of them. Vulnerable and emotionally shattered, it was hard to keep forcing myself into those intimidating rooms full of men who could have seen me as an intruder, a distraction or potential sexual temptation.
Again, I don’t want to seem ungrateful – that therapist and those rooms filled with men saved my life. And there’s something to be said for the arrangement –
Women may be more prone to love, fantasy or romance addictions, which tend to lead to painfully codependent relationships or extramarital affairs. And in fact, love addiction-focused programs do include a lot of women. But for those like me, who acted out “like men,” those programs can leave you feeling judged and unable to relate.
I know there are other women like me because I met some of them – working alongside me in strip clubs, at sex parties, and as escorts. I cruised guys with them at bars, turning last-call drinks into sloppy threesomes at seedy after-parties. But I’ve yet to meet one of them here on the other side.
Maybe it’s because sex in general is more shameful for women — the sting of admitting promiscuity sharper than when a man cops to a string of affairs. But I’ll never forget standing outside the room where my first sex meeting was held, peering through a window at the semi-circle of men with a flip-flopping stomach. I can’t help but wonder how many other women approached the door, peered inside, and didn’t have the courage to take their seat.
It’s not easy to heal from sex addiction in a male environment, to spill my guts out about things like rape, degrading fantasies, and the shame I sometimes feel about my body in front of guys who may or may not understand. But one thought that never fails to cheer me up is that no matter how brutal I find this slow path to restoring sanity, dignity and self-esteem, I will be here waiting when the next scared, desperate woman comes along.
And maybe I can make things just a little bit easier for her.