The following piece was originally published on The Fix.
Since I was 19, I’ve worked on and off as a prostitute in New York City. I learned a lot about men during my decade of escorting, from seeing the insides of their apartments and uncensored sexual requests, but it wasn’t until I quit drinking and using drugs three years ago that I began to notice that many of my clients shared a surprising characteristic: They were sober.
As soon as I was looking for the signs, it became obvious that I was seeing a disproportionate amount of recovering addicts. Eventually, I would start bringing up drinking just to test my own hypothesis. Over and over again, I would find out that the guys who were paying me to drool all over their junk had been sober for a decade or two.
And most of them were married, too, of course.
A male friend in AA once alleged that the main topic of conversation in men’s meeting is hookers, and I kind of believe it, because it wasn’t long after I started accumulating sober time that I also began running into former johns in the rooms. They were always cool about it—I still remember one married guy, who used to athletically bang me in a back room of the restaurant he owned mid-day, enveloping me in a big hug and telling me he was glad I was there.
He meant it; sober people are always glad when somebody makes it out of hell into recovery. I found out he had been on a relapse during our encounters, and I genuinely believe he was trying to be a better person. See, I’m not trying to judge these guys. How can I? I’m right there with them. But I do think AA is a bigger hotbed of sexual sickness than people realize.
When I quit drinking, after years of blackouts and bedwetting and miserable depression, I thought that my sexual problems were over, too. My promiscuity and infidelity were, I was sure, just products of intoxication—like hangovers and staying out too late. And for 90 days, it was true. I went to meetings, collected coins, and kept my pants on.
Somewhere shortly thereafter, I started posting both pay-for-play and casual sex ads on Craigslist. I launched right back into compulsive sexual behavior, this time without the benefit of alcohol to blur the lines and dampen my guilt. Now I felt it all, but still couldn’t stop. It was extraordinarily painful.
And this is when I started realizing how many of the guys I was acting out with were sober like me. There was the married guy who showed me his coins before bending me over his desk, and the one who kept making appointments with me and losing his nerve before finally meeting up with me at a coffee shop where he showed me deepthroat porn on his handheld while his eyes darted around nervously. They both had over a decade sober.
We never discussed our sobriety beforehand. I didn’t say anything to signal it in my ads or subsequent email correspondence. But after a few back-and-forths, we’d meet up and it would come up organically, like when one of them casually used the expression “one day at a time.” One guy literally said it out of the blue—“I’ve been sober for 10 years” he said as we walked to the short-stay hotel room where we would have automated, soulless sex before never talking again.
“You’re kidding!” I yelled out. “I’m sober, too!” Then after a beat: “This is what we do now, huh?”
One of my low points came when I posed an ad for breast play (one of my fetishes) and received a response from a guy I recognized from my AA group. He was at least 30 years older than me and had 17 years sober. I knew I should have left well enough alone but my disease drove me to email him back. “I know you!” I typed winkingly. When I identified myself, I think a part of me was hoping he would tell me to get myself to a meeting, that what I was doing wasn’t a good idea.
Of course, he wanted to meet instead. I went to his workplace and took my top off in the broiler room, where he touched me and I attempted to give him oral sex while he remained completely flaccid. I wasn’t aroused, either, and felt dirty afterward. I couldn’t go back to that meeting that had been a touchstone of my sobriety. I had violated my one safe place.
So I eventually made my way into the 12-step sex rooms—and found them full of guys I knew from AA. It makes sense—people in one 12-step program are more likely to enter another, but it is also pretty scary to see guys with double-digit sobriety struggling to get a week free of acting out sexually. For a lot of us, the problem worsens when we stop drinking—the notorious whack-a-mole of addiction transferring. You hear it over and over again there—getting sober from alcohol and drugs is a cakewalk compared to the sex issue. Its tentacles just run so deep—for many of us, the behaviors are linked to childhood trauma and started long before our drinking and using.
I continue to struggle, putting together eight months, then 90 days, before ending up back on Craigslist—which I now see as a breeding ground for sober sex addicts. But I keep coming back.
And that’s the bright spot in all of this. Whether they’re in a sex program or not, the sober men I have acted out with almost always come to their senses eventually. They’re decent people who fall but get back up. During my most recent slip, I met a guy who was 10 years sober with a wife and young daughter. We got hot and heavy, exchanging emails and texts constantly, but we only met up twice before he told me he couldn’t do it anymore. “I can’t reconcile what I’m doing with being the kind of father I want to be,” he told me, before adding that he knew he wasn’t behaving in a sober manner and vowing to rededicate himself to meetings. Then he deleted his email address and I never heard from him again.
There’s sexual sickness in AA, but there’s recovery, too. I just hope I get there one day.
Emma Lee is the pseudonym for a writer living in New York City.