For as long as she can remember, Veronica K. knew what she could do to her body. It is not uncommon for children as young as one year old to figure it out; but, what is uncommon is the pattern of behavior that was innocently set in motion by her natural curiousity. Looking back at her childhood, Veronica K. can't recall any defining traumatic event, just memories of her stepfather's awareness of what she was doing. When he tucked her in at night, he always reminded her she could not move her arms from her side. At the time, she gathered her habit was shameful and should stop. But she could not stop it.
"It was like it took me out of my life and I just sort of felt not numb, but removed. And then as soon as it was over I would have to do it again and again and again because I kept on wanting to get to that state where I didn't have to think about anything. So, even before I had sex, the sexual compulsive behavior started."
Used interchangeably with the terms sex addiction and sexual dependency, sexual compulsion is hard to define and perhaps harder to acknowledge. In an article published in The Guardian last year, Thaddeus Birchard, a psychotherapist that treats sex addicts in the UK, describes sex addiction as "a pattern of sexual behavior characterized by three things: a difficulty in stopping and staying stopped; harmful consequences; and preoccupation or obsession." The Riverfront Times of St. Louis, Missouri, published an article in 1998 that defined it as "an obsessive preoccupation and compulsive acting-out that sprials out of control. It happens not in the quest of pleasure but because, somewhere along the line, the psyche confused sex with love and the body interpreted a rush of adrenaline as a triumph over fear, loneliness, and inadequacy." So, while definitions are out there, questions remain. Is it a disease or isn't it? Is it curable or not? How do you know if you are a sex addict?
Veronica K.'s progression from a precocious little girl who masturbated to escape bad feelings to a smart and attractive adult woman that put herself in dangerous situations for a momentary "fix" came about through a series of painful sexual encounters. When she was 15, she lost her virginity to a man who only pursued her to have sex with her. Feeling used, her recovery from the rejection took on another common characteristic of sexual compulsives, that of having the illusion that they have a certain amount of control over uncontrollable situations.
"The next time I had sex was a year later and it was with the same guy. This time I did it on my terms and I seduced him. In my mind, I was getting revenge on him by turning the tablesI discovered that I do have some amount of power and that was not anything I realized before."
Another incident while in high school, this time involving rape, made an already perplexed view of sex grow more twisted. "I tried to continue to date him (the rapist) as my boyfriend because, in my mind, if we end up dating and we have a real relationship, then it makes the rape O.K. It makes it not have happened. Like on General Hospital, Luke raped Laura but, you know, that was changed later to Luke 'seduced' Laura. The show simply rewrote that part of their love affair. I was so desperately trying to make things O.K., and that's what I did with the first guy, too. I was trying to rewrite it in a way that would make things more palpable to me, and less horrifying."
During her sexually active high school years, she believes her need to keep up good girl appearances resulted in furthering the destructive behavior.
"I was very careful to only have sex with people that didn't go to my school. I was very careful not to have this bad reputation and that in a way set a pattern. It started that whole double life thing, this shame and secretive thing. When you try to keep something secret, it tends to become a little compulsive, and I think that set a lot of stuff in motion."
In her twenties, Veronica K.'s compulsive behavior grew out of control. She used sex to celebrate the good times in her life, to punish herself for any failings, to prove herself worthy of someone's attention, or to get back at a boyfriend. Anonymous quick sex and the quest for it became a frequent part of her daily life.
"It didn't matter if he was attractive. It didn't matter if I liked him. I've had sex with some really ugly men. I've had sex with men I wouldn't have a cup of coffee with, that I just find completely boring and deplorable, but it doesn't matter. When I was in that state, it was just the sex I wanted. It was just about fast food. 'What can I get now, as fast as possible?'"
Often snickered at by a misunderstanding and unsympathetic public, the general belief is that sex addicts are just slaves to hyperactive horniness, lack any self-control, and use sex addiction as an excuse for age-old bad behavior. But, for Veronica K. and the estimated 3% to 6% of the population, sex addiction is as real and powerful a disease as alcoholism or drug addiction.
"I didn't really think of it as compulsive sex," she says. "It didn't occur to me that maybe it was an addiction, but I knew I was getting into very dangerous areas. I remember once having a conversation with someone about safe sex and I said, 'I always practice safe sex. I always use a condom.' But then I realized how safe was I really? I would pick up guys in clubs and go to their homes. I had no way of knowing how to get home or where I was. And I remember thinking, What am I doing? This is not safe, this is not cool. I would say to myself, 'I have to calm down. I can't be such a slut'that was what I called it. But I know I was endangering myself so I did know I had a problem. I just didn't really have a name for it."
Self-confessed sex addicts actor/producer Michael Douglas and singer Eric Benet have sought treatment, but despite these celebrities's openness about the disease, sex addiction still goes unacknowledged by sufferers for a myriad of reasons. Like in Veronica K.'s case, chances are people don't realize they have a problem or they choose to excuse it while it's manageable. Perhaps people are unaware of the treatment available, or they seek help for other addictions or compulsions and, by doing so, unknowingly mask an underlying sexual addiction. The stigma of sexual disorder is enough to prevent people from getting help. Whether we like to admit it or not, our society finds it much easier to sell sex than to discuss it openly and forego any puritanical notions about the "act" of sex.
Then, there are the clandestine compulsive activities (including Internet porn, S&M clubs, exhibitionism, anonymous sex, masturbation, voyeurism, and fantasizing) often associated with sexual addiction that create embarrassment, shame and guilt in the addict. Ultimately, sex addicts organize their lives around sex and sexual encounters, much like a drug addict would organize his life around drugs.
For instance, Veronica K. often took to masturbating at work when she was triggered by excessive fantasizing about her next sexual encounter. "The having to masturbate at work a lot, that was interfering. But also psychologically just always thinking about the last person I had sex with, when I'm going to have sex next, a lot of that was just taking up mental capacity that I could have been using to do other things. A lot of addicts talk about lost time and I completely identify with that."
When asked about her relationships, Veronica K. can't think of one that wasn't affected by her sexual compulsion.
"I look back now and I realize the addiction has done so much damage in my relationships because of my acting out and the cheating and the fantasizing about other men. It was always a way to isolate myself from the person I most wanted to be close to. And it's very hard for love and addiction to share the same space. Addiction is almost the opposite of love. Addiction is not a logical thing. And I look back and realize it has hurt my relationships a lot."
For Veronica K., seeking treatment came after a difficult period in her life forced her to finally go into therapy. After a series of unfortunate incidences left Veronica K. homeless for two weeks, she tried to cope by overeating, another compulsion she deals with. But that only lasted for so long before her sexual compulsion kicked in.
"Finally, I got so tired of sleeping on the train that I went to a club that I don't go to anymore, and I had sex with three different men on that night, just because I was so tired and feeling horrible about myself and I was hoping one of them would take me home so I could sleep in his bed and have a shower... That was such a bottoming out for me and that was what actually brought me to therapy because I thought, 'I'm smart, I have friends. Why am I sleeping on the train?' And it was like this self-punishing shame spiral. It was just getting me so far down. It was the ultimate form of isolation; I wanted to be alone. I didn't want to have to talk to anyone or be around anyone. And isolation is such a huge part of my disease."
The medical community still does not list sex addiction as a disease or a clinical disorder, but there are organizations popping up in mostly metropolitan areas to help people cope. Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous are the most recognized treatment groups. Treatment focuses on helping the sex addict connect with people again and build relationships through greater self-awareness. Utilizing the 12-step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, sex addicts have to take an honest inventory of their lives and accept responsibility for their past. There's also figuring out the ways to incorporate sex into their life in a healthy way.
"Sometimes I myself wonder if it's actually an addiction or if I really consider it a disease or if it's just a habit of mine." Veronica K. admits, though careful not to show too much skepticism. "Like smoking, which I consider a habit I broke, I could quit smoking and become a non-smoker. But, with sexual addiction, I don't know if I can just drop it like a bad habit. I find it safer for me to just think of it as a disease that will never go away; otherwise, I could take it for granted that I'm 'recovered' and risk falling back into bad behavior. So I think of it as something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life and, oddly enough, I find comfort in that."
For more information about sexual addiction, please visit the following Web sites:
Sex Addicts Anonymous - www.sexaa.org
Sexual Compulsives Anonymous - www.sca-recovery.org
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous - www.slaafws.org
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