The Secret Life of a Sex Addict

He says he's just horny, a real man. But could his `harmless' sexual behavior be putting both of you in jeopardy? Recovering sex addicts help you sift through the clues.

STEVEN: 'I had a $4,000 phone sex bill'

I'm addicted to phone sex. For years, I saw it as no big deal. When the others in my office bragged about their sexual exploits, I stayed silent. Compared with them, I was a saint. My thing was solitary. Phone sex was just an exciting form of masturbation. I wasn't cheating on my wife of ten years. She and I still had sex on a regular basis. As a 38-year-old sports promoter, I made good money and, at least in the beginning, could afford the phone calls. My wife didn't have to know. No one had to know. No one could know because the experience, while getting me off, was bringing me shame--and pulling me deeper into a pattern of behavior I couldn't stop.

Later, I would learn that sex addiction--commonly defined as repetitive and compulsive sexual behavior that over time negatively affects a person's life--is a progressive disease. What begins as an occasional thrill builds into an uncontrollable obsession. I went from spending $10 a week to $100--and then $1,000. I went from phone sex with women to phone sex with men. The verbal stimulation became more bizarre--cruder, crueler, enticing me into areas that, only months before, I could never have imagined entering. I felt imprisoned. The minute my wife left the house, I rushed to the phone and stayed there for hours. I grew so alarmed that I called a psychotherapist and made an appointment.

The therapist helped me see the roots of my addictive personality. When I was a child, my parents discussed sex inappropriately. They used words and expressions that were shockingly explicit. Their language turned me on in ways I didn't understand. But even with this new insight, even after an illuminating session with the therapist, I still ran to the phone. I still sought the heat of phone sex.

When my wife spotted a $4,000 phone bill and demanded an explanation, I confessed. The next day was Christmas. She went off to church where she sought God's guidance about whether to leave me or not. Meantime, I spent the morning binging on phone sex. That afternoon, disgusted with myself, I finally did what I knew I had to do. I went to a 12-step group devoted to my disease and said the four words I never wanted to pronounce publicly to a group of strangers: I'm a sex addict.


 


Public confession gave me something that private counseling, for all its benefits, never did--accountability. I felt accountable to a group of fellow sex addicts. Some of their stories were more dramatic than mine, some less. The common bond, though, was our admission that sex was our drug. We were powerless over this drug and, only with the help of a higher power--call it God, or call it the mysterious healing feeling of the group--could we do without our destructive behavior. We called each other when we felt the urge coming on; we listened to one another without judgment. The wreckage of our past cost some of us our wives, husbands and families. It cost me my marriage. But my own life, for the past four years, has been free of phone sex. That, in itself, is a miracle.

Here three men and one woman--all of them currently in 12-step recovery programs--share their struggles with sex addiction in the hope that we might better understand a disease that's quietly devastating millions of lives. (To preserve the anonymity that is the hallmark of 12-step programs, and to protect subjects' privacy, names and identifying details have been changed.)

BEN: 'I Stayed Drunk on Web Porn'

Computers made my career and computers ruined my life. Computers fed my addiction to hard work, creative planning and hard-core pornography.

My story began as the classic African-American success story. My parents are government workers who saved up for my college education. My wife is a schoolteacher. My affinity for computers landed me an excellent job. I invented a software program that saved my company millions, and I became a senior vice-president with a big office and private bathroom. I moved my wife and three children to the suburbs and took them on Hawaiian vacations. A division of 50 people reported to me.

In my off-hours, I started dabbling with some of the milder sex sites. No big deal. But as the years passed, these sites became more explicit. That excited me. So did the changing technology-chat lines, Web cameras, E-mail photos. The world of Web porn became endlessly fascinating, but I still wasn't worried. I restricted my sex surfing to my lunch hour.

Then an hour in the afternoon. Then an hour at home after my wife had gone to bed. Soon I was ordering secret credit cards as a way to hide the expense. I was suddenly visiting sites--and staying for hours--where Web cams were showing things that had me dazed. I didn't realize my behavior was so extreme until a colleague, who had inadvertently seen me on-line, told my boss. Because of my value to the firm, I was given a warning. I was told that if I were caught again, I'd be fired. Rather than seek help, I bought a handheld computer that I could operate in my private bathroom. I spent at least half my time at work in that bathroom. This time it was my secretary who reported my secret behavior. That was it: I was terminated, and my wife was told why. Infuriated and frightened, she took the kids and left.

I can analyze my situation with clarity. As a child, I discovered an uncle's stash of porn magazines. The images confused and excited me. They were more than any child could handle. As a result, I was still seeking the thrill of that early discovery. Then came the computer.

The computer is addictive in and of itself. Combine it with porn and you have two mighty addictions operating in tandem. No wonder I capitulated. No wonder porn is a multibillion-dollar on-line business. But all the clarity in the world does not get me my family or my job back. And the worst part is, I'm still deep in the addiction, even after a weeklong stay at a rehab facility.

The rehab was intense, but once I was home, I was back on-line. The therapists urged me to attend regular meetings, but I wasn't comfortable there. "The idea isn't to be comfortable," said the head of the program, "but to process your feelings by speaking your emotional truth." The truth, though, is that the other addicts didn't have my education or my intellectual understanding of the addiction. If I could find a group of my true peers, maybe that would work. I've been told I lack humility, that without humility--admitting that I can't do it alone--I'll get worse. But having lost everything, living alone in a run-down studio apartment, sitting in front of this computer night and day, staying drunk on sex sites, I don't see how I can sink any lower.


OMAR: 'Same Corner, Different Lady

My daddy was a construction worker, and so am I. My daddy had girlfriends, and so do I. Sometimes, when I was just a little boy, he'd even take me to meet them. They were nice ladies, pretty ladies, prettier and sexier than my mom. Sometimes he would even describe what the ladies did to him. He said this was part of my education. I understood why Daddy did what he did. He did what men do. "Truth be told," Daddy said, "that's what makes us men."

I married my lady when she got pregnant--this was five years ago, when I turned 30. I thought it was the right thing to do. It was the same reason my father had married my mother. But during the pregnancy, stuff started happening. At first I didn't see it as bad; I just saw it as convenient. I had sex with a hooker. After my one outside girlfriend kicked me to the curb--she was feeling guilty because my wife was expecting--I didn't want the trouble of hitting on someone new. I was working overtime, tired and in no mood to sweet-talk someone out of a little love. Driving home one night I went down the wrong street and saw what I wanted standing on the corner. It happened right there in the car. The adrenaline rush was serious. The next night I was back. Same corner, different lady, bigger rush. I figured if I could satisfy my sex needs in a straight-up business transaction, everything was cool.

But everything heated up when I found I wanted that rush more and more. One day at work I took off during my lunch break and found myself at the same corner. I went from a once-a-week John to once-a-day. The night before my lady went into labor, I couldn't sleep, so I snuck out the house at 2:00 A.M. I had to have it.

I had to have it when I was happy, when I was sad, when I was lonely, when I was scared. I believe I would still be having it if I hadn't got caught in a sting. One of the girls was a cop. The judge let me off with a small fine and mandatory attendance at a 12-step program. I hated the meetings. I sat and sulked. I had nothing to say. I didn't want to be in a room with a bunch of freaks and perverts. Their stuff was a lot freakier than anything I ever did. It was like some kind of public confession. I looked down on everyone. Until I got caught a second time.


 


The second time was bad because I went to the corner against my will. I'd sworn off hookers. I'd made a vow with God, because God had kept my wife and family from finding out about the first time. So what was I doing on that same corner looking for that same nasty rush? I can't tell you. My wife told me never to look at her or the baby again. She made me take an AIDS test. Luckily, I was clean. But my heart was dirty; everything about me felt dirty. A lawyer got me out of jail time on the condition that I'd go to 90 meetings in 90 days. This is day 45. They count time in the program; they give chips for consecutive days of abstinence. I used to think that was stupid. Now I'm not sure; maybe that's what I need. A goal. Something to keep me going. When I first got caught up with prostitutes, I said to myself, I can stop whenever I want. Hell, hookers aren't heroin. But maybe they are.

COLE: 'The Secret Smoldered Inside Me

I stand in front of the window in my kitchen and stare into my neighbors' bedroom. Then I take a walk around the neighborhood looking for open blinds and pulled-up shades. I seek shadows; I explore back alleys. I have exposed myself on several occasions. I have masturbated in public. And I've never been caught. I'm a 33-year-old single man employed as an assistant manager at an office-supply store. Women say I'm good-looking. I date often, but relationships never last more than a few months. I prefer to watch a woman from afar--watch her undress or step into the bath.

I've been doing this since I was a boy. Being fondled by a family member supercharged my sex drive and filled me with shame. I still carry that shame. After every voyeuristic episode, I'm filled with remorse and vow to stop. But a week later I'm back at it. The thrill--of what I might see, of the risk I'm taking--is too great to resist. I can't discuss it with my friends or parents because my shame is too great. I tried to discuss it with my minister but could only tell him half-truths--I left out the part about exposing myself. He suggested getting closer to God through Bible class and retreats. I went on one such retreat but left after a day, hurrying home to act out.

The secret smoldered inside me, and it seemed to give my obsession more power. I was convinced I'd have to live with it forever. Then I saw a small item in a newspaper about 12-step groups for sex addicts. I didn't want to go, but I was out of options. So I went to my first meeting, afraid I'd see someone I knew. I sat in the back and lowered my head. The first thing I heard was, "You're only as sick as your secrets." Then someone else said, "Your addiction thrives on isolation." I related to everyone and everything I heard. People were open and honest about how much they wanted to act out, how they loved acting out, and how acting out was destroying them. They were supporting one another with understanding and unconditional love.

For two months I went to meetings without opening my mouth. During those same two months I continued to act out. But the minute I told the group what I had been doing, the minute I admitted powerlessness over my compulsion, I felt relief. It was like lancing a wound. Afterward two guys came up to me and said they had the exact same addiction. Until then I felt totally alone. Now I know I'm not.

next: What is Sexual Addiction?

Last Updated: 08 April 2016

Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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