The talk of shame

The summer heat can lead to some fatal attractions, but what happens when it all gets too much? It’s en vogue to claim sex addiction these days – but finding an actual, real-life sex addict willing to speak up is harder than it seems.

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Speaking out as a sex addict is not easy. Unlike a recovering alcoholic or heroin user, someone dealing with sex addiction cannot proudly declaim his or her tamed demons. There’s no triumph involved; instead, the pride of getting clean is replaced by cultural stigma and doubt. Half the battle, it seems, is proving that sex addiction even exists.

There is no clinical diagnosis for sex addiction. The condition is often dismissed by medical and government bodies, who continue to deny its status as an official psychiatric disorder – not to mention the media, which trivialises sex addition as a trendy, celebrity-endorsed excuse for lack of restraint.

In Berlin, though, at least two groups exist for those seeking help: Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA). The latter holds men-only meetings, while SLAA holds up to six mixed meetings per week with 12-15 attendees per session. Two are in English, to assure that language barriers don’t prevent anyone from speaking up. Whether suffering from an overpowering craving for sexual intimacy or a compulsive attitude towards pornography, the common denominator among attendees is a lack of control: days organised around sex, to the detriment of everything else.

The recovering addicts we met there were keen for the word to get out that there are supportive places and programmes for those who struggle with sex addiction. However, when 
it came to answering further questions about their experiences, noses rapidly crinkled and heads started shaking. Some believed that a flash-in-the-pan piece could never do justice to a condition that has shattered many lives. Others only wanted to talk to someone who has been through the same experience, for fear their addiction would be conflated with paedophilia or sex crimes. Understandably, many balked at the idea of unveiling something so personal.

Jane* agreed to answer a few questions. It would have to be on the phone, though. The other conditions were that the conversation would be on her terms and that we’d not reveal her identity.

“I loved masturbating. I just couldn’t get enough of it. The slightest thing would set me off. A sound, someone’s voice on the phone.
 I’d do it at home, at work, in public places… It completely took over. I obsessed over it until it wasn’t enough. At the time, I had a steady relationship and my partner got off on it. For a while.”

That relationship didn’t last. Her sexual impulses grew and became less manageable. Jane began going to clubs more regularly and found herself lowering her standards, just as long as 
it guaranteed taking someone home. “Anyone would do.”

It was fun at first. “It was my secret life and 
I loved the fact my friends and co-workers weren’t a part of it. I thought I was making up for my rather tame student days, and picking up someone has never been particularly challenging in Berlin. At the time, I felt empowered by my ability to get guys into bed. I liked being a slut, calling myself a slut. I was trying things I never thought I’d do. It was a huge turn-on, a high.”

A high with a steep comedown. “It stopped being fun when I started feeling like shit. The regular sex was alright, but even a decent fuck wasn’t enough after a while. I also got sick of having to deal with some pretty disgusting guys and having to use protection all the time. The rush didn’t stop me from feeling agitated and annoyed. The highs wore off quicker and I started getting edgy with friends and at work. Ultimately, I didn’t feel satisfied or loved. By anyone.”

Jane now describes herself as a recovering addict. She confides that while she no longer frequents her Berlin haunts, she still has her moments. She laughs for the first time in the conversation, joking that she still probably yearns for physical intimacy more than the average person. The difference is that now she’s in control.

She doesn’t want to talk about any group meetings but admits that she didn’t fully adhere to the spiritual facet of the programme. As in Alcoholics Anonymous, there is frequent reference to a higher power or god. Steps include 
the decision to “invite a higher power into the sex addict’s life” or asking for divine help in recovery. But according to Jane, “What helped me the most was being around people who shared their stories, judgement-free. It was their honesty that got me, not the spiritual awakening part.” It helped her understand that sex was her outlet, the way she could hide from “bigger, scarier things”.

How does she react when confronted with people who believe that a clinical addiction to sex is a myth? “There’s enough out there for people to make up their own minds.”

As Jane wants to wrap up the conversation, we venture one last question. Why agree to share with a journalist, one who was starting to give up all hope of ever having a frank conversation with a sex addict?

“Beyond the Russell Brands of this world is a real addiction that is the source of much misery, and it needs all the press it can get.”

Originally published in issue #138, May 2015.