Are You a Sex Addict?
Men aren't the only ones who can't control their sex compulsion. An investigation of female addicts.
By Liz Welch
Anna is sitting in a New York café, sipping an English Breakfast tea. Dressed in patterned tights and a black sweaterdress, the 20-something Smith College grad has auburn curls and big brown eyes. Pretty? Yes. Sexy? Sure. Sex addict? No way. But she's currently being treated for sex addiction, seeing a therapist once a week and attending daily support groups, after an affair last year almost ruined her marriage and landed her in sex rehab. "I always knew I focused too much on men throughout my life," explains the grad school student. "But it never threatened to derail me." Not until last March, when her husband of less than a year grew suspicious of her late nights "studying" with a classmate. "I'd been lying to my husband for months," she explains. "I knew it was wrong - but I couldn't stop myself."
Tiger Woods can relate. His now-infamous Thanksgiving Day car crash and the circus that followed - a stint in rehab, a public apology, a rumored list of 120 lovers - upended his life and put sex addiction on the tip of every gossip-loving American's tongue. It also flamed a national debate over whether too much sex can actually be an "addiction," or just a compulsion, or simply bad behavior. Against this backdrop, sex addiction therapists, Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) are all reporting a surprising trend: The number of women seeking treatment is surging.
What exactly is sex addiction? New York-based sex therapist Mavis Humes Baird defines it as any sexually related activity that is having a destructive effect on your life. Sufferers latch on to a behavior - masturbation, pornography, anonymous hookups, or standard affairs - until it starts to take over their lives. "The physical symptoms include intense cravings, high tolerance, loss of control, and, in the later stages, dependence and compulsion," Humes Baird explains. "And the mental symptoms are obsession, denial, and the illusion of control. For addicts, there's always a progression - you seek more of the behavior despite its devastating consequences on your life." This might mean blowing the rent money on porn sites, trolling Craigslist for unprotected sex with strangers, or putting a loving marriage at risk over a meaningless affair.
And just as a heroin addict chases a substance-induced high, sex addicts are bingeing on chemicals - in this case, their own hormones, says Alex Katehakis, a licensed family and sex therapist and the clinical director of the L.A.-based Center for Healthy Sex. "For women vulnerable to addiction, the post-intercourse release of the bonding hormone oxytocin, coupled with the dopamine high triggered by the sex act, can put them on a neurobiological roller coaster," she says. Baird agrees: "They're seeking the neurochemical cascades resulting from their addictive behavior."