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Health & Sex

Are You a Sex Addict?

Men aren't the only ones who can't control their sex compulsion. An investigation of female addicts.
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"Throughout my 20s, I'd equated hooking up with random men in bars with sexual freedom. It made me feel powerful," says Veronica. The sex would be thrilling - until she climaxed. "That's when the fantasy would come crashing down and I'd feel like garbage," she says. Rather than dwell on the bad feelings, she would seek out her next fix. "I'd convince myself, Oh, God, that was so hot, and start chasing the high again," she says. Even after she was sexually assaulted - twice.

While Baird can't pinpoint exactly what causes sex addiction, she says that many addicts have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and were raised in "chaos, or a rigid, disengaged family." She administers a 250-question battery - Do you feel controlled by your sexual desire?Have you felt degraded by your sexual experiences? - to identify the abnormal behavior, the length of time spent engaging in it, and the effect it's having on the patient's life.

But how does one define normal in a society where casual sex is broadcast as liberating and empowering - threesomes are glorified on Gossip Girl; having "friends with benefits" is considered cool; and porn is not only easily and anonymously accessible, but often defended as feminist? Very subjectively, according to Baird. "Maybe Samantha in Sex and the City is having a blast, or maybe she's obsessed and her whole life is controlled by sex," she says, adding that, to her mind, many familiar sexual behaviors - the woman in a series of destructive relationships; the myth of nymphomania - can be symptoms of addiction.

Equally subjective is what may constitute "sexual sobriety." For Veronica, whose new boyfriend knows her history, it "doesn't mean never having sex again. It means taking it slowly within the context of a committed relationship," she says. She was the sole woman in her first SAA group in 2001; today, she meets weekly with a dozen women in an all-female group. "My last relapse was in 2004, when I used pornography to masturbate," Veronica says. "I knew if I didn't stop, soon I'd be right back to the worst of it: violent, degrading, abusive porn, hours or days lost, hating myself but unable to stop watching and thus hurting myself." Knowing one taste could trigger an insatiable craving, she called a fellow addict, who talked her down. "People may say sex addiction doesn't exist," she says, "but for me, it's painfully real."

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