From what the media tells us, sexual addiction is a strictly male problem – or least that is all we seem to hear. Men cheating on their wives, men seeing prostitutes, men going to strip clubs, massage parlours and of course, male politicians sexting online.
Does this mean that there are no female sex addicts? If there are women out there who are acting out with sex, where are they and why don’t we hear more about them?
The news media gives endless examples of famous husbands who betray their wives in ways that often result in public humiliation for them both (Clinton, Sanford, Tiger, Weiner, etc.). But what about women who ‘act out’ with sex and romance? While we know that women act out additively with food, drugs, alcohol, gambling spending and caretaking, the truth is that there is little to no research on female sex and relationship addiction.
What we do know today is that approximately 8-12% of those seeking sexual addiction treatment are women (which interestingly more or less mirrors the numbers of men entering eating disorders treatment), but it is highly likely that many women struggle with compulsive and impulsive sexual and relationship disorders. A woman is less likely than a man to seek help for her problem sexual behavior for a variety of reasons – mostly related to shame.
Emblematic of this problem is our cultural reference for the man who is generating a lot of sexual contacts: “stud,” whereas a woman engaging in the same types of activity is referenced as “slut” or “nympho.” This kind of prejudice leaves those women with sexual and romantic behavior problems more highly subject to shame and prejudice – and therefore less likely to get help.
Even the woman whose sexual and romantic behaviors are causing her profound problems (health, family, relationship, career, etc.) is not likely to identify as having a sexual problem, she is more likely to use terms like, “I have relationship issues” or “I tend to pick the wrong partners.” Because women more often see and experience sexuality in more relational terms then do men – even when a woman is having sex in the same ways and frequency as a male sex addict often won’t identify as having herself as having this problem.
While the primary etiology of male sexual addiction is mostly based in early emotional neglect, covert parental incest and early attachment deficits – female sex addicts report much greater incidences of profound, overt childhood abuse, physical neglect and trauma – often sexual, which leads to sex addiction and intimacy issues in later life. Some of these women unconsciously live out their early abuse by becoming sex workers (i.e. prostitutes, strippers, involved in porn, sensual massage, etc.), attempting to give themselves a sense of ‘control’ over early out of control experiences. As their adult lives are dominated by exchanging sex for money and the feelings of control and power that sexual behavior offers them, these women have little access to outside support or role models toward change and self-examination.
Not all women who are sex and relationship addicts are prostitutes however, many are housewives, single women and even teens, who utilize sex and romantic intensity as a means of self-stability and comfort, despite the various risks and dangers associated with addictive sexual relationships. In terms of risk taking and out-of-control behavior, female sex addicts are very similar to male sex addicts.
Mary S. presented for treatment in an acute crisis when her husband Jeff learned about her having multiple affairs and was threatened to leave unless she got help. Mary is 38 years old with two children ages 4 and 7. In addition to the affairs and anonymous sexual liaisons both before and throughout her marriage, Mary also disclosed “losing myself on a daily basis” to 30-40 minutes of porn use with masturbation, “to help calm me down or as a way to get to sleep” for nearly all her adult life. She simply reported this as “what I do to relax” but she also keeps this secret from her husband.
Though Mary had a highly physically and emotionally abusive home environment, she had not previously sought out treatment or therapy nor did she relate her problem adult sexual and romantic history to early childhood abuse. She told her therapist that she had always believed that “by marrying the right guy, I could just put the past behind me, when Jeff came along – I thought I was safe” Just after her first child was born, Mary began sexual/romantic affairs with both a neighbor and separately, a co-worker, believing then that her marriage had become boring and she needed these other experiences to feel “more alive.” In addition to the stated ongoing sexual and romantic liaisons over the past several years, Mary has been signing onto Craigslist in search of other lovers and casual sex whenever she or her husband are out of town for work. Despite her sexual acting out history – Mary was highly motivated to make her marriage work and keep her family together.
Today there are a few precious resources for female sex and love addicts include the recent book, “Waiting to Heal” by Kelly McDaniel MFT, “Women, Sex and Addiction” by Charlotte Kasl. SLAA, Sex and Love addicts Anonymous is a 12-step sex addiction recovery program that encourages female participation and offers many gender separate meetings. The Ranch, a residential treatment center in Nunnelly, Tennessee offers private, gender separate residential treatment for female sex addicts.
The most important step a female sex and love addict can take toward recovery is to openly and honestly bond with healthy adult women, not for sex – but for recreation, friendship and mutual support. Sharing their sexual past in detail (non-graphic) with other women helps to reduce shame and non-sexual bonding with supportive women helps alleviate the need to use men sexually for self-soothing and self-stability.
Below are is an abbreviated list of 20 key “questions” adapted from the Sex and Love Addicts literature that might help a woman self-determine if she has this type of problem. More about SLAA can be found at: http://www.slaafws.org/
Am I a Female Sex and Love Addict?
1.) Do you feel that your life is becoming or is unmanageable because of your sexual and/or romantic behavior or your excessive dependency needs?
2.) Do you find yourself unable to stop seeing a specific person even though you know that seeing this person is destructive to you?
3.) Do you feel that you don’t want anyone to know about your sexual or romantic activities? Do you feel you need to hide these activities from others – friends, family, co-workers, counselors, etc.?
4.) Do you get “high” from sex and/or romance and then crash when the act or experience is over?
5.) Have you had sex at inappropriate times, in inappropriate places, and/or with inappropriate people?
6.) Do you make promises to yourself or rules for yourself concerning your sexual or romantic behavior that you find you cannot follow?
7.) Have you had or do you have sex with someone you don’t (didn’t) want to have sex with?
8.) Have you ever thought that there might be more you could do with your life if you were not so driven by sexual and romantic pursuits?
9.) Do you feel desperate about your need for a lover, sexual fix, or future mate?
10.) Have you or do you have sex regardless of the consequences (e.g. the threat of being caught, the risk of contracting herpes, gonorrhea, AIDS, etc.)?
11.) Do you find that you have a pattern of repeating bad relationships?
12.) Do you feel like a lifeless puppet unless there is someone around with whom you can flirt? Do you feel that you’re not “really alive” unless you are with your sexual/romantic partner?
13.) Have you ever threatened your financial stability, career or standing in the community by pursuing a sexual partner?
14.) Have you ever had a serious relationship threatened or destroyed because of outside sexual activity?
15.) Do you feel that life would have no meaning without a love relationship or without sex? Do you feel that you would have no identity if you were not someone’s lover?
16.) Do you find yourself flirting with or sexualizing someone even if that was not your intention?
17.) Does your sexual and/or romantic behavior affect your reputation?
18.) Do you feel uncomfortable about your masturbation because of the frequency with which you masturbate, the fantasies you engage in, the props you use, and/or the places in which you do it?
19.) Are you unable to concentrate on other areas of your life because of thoughts or feelings you are having about another person or about sex?
20.) Do you find yourself obsessing about a specific person or sexual act even though these thoughts bring pain, craving or discomfort?
excerpted © 1985 The Augustine Fellowship, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Fellowship-Wide Services, Inc. All Rights Reserved