Naked in Public: An Interview with Therapist and Author Staci SproutI have long argued that the literature and treatment protocols for sexual addiction are heavily skewed toward male clients – as if it is only men who act out sexually. At least part of this shortcoming arises from the fact that female sex addicts are less likely than their male counterparts to seek direct help for a sexual problem, which makes them harder to identify, study, and treat. To a large extent this is a function of societal prejudices. Societally speaking, men are allowed to be indiscriminately sexual; women are not. Because of this, male sex addicts are sometimes celebrated as players and ladies men, and they tend to proudly recount their exploits in therapy – even the sexual activities that are creating deeply negative consequences. Conversely, obsessively sexual females are denigrated as sluts, whores, and nymphos, which makes it much more difficult to talk about what they’ve been doing sexually and the problems their behavior is causing.

Because of this, the sexual addiction treatment community has desperately needed a female voice – not just a female clinician who fully understands the psychological aspects of the disease, but a recovering sex addict who “gets it” on a personal level and is willing to share what it is like. With her new book, Naked in Public: A Memoir of Sex Addiction and Other Temporary Insanities, Staci Sprout provides this much needed jolt. Recently, I asked Staci to take a bit of time away from her Seattle-based psychotherapy practice to discuss her newly published memoir and why she wrote it.

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What prompted you to put forth your story of addiction and recovery so openly?

I certainly never imagined myself being this candid about my personal life, especially in public! But three significant events made it happen. The first came in 2001 when my life was in complete freefall. I was bottoming out in my sex addiction, and I heard a man in a 12-Step meeting share the phrase “my life is an open book” as his spiritual mantra. In that moment I had an experience of profound recognition. I interpreted that as an unmistakable call to start living with integrity.

My second nudge came five years later when my life had become much more stable and I was working as a therapist again, during my first day of training to become a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. I asked the program’s founder, Dr. Patrick Carnes, for advice on whether to share with clients about the importance of 12-Step programs. That work had been transformational in my life, but I didn’t want to impose my views on my clients. Dr. Carnes urged me to share my story and let clients make up their own minds, and, much like my experience in the meeting so many years earlier, that felt like a calling. I started writing not long after that, but didn’t get very far. Painful memories crowded in and I couldn’t bear them. So I gave up.

The catalyst for returning to the writing came six years later when I met the man who is now my husband. About six months after we started dating, I intuitively knew it was time to get back to the memoir, and I hired a coach for support and accountability. By then my life had become full of unbelievable joy – I was sexually sober and having an amazing romance with a man I loved, my business was a success, I had lots of friends, and I’d adopted two darling puppies. But even though recovery had given me a wonderful life, I never forgot my history and the fact that my addictions had almost killed me. I felt I’d been spared for some reason, and thought telling my story might be that reason. Finally, I felt strong enough to “go spelunking,” as I call digging into the painful past, to see if I could find something to write about that might be helpful for others.

As far as the decision to share so openly, I was trying to capture the spirit of how people share in 12-Step sexual recovery meetings. It may sound ironic, but I find people dedicated to sexual recovery to be the most honest, authentic, nonjudgmental people I’ve ever met. I think there’s something about going so low that makes people drop the pretension and performance. When someone works through that much shame and survives, there’s deep humility there. It kept me going back.

What did it feel like the first time you went into a sexual addiction recovery meeting and found that you were the only woman?

I was terrified. I dissociated. In others words, I went into a threat response of “freeze,” like a deer in the headlights. To be surrounded by the energy of so many men and have them talking openly about sexual compulsion was overwhelming. Even though they were welcoming and respectful, it was a tough way to start. Yet on some intuitive level there was also recognition. I hated it, but there was a tiny sense of “home” in those rooms that has only grown over the years. I prefer when the genders are balanced in meetings, but either way I know that the sexual recovery community is my tribe.

What was the “aha moment” that pushed you forward into recovery and a better life?

I was mostly motivated by survival and desperation, especially at first. I felt utterly lost and exhausted. The relationship I was in was a train wreck, but instead of cutting and running like I had always done in the past, I wanted to make it work. Because of an awful experience with an unethical therapist, I wasn’t willing to try therapy again. I didn’t know where else to go, so I decided to try a 12-Step meeting. From there my life seemed to get worse, but really it was the utter breaking down of the old life that needed to die so I could survive. Things eventually got better, way better. There’s a saying in 12-Step recovery, “Don’t quit before the miracle.” I’m so glad I didn’t.

What was the most difficult moment of your healing process? And, more generally, what do you feel is the most difficult part of being a female recovering sex addict?

Withdrawal from my secret, sexually compulsive lifestyle was the most painful. If you haven’t experienced it, it can be hard to understand how difficult that detoxification is. It impacted my mind, body, and spirit, and I almost killed myself to escape the pain and despair I felt after giving up my “drugs” of sexual intrigue, obsession, fantasy, pornography, and objectifying sex. Withdrawal is part of the process for all people in sexual recovery, although not everyone experiences it in the same way I did. Many people actually feel great relief when they stop and “get sober,” so I don’t want to paint too dismal a picture, but for me it was my hell on Earth. My self-loathing seemed endless. But it did abate, I’m grateful to say, in layers, like washing off a lifetime of caked-on mud.

As far as being a female recovering sex addict, the difficult part at first was the stigma in my own mind. I was fortunate to be dating a man at that time who was also in recovery; he was the one to tell me sexual recovery existed, and he was supportive when I decided to give it a try. For many other women the worst part is the judgment they face from those around them. When I finally did tell my family, they assumed the worst with a very painful result. It’s a taboo topic in most circles, and I’m hopeful that my story can be part of changing that.

It’s not easy to be a female sex addict seeking recovery in a 12-Step program of mostly men. I write about this in an appendix of Naked In Public, along with tips for how women can have a better experience. Happily, there are many more women in meetings now than when I first started in 2001, and more are joining all the time. It’s actually amazing to see young women walking into the rooms of recovery today. They’ve been exposed to so much hardcore sexual imagery and such wildly skewed expectations of who they should be sexually, yet they have a resilience and sweetness that is incredible. The young women who get into sexual recovery today are my heroes. They are fierce!

Do you feel it is important to find other women in sexual recovery?

For me, a vital ingredient for decreasing shame was sitting with women who were telling their stories and realizing they were also telling my story. As I saw other recovering female sex addicts as survivors and warriors and fragile and powerful all at once, I came to understand that I could see myself that way also. As I found compassion for them, I found it for myself too. The women I met who were loving with me taught me to love myself.

I met men who were loving as well, first three gay men and eventually several straight men whom I grew to respect and admire. My connections with women came later in my journey because there were so few women in my early recovery days. But resourcing with women has proven essential to my long-term sobriety because they “get me” in a way that leaves me feeling deeply seen and heard.

As a therapist, and also as a recovering sex addict, what differences do you see between male and female sex addicts – in both active addiction and during recovery?

Research has shown us that women tend to gravitate more toward certain kinds of sexually compulsive patterns, though one size definitely does not fit all. In his book Don’t Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction, Dr. Carnes surveyed over 1,000 self-identified sex addicts, and his results indicated categories of sexual acting out behavior that could be divided into ten types. In my therapy practice, women report more difficulty with the types called “Fantasy Sex,” “Seductive Role Sex,” “Trading Sex,” and “Exhibitionism,” which fits in with how women are often socialized to be sexual. Male sex addicts report more difficulty with “Anonymous Sex,” “Paying for Sex,” “Voyeuristic Sex,” and “Intrusive” or “Exploitive” sex. Women can struggle more with relationship addiction (love addiction), whereas men may struggle more with non-relational, objectifying hypersexuality. Yet the availability of pornography and cheating apps like Ashley Madison has brought a rise in the number of women seeking help for sexual acting out behaviors once thought to be primarily associated with men. So every woman needs to be assessed individually, and making assumptions can lead to missing behaviors that need to come to light but won’t be admitted unless asked about. Women can face incredible cultural shaming for anything related to sexuality, let alone sexual compulsion.

In active addiction, a difference I see with female sex addicts is poverty, something not as common with the male sex addict population. Some women are supporting themselves through sex work, and “getting sober” for them means finding or learning another trade, and, in doing so, leaving behind every person they know. They may face deadly violence if they try to leave. Or they have children they adore, and if their secret life is revealed it would endanger their custody and they don’t want to risk that. This can be true for male sex addicts too, but I see it more with women.

What would you like the readers of Naked in Public – female, male, therapist, addict, loved ones, etc. – to take away from your book?

I’d like for them to tell me it was an engrossing read and they couldn’t put it down! And to take away that help is available, that people can and do heal from sex addiction, and that miracles happen, although often it’s the daily effort, imperfectly, that brings long-term success. I’d love to hear that people feel encouraged that it’s worth it to hang in there for the long haul of recovery, whether it’s the reader’s personal recovery or the journey of a loved one, a client, or a friend. I’d love for them to take away that no matter how unworthy someone feels, or how horrible the things they have done, they can get better. Individuals can get better, marriages can heal or happen, and families can mend. But we’ve got to start talking about it!

 

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