A Behavior So Taboo
Their behavior is considered so taboo, one woman describes it as a dark and dangerous game that nobody knows she's playing. Another one calls it a sickness that will be the death of her.
"I'm not the girl that someone falls in love with. I'm not the girl that someone respects. I'm not the girl that someone wants to spend their time with," Jennifer says. "I'm a girl that will have sex with you. I'm the girl you don't need to call."
The flip side of her attachment to her actions is her very real awareness that she is engaging in incredibly dangerous behavior. In most of her sexual encounters, Jennifer says she has sex with strangers and does not use contraceptive protection against STDs or even pregnancy. Whenever she gets close to having a positive relationship, she says she'll actively sabotage it because she doesn't feel worthy.
"It's kind of this Russian roulette game that I play with these men," Jennifer says. "A sort of unconscious death wish. While I'm petrified of contracting an incurable STD or becoming pregnant, I'm also sort of flirting with it and playing with it."
On one occasion, Jennifer says, she was raped by a man she'd previously had consensual sex with, but it didn't deter her for long. Soon she was out in search of new partners.
Instead, Jennifer compares her relationship to sex to the way that a heroin addict feels about heroin. "I do derive pleasure, but there's also a punishment that I'm doing to myself. There's a masochistic aspect."
When she was 8 years old, Jennifer says, she found a family member's pornography, which both fascinated and scared her. "The forbidden aspect of it was very interesting," she says. "And there was also sort of disgust and a revulsion and an insatiable curiosity."
Gail says she thinks she knows where Jennifer's troubles begin. "The role model from her other parent—the father— was not a very good one," Gail says. "Not very loving and nurturing."
How did that manifest into a sexual addiction? "That I don't know," Gail says, "but it's the self-esteem part that I'm thinking."
Jennifer also thinks her relationship with her father plays an important role in her life. "I feel like the abandonment that I felt from my father played a profound role," she says. "That dynamic was my model of how I relate to men. Not that I want to have intercourse with my dad, but in the way of I crave his affection."
"At night, I go out and meet guys and go home with them and engage in sexual behavior that's dangerous," Tracy says. "I meet different men at the library or at the gas station, at clubs, at the mall. After I've been with these strange men, I feel ashamed. I feel guilty, dirty, mad at myself because I let it take over my life."
Being a pre-med student, Tracy knows how dangerous her behavior is, and she's struggling to break her behavior. "I need help. It's not something that you tell people every day."
In a message Tracy wrote to The Oprah Winfrey Show, she expressed her desire to become a forensic pathologist, but worried, "I have reason to believe that this day may never come because of my secret life—something I'm so ashamed of that I have not yet revealed to anybody, including my Lord and savior."
"I met a guy at a club," she says. "He seemed nice and regular, like the other men that I meet. We went back to his apartment, and he just changed. He started calling me demeaning names and became forceful when we were kissing and stuff like that. I told him I wanted to go, I wanted to leave. He just seemed different to me, and that had never happened to me before. But he wouldn't let me leave, and he raped me. Until that happened, I just never thought it could happen to me."
Even living through this frightening experience didn't deter Tracy for very long. She says she was back looking for a new partner within weeks.
The reason she seeks out sex with strangers, she says, is only to have "someone there." Yet Tracy has no interest in anything more than the one-night stand.
"Sometimes if I give them my phone number, they'll just keep calling me," she says. "But I don't really go back, I just keep going forward. I don't really [continue talking] to the guys I have sex with."
Tracy says her difficulty in understanding her self-worth stems from being made fun of as a child. "I used to be made fun of a lot," she says. "I was always taller than everybody else, I was a little skinny thing. They called me 'Jolly Green Giant.'" When she went to college, however, it was a new experience. "People liked me and they didn't call me names and I started meeting these guys, and I guess I never really thought that any guy would go home with me or would like me."
Dr. Robin asks Jennifer to rethink her definition of abuse. "The exposure to pornography as a child is absolutely a form of abuse," she says. "I want you to understand that when a child is exposed to pornography, when they're exposed to sexuality in an inappropriate way, it is a form of abuse because it robs you of your childhood."
"I was an exotic dancer for a little less than two years, which really throws you in this constant comparison," Jennifer says. "I'm always comparing my insides to someone else's outsides and having my worth be contingent on my sexual desirability. I feel like I don't fit a traditional mold of beauty, and I'm really not interested in my body. In fact, I prefer to have sex with someone with the lights off, or at least dimmer."
"So part of what you're saying is how you don't see your body," Dr. Robin says. "You dislike your body and then you mistreat it."
It's also not at all surprising that neither Jennifer nor Tracy experience any sexual satisfaction from their actions, Dr. Robin says. "It's about punishment," she says. "What you're doing is covering up your pain, and it's a way of recreating early pain.
"Tracy, when you're teased as a child, that's a real wound. Jennifer, when you felt abandoned by your father and whatever exposure to pornography, those cover-ups continue to replicate. They keep happening again and again. Not having an orgasm is a form of self-punishment. It's a way of denying yourself pleasure. And both of you are on the prowl not for sex, but for security."
For people struggling with a sex addiction, Dr. Robin has two pieces of advice. "Get some really solid professional help because addicts, ordinarily, cannot get free of the addiction without real support and help." She also suggests focusing on why you are really suffering, because the sex is really just a cover-up for that suffering. "Start to say, 'That's a piece of my history, and it's all about pain. It's not about being a slut.'"
When Amy goes out looking for a man, she says she's not looking for a sex partner—she's looking for a "life partner." She says she often would be happy to have a man hold her through the night, but she doesn't know how to say no to sex. "If I don't give in to that sex, then I feel like, 'What am I good for?'" she says. "I don't want to disappoint him. So I just go along with it, and I do it."
Although she can't remember the exact number, Amy estimates that she's slept with more than 70 men over the years. Since the birth of her son, however, she says she's refocused her energy from finding a man to raising a man.
"After I had my little boy, I have changed a lot," Amy says. "He my new addiction. He saves me. When I don't have him, then I'm out and I'm looking—not for sex, but for someone to hold me...someone to be with, someone to make me feel important and smart and beautiful."
Dr. Robin says that Amy is allowing herself to be defined by relationships with men, instead of looking within to find self-worth.
"The issue is about building a self," she says. "'How do I build a self that is not dependent on anyone else?' It is the task of every human being, but particularly of every woman. ... I don't know of another task that is bigger for any of us than to say, 'I am worthy simply because I am.'"