They used to be known as nymphomaniacs, and every young man dreamt of meeting one. Now women who can’t say no are a suitable case for treatment
Move over men, women can be addicted to sex too (Corbis)
We’ve gone long past the America I know from television — past the diners, the yellow school buses, the Taco Bell — and now we’re cruising a desert highway surrounded by a halo of pink mountains. I’m in the back of Bob’s pick-up, a man who looks like Hunter S Thompson, bald behind Aviators. Bob is a sex addict. Next to him is Tracey, also a sex addict, a slim 28-year-old redhead in skin-tight jeans. For the purposes of this article I too am a sex addict, and I’ve convinced Bob and Tracey this is the case. If they suddenly pull over in the dusty nowhere wanting a threesome, I guess that’s my cover blown.
I am going to a sex addicts’ retreat in Arizona to find out if sex addiction really exists. Until now I had assumed it was a disease invented by male celebrities to give themselves an Oprah-age excuse for doing what they have always done. Step forward, Tiger Woods, Michael Douglas, David Duchovny (and Russell Brand if Katy Perry hadn’t appeared). But sex addiction apparently is something more serious.
A pioneering study on the subject, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, by Dr Patrick Carnes, came out in 1983. A year later he opened Pine Grove, the clinic in Mississippi that later treated Woods; over the next decade similar clinics proliferated, first in America, then here. Now six private clinics operate in Britain, though sex addiction is still not officially recognised as a condition. That may be about to change. Last month, news broke that it is under serious discussion by psychologists for inclusion in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), published by the American Psychiatric Association and considered the definitive guide to what constitutes a psychological disorder. Sex addiction is set to receive the official stamp of medical recognition — and as a result treatment may in time become available on the NHS.
Bob, Tracey and I arrive at a ranch in the Sonoran Desert that looks like the set of a wild-west film. A woman in her thirties in baggy T-shirt and jeans runs out to meet us. “Hi, I’m Rebecca,” says Rebecca. “I’m Tracey,” says Tracey. “I’m Katie,” I say, as Bob drives off — for this retreat is women-only. Although it’s not so common or widely documented, women suffer from sex addiction as well as men. Experts say that women may show different symptoms, being more likely to get into serious multiple relationships than one-night stands. But some women have an addiction purely to sex itself, not the relationships surrounding it — and this chimes with men’s experience of sex addiction.
Amy shows me to a single bed in a room I will share with her and four other sex-addict women. I ask her how she knew she was a sex addict and she says: “I objectified men.” I wonder if this is something that worries Hugh Hefner. She asks about me, so I tell her (almost) the truth: that I attended a sex addicts’ meeting in London, in the grimy basement of a Marylebone church, and found myself surrounded by 30 men in their thirties, in crumpled grey suits with crumpled grey faces, while I sat with two women who stared at their feet. One man shared how he masturbated compulsively “15 or 16 times a day”. Another described photo albums filled with forgotten flings. “There’s one picture of me outside the Taj Mahal with a girl. I can’t even remember her name.” I ran, I say. Then checked in here.
Experts say that women may show different symptoms, being more likely to get into serious multiple relationships than one-night stands
In the dining hall 43 sex-addicted women aged 20-60 have arrived and are piling plates with chicken burritos. The first thing you notice is that sex addicts are not sexy. Perhaps in the throes of their addiction they all looked like Jordan, but now they’re in recovery they dress like drab American tourists: baggy T-shirts, baseball caps, jeans.
“My boobs used to make a lot more of an appearance,” laughs Bee, a thirty-something mum squashing up next to me. You see, there’s method in their misshapenness; it’s their first line of defence against getting laid. The room isn’t just frumpy, it is also fat. The average women here is the size of a Jerry Springer Show guest, perhaps because food is the only pleasure recovering sex addicts have left. Instead of flirting, they eat.
Instead of sex we are going to have pudding. “It’s like a school trip,” I whisper to Tracey, who has taken a seat on my other side. “Yeah, except there’s no sneaking into the boys’ rooms,” she smiles. I like Tracey. It turns out she’s a gallery assistant, with a nine-year marriage and a young son. She is relatively new to recovery and relatively unrecovered, so last night, she says, even on her way here she was heading to a bar to pick up a guy. “Or a girl. Or both.” What happened? “I went home. I prayed. Then I cried.”
Our retreat is being run by Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), a 12-step programme based on Alcoholics Anonymous. Our meetings follow a similar confessional format: “Hi, my name is Nicola and I am a sex addict,” starts Nicola. “Hi, Nicola,” the group chant back. “We are sex addicts.” Nicola reads from the SAA handbook. We are sitting in a circle in the main hall. “Our addiction nearly destroyed our lives.”
The book is passed on. “Hi, I’m Chloe and I am a sex addict.” “Hi, Chloe.” “Our addictive sexual behaviour was causing pain — to ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones. Our lives were out of control.”
There are self-diagnostic tests that can establish whether you are a sex addict or have the beginnings of a problem: do you joke or talk about sex inappropriately? Do you find yourself daydreaming about sex? Are you secretive about your sexual behaviour? Have you cheated on a serious partner? Do you flirt with people when you don’t mean to? Do you stay in relationships even if they’re bad? Have you answered yes to any of these questions? Tracey passes the book to me and I pass it on.
It is 9am and I am pretending to be a peacock. We have hiked, we have meditated, we have eaten a three-course breakfast; now we’re expressing our sex addiction through experimental dance. Tracey arrives late: “Can I do it in jeans?” she asks our dance teacher, Dana. Dana is unsure. “Usually I’d say just do it in your underwear, but maybe here that’s not a good idea.”
Dana has us lie on the floor. “Loosen your jaws, your whole faces. Now let your arms and legs go wild. Do a dance on your backs.” I try to do a dance on my back but I feel like an idiot. Around me legs wave in the air. Dana divides us into groups to channel our inner peacocks. Amy and Julie are both in my group. Julie is a fashion buyer in her thirties, sweet and shy. When her husband is at work she picks up men in bars for kinky sex. When her last S&M session ended in hospital, her therapist suggested SAA.
We circle each other awkwardly, flapping our hands. In the background someone is playing a drum. “Don’t touch each other,” Dana warns. Afterwards, she has us sit in a circle and share how the dance made us feel. “I felt happy,” says Rebecca. “I felt stupid,” I think. Julie stares into space. “I had this fantasy where the whole room turned into peacocks and suddenly we were dancing together in one huge formation.” Amy looks worried. Fantasy is the sex addict’s crack. Patricia, a banker’s wife and 55-year-old grandmother, fantasised about her Chinese foot masseur: “I couldn’t stop imagining him doing other things to me. It took over my life. I was married, so was he — it almost destroyed me. You can turn off internet porn, but it’s harder to turn off what’s in your head.”