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Getting Off

Carnes's book became a bible for sex addicts.
Jill Hadley Hooper

Even in retirement, Ted liked to work. He had not had an idle day since flinging newspapers onto front lawns in middle school. His efforts eventually landed him in senior management at a Fortune 500 company. And after 40 years of marriage and sending four kids through college, he and his wife were set for life. But even at 66, he was restless. So he started a part-time consulting business, which kept him sharp and got him out of the house.

But it didn't keep him out of the Bubble.

And that's where he was on that Tuesday four years ago, the day when everything changed.

His wife had already left for the day when Ted woke up, leaned over and pulled out the pornography stash hidden in his nightstand. He always preferred prose over pictures -- it let him use his imagination. His fantasies were about women only, no kids.

The high kicked in and he grew hard. But he didn't masturbate. Instead, he went to the kitchen and fixed a sandwich.

He was now trapped in the Bubble. Sex addicts weren't kidding when they gave it that name. You can see the outside world, but you're not a part of it. You're on cruise control. Adrenaline gets you in, climax gets you out.

His heart beating faster, he drove to his favorite spot at Airline and I-45. He had cruised neighborhoods like this for decades, his eyes trained to find the rough-edged women who were good for a trick. Three or four times a month, often fueled by alcohol, he'd pick up a pro or a woman in a bar.

But after driving around for an hour, Ted had found only empty streets. He pointed the car home, where he methodically made another sandwich.

Ted was a leader, gregarious, the kind of guy who threw himself into whatever he did. He drank hard, but he worked harder, so this urge was never a problem -- or at least no one thought it was.

In reality, he was now powerless. The Bubble's a bitch. It makes you feel safe even while it traps you. He couldn't just masturbate now. He needed the payoff of a cruise -- and a quick one.

Soon he was back, turning off Airline onto a side street, spotting her and figuring almost immediately that she had to be a cop. Late twenties, black, with dyed blond hair, she looked too clean -- not like the typical hollow-eyed zombies. Her clothes fit, her shoes weren't scuffed, she had some bulk to her.

He stopped beside her.

"Are you going to arrest me?" he asked.

Her voice, loud and distinct: "Oh, no --you're going to arrest me."

There are cops in the neighborhood, she said, advising Ted to meet her around the corner where it was safer.

Now he knew she was a cop -- the shined shoes, the clear voice, the meeting place. He could turn right and head to her, or swing left and get the hell home. Maybe his wife would be back. Maybe they could go for a walk.

Ted turned right.

The undercover cop spoke into her hidden mike; the cops in the camera car met Ted. He was busted. He'd have to call his wife to bail him out, and this poor woman would learn the truth.

His life as he knew it was over. And his recovery was just beginning.


The redheaded stepchild of obsessions, sex addiction is silent torture for its victims and a punch line for the public. Disregarded by the American Psychiatric Association, ignored or exploited by the media, often misunderstood by even those who suffer from it, sex addiction hasn't achieved the tolerance and sympathy afforded its big brothers, alcoholism and gambling addiction.

The myths are myriad, and even the name is misleading.

"Sex addiction is not about sex," says Houston sex therapist Barbara Levinson, who has treated Ted and many other addicts. (The recovering addicts consented to be interviewed only if the Press did not use their real names or give personal information that would identify them.)

For many, the term might conjure an image of a swaggering lothario bedding every woman he sees. But Levinson and other experts say sex addicts don't necessarily have more sex than the average person. Some aren't even into actual intercourse; not one of them feels good about their sexual behavior. Their core belief is that they are unworthy human beings; the preoccupation with sex is a coping mechanism that, like drugs, pays off with one hell of a high followed by a lonely, pathetic crash.

The affliction affects from 3 to 6 percent of American adults, according to Patrick Carnes, informally known as the father of the study of sexual addiction. Carnes, the Arizona-based author of Out of the Shadows, the sex addict's bible, defines the addiction as "any sexually related compulsive behavior that interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones and one's work environment."

 

Addicts have many poisons to choose from: voyeurism, Internet pornography, solicitation, phone sex, masturbation, anonymous sex, molestation, rape. Sexual addiction isn't characterized by the act itself but by the hallmark of all addictions: the need to escalate the behavior and repeat it despite negative consequences and past efforts to quit. Addicts want -- and try -- to stop, but they simply can't. That is the fundamental difference between the addict and someone who just wants to get off.

Eventually, they have to up their dosage. Male addicts who insist they're heterosexual find themselves picking up transvestite hookers or getting serviced by other men in the back of adult bookstores. It doesn't matter -- once they're in the Bubble, they feel the rush, and that's all that counts.

In a study of more than 1,000 recovering sex addicts and their partners, Carnes found that addicts often come from families plagued by substance abuse, pathological gambling, eating disorders or sexual compulsion.

About 80 percent of the addicts' families were rigid and detached. The majority claimed they experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse in childhood.

"In part, their sex addiction stemmed from a search for nurturing without the risk of intimacy or trust," according to Carnes. "The challenge in assessment, then, is the high probability that sex addicts will not want to be accountable, nor will they trust easily. In fact, a double life for many will seem normal."

They become world-class liars, conjuring excuses for lost time, missed meetings, vanished money. More often than not, they're addicted to drugs or alcohol. Eventually, their addiction(s) can cost them their families, their jobs, their savings.

In 1977, several Minneapolis men who suffered from this yet-unnamed condition began meeting. Soon, they tailored the famed 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to their own problem and called themselves Sex Addicts Anonymous. Chapters formed throughout the country and inspired other groups such as Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

When SAA's office manager resigned in 1993, the group conducted a nationwide search for a replacement, offering to relocate the headquarters of what had grown into an international nonprofit organization.

Enter Frank, who at that time had 18 months of sobriety with the Houston chapter. He said his modus operandi, what addicts call "acting out," included infidelity, masturbation and "illegal behavior."

Then 52, Frank had worked with nonprofits and figured he was the man for the manager's job. He was hired.

A Minneapolis member loaded the office contents into a U-Haul and moved them to an unassuming building in the Houston Heights. This office, now the international headquarters for the SAA, oversees about 600 groups in the United States and in six foreign countries. While there was once a women's group, SAA members say there are currently not enough female members to hold regular meetings of their own. So they have some "mixed" sessions with the males.

With about 200 to 300 active members holding 21 weekly meetings in churches, hospitals and community centers, Houston is one of the most active cities, Frank says. The Bayou City also hosted last year's convention, which drew more than 400 members to a Galleria-area hotel. Frank estimates worldwide membership at about 4,000, although member anonymity prevents SAA from keeping detailed records.

Of the membership, about 85 percent are male and about 10 percent are sex offenders under court-ordered treatment.

When Frank first started answering office phones, it was rare for him to hear from people in their early twenties. Now, with the Internet, SAA is seeing a lot more college-age addicts. He says the Internet not only hooks people at a younger age but also makes it easier for them to get busted. They get caught downloading porn at work, or spouses catch on after so many sleepless nights spent in computer rooms. Partners may notice funds being funneled to www.dirtyteens.com.

Recovering addicts don't achieve sobriety through abstaining from all sexual behavior. Their recovery is custom-fitted, with each addict creating what is called the Three Circles. The outer circle contains healthy behavior: monogamy, dating, making friends, taking up a new hobby. "Boundary behaviors" -- the last steps before acting out -- are relegated to the middle circle. These can include visiting neighborhoods where they had solicited prostitutes or contacting an old acting-out partner. The inner circle includes their most self-destructive, "acting out" behaviors, the ones that the addict must avoid.

 

Frank is one of three full-time employees, paid through member donations and sale of literature from SAA's Web site (the meetings are free). While his title as director of fellowship services may be of some distinction, everything changes when he attends a session. There, everyone gets the same treatment.

"I'm just another sex addict at the meeting," Frank says.


Barbara Levinson, a licensed sex therapist, was the one to first tell Ted he was probably an addict.

After his wife bailed Ted out and realized she was married to a liar, Ted looked at his attorney and asked, "Why the hell would I do things I didn't want to do?"

The lawyer referred him to Levinson, a tall, slim, middle-aged Bronx transplant who calls her practice the Center for Healthy Sexuality.

Sitting in her giant leather chair beneath a dreamcatcher and paintings of Native Americans, Levinson listened to Ted's story, one she'd heard countless times since entering the field in 1984. She told Ted that he most likely had two addictions: alcohol and sex.

Following her advice, he went to an SAA meeting. There he was, a retired big shot, a well-educated guy who had managed fortunes. His associates had looked up to him, which made his addiction so much easier to hide. If Ted came in late to work one morning and said there was a traffic jam, then there was a traffic jam. No reason to think he was out cruising Airline.

Now he was just another schlub working on two types of sobriety chips: one for kicking alcohol and one for kicking whores.

But when he actually looked around, Ted was surprised by what he considered mostly smart and creative people. They had accomplished a lot professionally, or could accomplish a lot if they didn't channel all their energy into writing their own pornographic novels. He says he found himself fitting in, relieved to talk about his shame in front of people who knew exactly what he was going through.

He told them about his dad splitting when he was ten, how he took that to mean he was going to have to grow up quickly and take care of himself. Sure, he had a caring mother, but he still felt alone.

He started work at 11 -- a paper route before school, a grocery store after. Around that time, he began his sexual fantasies. He spied on the neighborhood floozy and developed a taste for pornographic prose. Women were nothing more than body parts -- except for his wife. He got married around 25 and had a normal sexual relationship with his wife, but it didn't satisfy this obsession he'd carried for years.

He'd drive out of his way to look at a woman on the street or in an adjacent car. He'd slither through supermarkets, following women, forgetting what he went to the store for in the first place. He'd see an attractive woman in a crowd and obsess over her for days.

As his work responsibilities advanced, so did his stress. Respect from others wasn't enough. Inside, he felt like a failure.

"I always worried about being fired," Ted says now. "Hell, I would worry about being fired on the day they gave me a bonus."

He had a medicine cabinet full of stress relievers: They included alcohol, compulsive eating, compulsive work and ultimately sex. After a while, pornography wouldn't cut it. He had to up the ante and live out his fantasy; he had to solicit sex. After that, nothing else would do.

At night, he'd pick up streetwalkers. Soon he found himself leaving work to feed his addiction. It didn't matter when the feeling hit -- he once left a family barbecue to pick up a prostitute.

Ted had affairs with women he'd call from home. He made out with a family caretaker while his wife was in the other room. He was in it for the rush, not the sex. Sometimes he had to force himself to be aroused, just to get the payoff.

Telling his fellow members all that was easy; confronting his wife was the hardest.

After a few months of SAA and therapy, Levinson wanted Ted to reveal everything to his wife. Following his arrest, Ted had lied to her, telling her he had only started picking up prostitutes following his retirement six years earlier.

This meant that Ted had to recall more than 40 years of deception, starting shortly after he got married. He had to tally his local liaisons and the cruising on business trips. And even all the times he just acted out by following hookers into dingy hotel rooms, only to turn around and walk away. He was in the Bubble each and every time, shielded from thoughts of his wife and children, temporarily immune to any guilt, shame or fear.

 

As Ted says, "This second life, there's only one person in it: yourself…There may be another human being participating in it, but you do it by yourself."

So he sat there in the Center for Healthy Sexuality and recounted it all. After four decades of marriage, Ted's wife was finally meeting her real husband.

"I took my covenants that I made in my marriage, pissed all over them, jumped on top of them, kicked them," he says, spitting out the words like rotten food. "My wife, she would have never thought of breaking those covenants."

He says that moment was excruciating for his wife, who four years later is still recovering. They agreed to not tell their kids, so instead she confides in the members of Codependents of Sex Addicts Anonymous. The addict may feel isolated, but the spouse can feel even more alone. How can Ted's wife ever know where he's really going when he leaves the house?

For that reason, he doesn't so much as go to the grocery store without first calling her on his cell. He has a long way to go to regain her trust.


An affliction hasn't truly arrived until it makes it into the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference book that medical experts and insurance companies use to define illnesses and their accepted treatment.

Alcoholism appeared in the DSM's 1952 inaugural edition. Pathological gambling showed up in 1980. Sex addiction wasn't given its own listing, but instead was watered down into various "paraphalias": fetishism, masochism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism.

"In some ways, it's sort of the keys to the kingdom," Carnes says of getting in the DSM. Fortunately, he says, there are many therapists who are trained to identify sex addiction, but there is no consensus in the medical community.

Carnes, a certified addiction specialist, is credited with creating the nation's first inpatient facility for sex addicts, in Minneapolis in the late 1970s. He is now the clinical director for sexual disorders at The Meadows, a clinic outside Phoenix.

In 1983, he published Out of the Shadows, which anyone in SAA can quote verbatim. He pioneered the study, and now he's at the forefront of the movement to get his area of expertise in the DSM.

Last October, scientists and therapists swarmed to Vanderbilt University in Nashville for the annual conference of the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity. Vanderbilt is ground zero for research into how sexual behavior affects the brain's pleasure center. A team of psychiatrists there is loading male test subjects into MRIs. When the doctors show the men a picture of naked women, Carnes says, their frontal lobes illuminate. Show them a picture of actual intercourse, and the whole brain glows.

The research is an important part of building a case to bring to the American Psychiatric Association, which is working on the 2008 edition of the DSM. First, the experts have to agree on a diagnostic and interviewing protocol for their studies. Then they test the hell out of them.

Right now, little is known about which pathways are involved in sexual arousal, says Reid Finlayson, a psychiatrist on the Vanderbilt team. Until there's a clear answer, there will be critics.

"Everybody can think of addiction with a chemical…but it's pretty hard to think of a behavior that we've all been associated with having the same kind of power," he says.

Tom Wise, a physician at Johns Hopkins' Sexual Behavioral Consultation Unit, describes the disorder as sexual compulsion, not addiction, which he says is associated with tolerance and dependence. In this extreme sexual behavior, there is nothing like alcoholism's delirium tremens, the DTs.

"There are a lot of so-called experts that are rushing to judgment and closing the need to study this better," Wise says.

Many experts lump disparate compulsions together as the same addiction, resulting in mistreatment, he says. The guy obsessed with amputee porn may not have the same problem as the woman who spends all night in Internet chat rooms. Different compulsions have to be treated differently.

With an alcoholic, Wise says, "We really don't have to worry whether they're drinking 15-year-old brandy or drinking…aftershave lotion."

But for Carnes, there is no doubt.

"It's the last area that's to be researched, that's to be sure," he says. "I think it's because of our shame around sex, our discomfort in talking about it. Physicians aren't even trained much in human sexuality, so they avoid the topics. They feel intrusive. And yet the reality is that for the people that are in SAA, they'll tell you what a brain issue it is because it almost ruined their lives. In many cases, it did."

 


Andy had the vodka and the garbage bag; now he just needed the pills.

He didn't want to deviate from the recipe he found in the Hemlock Society's Final Exit, courtesy of the Houston Public Library:

1) Crush phenobarbital

2) Mix with vodka

3) Drink solution

4) Put your head in the bag

5) Die.

The 43-year-old professional designer had already revised his will, but he was having trouble getting the barbiturates from his many dealers. Ordinarily they weren't hard to find -- they're sold over the counter in Mexico. Andy didn't tell the dealers what he wanted them for, and he didn't tell his family and friends he was ready to go.

"I'm not a cry-for-help kind of guy," he says, recalling the time he was ready to die.

He was turning into the kind of person he didn't want to be. He was thinking about rape.

After 30 years of indiscriminate sex with men, which culminated in sadomasochistic adult bookstore orgies, Andy was wanting more. He had always wanted the torture aimed his way, but lately he'd been thinking about unleashing it on someone else.

Years before, he had seen Carnes on TV, talking about the ravages of sex addiction. Yeah, he figured, that's me.

But he didn't do anything about it. At that point, he had mastered his second life. He even had a job where he could disappear during the day. Just as he had a recipe for suicide, he had a recipe for relieving stress.

When things became too much at work, or when he was angry, Andy hit the adult bookstores. There were three clusters -- two on I-45 south, just outside the Loop, and one on Telephone Road. He knew the seediest stores in each cluster, the ones where he could find the "bookstore whores." He knew the clerks, the layouts.

He had a protocol before acting out: Everyone had to be identified. He'd have to check the movie booth peepholes for undercover cops, who were the ones sitting in the porno booth and not masturbating. Sometimes the idiots had their arms folded. If there were cops, he'd either move on or wait until they'd cleared.

The bookstore whores didn't lock their doors. Come one, come all. Andy would walk right in and get busy. Blow jobs, mostly, to start with. But it grew from there.

The bookstores without booths were better. He especially liked the ones with big dark back rooms with one TV for everyone. Back there, you could get anything: oral, anal, group action. He once saw five guys tag-team a female pro. There was the transvestite who'd show up with his menagerie of dildos. Guys walking around naked, like in a health club locker room.

Sex with one person in a booth was good. Sex with one person in that back room, with others watching, was better, Andy recalls. But soon, that wasn't enough. He'd have to have sex with multiple partners, simultaneously. Then it was rough sex. Each time, Andy would have to increase the dose.

Andy says addicts don't even have to be that great at hiding their second life anymore. The more pornography infiltrates the mainstream, the easier it is to hide. Strip clubs, cybersex, massage parlors -- they're everywhere, for everyone to use, addict and average alike.

"Straight guys go, 'Isn't that just being a guy?' Gay guys go, 'Isn't that just being gay?' " Andy says. "You can have it and be supported and be invisible -- unless you really start fucking up."

Andy never did that -- he just became a rapist in his mind. That scared him enough to want to check out. He just couldn't get all the ingredients for his lethal recipe.

"I was trying and failing to kill myself," he says, "so I went to a meeting."

First he smoked pot, his 5 p.m. ritual for 25 years. Then he circled the building a few times in his car. He was afraid the meeting of sex addicts would be frivolous -- a bunch of oversexed Bubbas laughing and slapping each other on the back. But when he finally pushed through the meeting room door, he saw otherwise. SAA allowed no BS.

Andy says it was enough to make a cynic like him soon give up marijuana. He wanted to be sober for these things. He got a sponsor within days and wound up going to 11 meetings a week. Even though he's toned it down to three or four a week, he still lauds the group. It helped him get over the rape obsession -- and kill the idea of killing himself.

 

"I may have turned into a Moonie," he laughs, "but I'm much happier now."


It's ten-thirty at night, and Ted is driving home from an AA meeting. The radio's off. When he's in the car, Ted prefers to think about God and fighting his addiction. Some recovering addicts like Christian tapes; Ted likes it quiet.

It's a sign of his recovery that he can remember his temptations so clearly, like that night two months ago.

He was on Memorial, approaching Beltway 8, when he noticed her: walking in the opposite direction, no purse, clearly not out for an evening jog.

The road was open. He thought about swinging a U-turn, pulling up beside her and ordering the usual.

Suddenly, he recalled hearing his own voice penetrating the silence: "I don't do this anymore."

A split second later, there was that archived footage playing in his memory: the promise he made to his wife about telling her if he slipped. What would that do to her?

But Ted's no longer trapped in the Bubble.

The desire passed, faster than the woman in his rearview mirror.


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