A few years ago, I realised that I was a sex addict. Not only that, but I had been a sex addict for most of my life, without even realising.
How did this happen?
I have an addictive personality. Aside from the long-term problem of sex addiction, I’ve always suffered from periodic day- or week-long “addictions” to a variety of ordinary things like food, social media, or shopping for a very specific item. A combination of being constantly on the verge of depression, and having an obsessive nature, has predisposed my reward center to act like a broken record, so to speak.
What does all that mean?
In simplified terms, the reward center is the way our brain motivates us to do things that are “beneficial”. For example, when we do something that will help to ensure our survival, certain pleasure-inducing chemicals - happy drugs - are produced in our brain. This conditions us to seek out the trigger over and over again. In a healthy individual, quality time with loved ones, meaningful work, exercise and even cleaning can all potentially trigger a reward, depending on the person.
When we’re depressed, our brain is unable to produce enough happy drugs - the reward - so we lose the motivation to do anything. But even a “broken” reward center can be short-circuited by a particularly strong trigger. For some people this is alcohol, for some a repetitive action that soothes some deep-seated anxiety, for some it might be the high of recreational drugs, and for some it’s the natural high of sexual stimulation. In the absence of any other reward trigger (i.e. when we’re depressed), the short-circuiting trigger becomes the only thing we have motivation for - and that is how addiction starts.
I learnt about this concept from a wonderful book, “The Biology of Desire”, by Marc Lewis (himself a former addict). In one of the studies (“Rat Park”) described in this book, rats were placed in a deprived environment that made them depressed, and given two choices of drinking water: plain water, or morphine solution. The depressed rats became addicted to morphine, but after being moved to a stimulating environment where they could play, socialise and have sex, they started choosing the plain water over the drugged water. Their new environment gave them a better “high” than the drug could. You can read more about it here.
I also recommend reading, for balance, this article about the flaws in that study, and the failure of subsequent studies to reproduce its results. The summary is that it’s more complicated than the results of the Rat Park study initially make out.
Now that you know the science, it’s time for my story.
A few years ago, I was under immense stress. I was at college studying subjects I was terrible at. I was madly in love with a partner who lived too far away. I was deeply depressed, and my education felt meaningless. Everything felt meaningless.
I couldn’t stop thinking about sex. It was the only thing that felt worthwhile anymore, the only thing I could enjoy.
At this point in my life, I had had virtually no sexual experience with other human beings, but I’d been masturbating for nearly a decade. And before I continue this narrative, I need to talk about that history.
As a child, I had the privilege of sleeping in my mother’s bed. The presence of another warm, loving human being beside me every night was something I didn’t know how to live without. When I was 10, I finally moved into a bed of my own. It was traumatic. I couldn’t sleep; I felt cold, isolated, unsafe.
But around the same time, I was beginning to discover my sexuality, and suddenly having a room and a bed of my own gave me the opportunity to explore sex in a way I couldn’t before. I discovered masturbation, and once I’d discovered it I took every opportunity to pleasure myself. I masturbated every night, humping a pillow. Afterwards I would fall asleep with my arms around the pillow, which was in a way a surrogate for the mother I no longer shared a bed with.
(Side note: Many people think that sex addiction always involves porn. I did watch a lot of porn during those exploratory early years, but I was never addicted, and in fact at the worst point of my sex addiction I had not watched porn for about 7 years.)
As I got older, I started using my mornings for masturbation as well, whenever I could. I wasn’t allowed to have boyfriends, so on top of a naturally high sex drive, I had no outlet to explore my sexuality with a partner. I started to become depressed in my mid-teens, possibly as a result of extreme sexual frustration and loneliness.
I was still relying on masturbation to fall asleep, which came at a cost; I would often masturbate until well after midnight, then fall into a dreamless, unfreshing coma. If I didn’t have to get up early the next day, I would sleep into the afternoon. On the few occasions I didn’t masturbate at night, I couldn’t sleep at all. I was constantly tired and guilty about what I dimly realised was self-destructive behavior. Burdened with guilt and lack of sleep, I became increasingly depressed, which made me more addicted to masturbation, in a vicious cycle.
But I didn’t realise I had a problem until I started college and suddenly the expectations of me were much higher.
Whenever I tried to study, I couldn’t concentrate on my work because every few minutes my train of thought would be interrupted by one or another sexual fantasy. When it got too much, I hurried to the bathroom to masturbate. I masturbated probably 8 or so times a day; some days all I did was masturbate, and at the end of the day I would feel exhausted and more depressed than ever, mortified that I was shunning obligations to satisfy my sexual craving. I would even pass up talking to my long-distance partner in favour of masturbation, and this above all made me feel like a terrible, terrible person.
On the worst days, I would fantasise about every person I passed on the street; even the most vaguely phallic objects - like a fence paling - made me think about sex; I would feel physically sick from the intensity of the craving; and my genitals ached.
It was when I was having one of these days that I realised something was wrong. I turned to Google (“Help, all I can think about is sex!”) and pretty soon discovered that sex addiction was a thing. I knew it was me. And I knew something had to be done.
First I tried denying gratification. I set regular reminders on my phone telling me to “stop thinking about sex”. This made it worse. Much, much worse. I later learned that when you have an addiction, this approach is actually one of the worst things you can do (Mark Lewis, in “The Biology of Desire”, calls it “ego fatigue” - the inability to maintain self-control over long periods of time when your reward center is begging for another “high”).
So the next thing I did was go to therapy.
My therapist, who I chose because he specialised in treating sexual problems, had never heard of a woman being addicted to sex. He was interested, but seemed to have trouble understanding that sex addiction could exist outside the narrow framework he’d been taught to diagnose. A part of me wanted to educate him for the sake of science, but the other part felt defeated and angry.
I continued to see that therapist to work through other issues, but I never mentioned sex addiction again. Finding a therapist who even knows that women can be sex addicts, let alone treats them with respect, must be a challenge.
What helped in the end?
Two things: Not being ashamed, and not being depressed.
Both easier said than done.
I was addicted to sex because I was depressed, but my shame about being addicted to sex made me even more depressed. And the more depressed I was, the more addicted I was. So the shame had to go.
I couldn’t have done it on my own.
It started with telling the two people I love the most that I’m a sex addict. It was terrifying, but when they accepted and supported me, unquestioningly, it was the most amazing feeling. From that moment on I knew that with these people, I didn’t have to hide the fucked up things about myself, and that gave me the freedom to work on getting better.
The act of confessing was also the first step towards dissolving the shame. My friends made me feel normal, to a certain extent. And as time went on, they started encouraging me to explore my sexuality in a healthy, positive way. When both of my friends, independantly, suggested I buy sex toys, they unintentionally opened up a whole new world to me. I had always wanted to try sex toys, and suddenly having this normalised by the people I looked up to gave me the confidence to act on it.
Buying my first sex toys was a revolutionary act, a turning point. It was a statement that my sexuality is something worth investing in and spending time on, rather than a shameful distraction from the things I “should” be doing. I was allowing myself to engage in sex as a healthy part of my life, rather than masturbating in spite of knowing that I shouldn’t be doing it.
I even started watching porn again (after 7 years!), and didn’t become addicted to it - at least, no more addicted than I occasionally become to hunting for the perfect household appliance. (The “hunt for the perfect porn”, mentioned in the interview I share at the end of this post, is something I can relate to very much…but in my case it’s nothing to do with sex addiction, as strange as that sounds).
Slowly, changes in my circumstances helped me discover the joy of living again: moving to live with my partner, no longer studying, getting a job I love and making new friends through work. I doubt that I will ever be entirely free from depression, but the worst of it is, at least for now, a thing of the past.
I also discovered that sharing a bed with my partner cured my insomnia, so I no longer needed to masturbate in order to fall asleep. (I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unnatural for human beings to sleep alone, but maybe it’s just my childhood conditioning.)
While I no longer consider myself a sex addict, I still struggle with an addictive personality, and this effects sex, too.
If I don’t exercise a great deal of self control, masturbation can lead me into an addictive loop. After climaxing, I have a compulsion to keep masturbating because I want to experience that pleasure over and over again, even when my body is “satisifed” and no longer cooperating. Each climax is harder to reach than the last one, and takes more and more effort, making me exhausted and ashamed and contributing to the feedback loop that causes the compulsive behavior in the first place.
But now that I can find meaning in more parts of life, it’s easier to stop before I go too far: I can usually think of at least one thing I’d rather be doing than having another orgasm. It’s probably obvious from the topic of my blog that I still masturbate a lot, but it’s no longer an unhealthy habit. A good analogy is that I’ve gone from having a binge eating disorder, to being a food lover and connoisseur.
Things are a lot better than they used to be.
I realised while writing this post that my recovery from sex addiction is indirectly responsible for the existence of this blog. It was only through the process of recovery that I came to have a healthy relationship with my sexuality and, of course, discovered sex toys. If those two things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here, sharing my most intimate experiences with the world.
I recently listened to an interview with Erica Garza, a former sex addict (the interview starts around 18 minutes in). It was the first time I had heard of another woman sex addict outside of certain very obscure forums, and there were so many points of relatibility. That representation means so much to me. Most people don’t even know that women can be sex addicts, and Erica’s honesty is brave and incredibly important. Thank you Erica ❤