Voices: I’m a sex addict – the reality is nothing like the fantasy

Addicts aren’t ‘bad’ people – but we struggle to behave moderately (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Addicts aren’t ‘bad’ people – but we struggle to behave moderately (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Let me tell you what being a sex addict is like – really like. And no, it’s nothing like the films, or TV programmes, or even newspaper headlines, where someone famous (usually a man) gets caught doing something they shouldn’t and then declares they’re “seeking help” and immediately turns over a new leaf. Real recovery takes a lot longer than that. It can last a lifetime.

We’ve heard a lot of bizarre and unusual stories lately about people in the public eye experiencing catastrophic falls from grace – a Tory MP watching porn in the House of Commons, someone being caught masturbating on Zoom – but these kinds of stories are nothing new to sex addicts.

I’ve been in sex addict recovery meetings where I’ve heard stories of men and women unable to stop touching themselves; of self-pleasure so compulsive you find yourself wincing.

I’ve listened to people revealing how they indulge in sexual activity (alone, or with a partner or sex worker) as often as 20 or 30 or even 40 times a day – so often they are utterly disabled by it, distracted, unable (literally, sometimes) to focus on work or get anything else at all done. I’ve heard of people’s lives ruined by thrill-seeking and extreme promiscuity, of suicide attempts thanks to the inability to hold down or to mend a relationship. I’ve heard of families torn apart, marriages broken, jobs lost and reputations shattered.

Addicts aren’t always “bad” people, but we usually struggle to behave moderately. Many of us are the way we are because of deep-rooted issues such as childhood trauma, abuse or shame. I would ask anyone who judges us not to write any addict off – regardless of whether their poison is alcohol, sex or drugs – without finding out about what they’ve been through. I would ask everyone to have compassion.

We aim to practise this actively within our own communities – and whenever we hear of a public figure’s downfall, we remind each other that we’re only a step away, that “there but for the grace of god go I”.

“Halt” is an acronym I find incredibly useful when it comes to my own addiction: it stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. It’s something addicts in recovery, like me, ask ourselves whenever we find ourselves on the brink of relapsing or are tempted to “act out”. We try to find out what’s really going on with us before we do so.

And it’s never felt more pertinent than during the pandemic, which was a particular problem for sex addicts: lots of us found being locked down isolating and lonely, which only exacerbated our compulsive sexual behaviours.

Being stuck inside all the time, as we all were, was difficult for reasons such as easy access to pornography. When it’s as simple as switching to “private” view on your smartphone and pulling up a free site; when hardcore images and videos are just a couple of clicks away – and you don’t have to register or pay for them – it’s too easy to engage with it, to sink back into bad habits.

During Covid, addicts thankfully still had access to support – 12-step recovery meetings, for example, were on every day, via Zoom – but there were strict rules. You weren’t allowed to “lurk” on screen with your camera off, and you had to use your first name. The anonymity rules of groups like this are sacrosanct: what you see in a meeting, what you hear and who you meet must never be repeated – even if the “room” is virtual.

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Covid did help lessen addictive behaviours for many of us: it was harder thanks to the “rule of six” and lockdown bubbles to go out seeking sex, paid for or otherwise. For some of my fellow addicts, lockdown stopped them going to strip clubs and bars, or to see sex workers. The enforced isolation also made it easier to do some key things, such as working with a sponsor. We spoke a lot to each other, too – doing outreach (speaking to fellow addicts on the phone whenever you feel at risk of certain behaviours) can help you keep steady. Zoom meetings made me feel less alone.

Thanks to Covid, many of these meetings have continued to be offered online, which is hugely beneficial to addicts who live in remote areas – plus, recovery groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous (though there are other alternatives) are remarkably diverse and inclusive. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, you’ll always be welcome.

In a way, my addict family feels like my real family. They know my deepest secrets and regrets and accept me anyway. They understand me in a way “normal” people might not.

What I really want to combat when it comes to popular discourse around sex addiction is the idea that it’s somehow exciting or dangerous, glamorous or thrilling. It really isn’t. It is destructive, it takes over your life – it can even kill you. There’s no veneer or gloss that can mask the fact that 17 per cent of sex addicts have attempted suicide.

We deal every day with overwhelming feelings of shame and stigma, of guilt and the fear of being found out. The pressure of hiding our secretive sexual activity and obsessions can push many addicts to breaking point. Many of us have affairs, some of us lose our jobs, a few of us end up in prison or in hospital with STIs.

So go easy when you laugh about us or assume we’re all “perverts”. We’re human beings, just like you; and we’re struggling. If nothing else, be kind.

You can find helpful tips on how to start a conversation or, if you are worried about someone, on Samaritans website. You can contact the Samaritans helpline by calling 116 123. The helpline is free and open 24 hours a day every day of the year. You can also contact Samaritans by emailing jo@samaritans.org. The average response time is 24 hours.

*If you have an anonymous confession, send it to DearVix@independent.co.uk for the chance to appear in our new series. Discretion guaranteed.