A Fever in the Blood
With the backlash against promiscuity, many sexual compulsives are
seeking treatment for their "addiction." But debate is raging over diagnosis.
It's 10:30 in the morning in a recent Tuesday, and for a few minutes all eight lines at "Le Menage" (names in quotation marks replace real names where necessary) are lit up and ringing. "Jenny," thirty, whose pretty, milky-skinned face is framed by a frizz of yellow curls, expertly juggles the phones. "Just a moment, please," she tells each caller, her voice seductively modulated. Not that she's worried that anyone is going to hang up. After all, this isn't a beauty salon, it's a brothel, the largest and most lucrative brothel and escort service in Manhattan, according to Jenny. Described on its business cards as an "Environmental Development," Le Menage is situated in a Second Avenue brownstone near the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge, and rakes in $20,000-plus daily. Jenny, who calls herself "the best hooker booker in the business," began as a receptionist for a midtown whorehouse ten years ago, then "booked" for an escort service, and later managed a "dominance house" before taking over the running of Le Menage three years ago.
On line one is "Jerry," a fireman. Can he come in at four instead of seven today? "Jim," a lawyer, is on another line, and will be a bit late. He visits every other day, telling Jenny and anyone else who will listen that his wife complains about his ceaseless demands for sex and prefers he get it elsewhere. The red phone rings - that's the number published in the ads in the International Herald Tribune and The Village Voice. It's a man with a foreign accent. As Jenny books him, she explains that house rules stipulate "protection for everything," meaning that condoms are always used.
The front door buzzer sounds, and Jenny looks up at the surveillance monitor and sees "Sol," 55, a bearded Hasid in a black coat and hat standing by the door. She buzzes him in. He appears faithfully at eleven o'clock every day except Saturday for his appointment with "Jessie," a stunning black hooker. Sol's a preferred client, because he can be accommodated quickly and without sexual intercourse. He lies on the bed, and Jessie, fully clothed, puts on a pair of red galoshes and jumps around the room like a child avoiding puddles in the street until he achieves an orgasm, usually within ten minutes. On line five is "Jeanine" who manages a brothel downtown. "I just want to warn you that "Phil" has been here for the last ten hours," she says, referring to a client known for his insatiability, "and he's leaving now and heading over to your place." On another line is "Scott," an East Side pediatrician who always asks for a new girl. So far he's worked his way through more than 70 of the 105 girls employed by the brothel.
Until two years ago, "Jonathan Gaines" was a regular at Le Menage and places like it here and abroad. There's a preoccupied dizziness about Jonathon Gaines that adds to his charm, and woman invariably find him attractive. A Hollywood film producer, he lives in a Spanish-style mansion overlooking the Pacific. Not a few people envied him his glamorous life. But then, most people don't know what Jonathan refers to as "the central drama of my existence."
He calls himself a recovering sex addict and believes his problem is as deadly and bankrupting as alcoholism or drug addiction. He hesitates before speaking, moves the tape recorder, and makes suggestions as to how I should conduct the interview. I tell him he's producing the interview - and he smiles.
"When my addiction started to take hold," he begins, "I mimicked what I saw James Bond do in movies. James Bond always had a woman falling in love with him and he was always getting laid. And the message to me was that if I behaved like him I would have that kind of power, too. This was very attractive to me, because I felt powerless in my family. I learned as a teen that two things gave me relief from the constant shame I felt: excelling in school and compulsive masturbation. Both of them, oddly enough, became central to my life later, when I bloomed into a full grown sexaholic/workaholic. My success enabled me to charm women, and my work made me money - so I could buy hookers."
At 17, he made his first sexual conquest - a girl he had been pining for throughout the school year. His feelings dissipated as soon as they had sex. "I remember a terrible sense of sadness," he says. "And I didn't want to go out with this girl anymore." In fact, he fled from her and took off for Paris where he paid for his first prostitute. Thus began a cycle that continued for the next twenty five years. "I always opted for adventure, for something new, over intimacy," he says.
When he was in his early 30's, Jonathon got to produce his first feature film. He had always wanted to produce films, a profession he believed would endow him with "power and invulnerability." It was also a career that served up legions of beautiful, hopeful, and often willing women. "Here I was, finally achieving my lifelong ambition. Then one day a hooker says to me `I'm going to urinate on you.' It's called golden showers. And she did and it was bliss." She also introduced him to poppers or amyl nitrates, the sex addict's drug of choice, acclaimed for its efficiency in obliterating inhibitions.
When friends asked him why he had never married, he would wink and laugh, saying that he was simply enjoying his good fortune - playing the field, living the dreams of other men. In fact, the bookends of his days were "compulsive masturbation in the morning and cruising Sunset Blvd. for the right hooker in the evening." Additionally, he usually had a steady girlfriend as well as a dozen other women whom he sandwiched in. "It was a complex pyramid of non-relationships," he says, "which fed and serviced my addiction."
He became a sophisticated traveler in the international sex market and a valued customer to madams and prostitutes around the world. At the same time, he struggled to maintain at least the appearance of "normal" relationships with peer women. His modus operandi was to romance someone, have sex once with her, then lose interest. "To reinforce my grandiosity, I dated someone who was very well known," he recalls. She was the daughter of a prominent American politician. He sought to bridge the two tracks of his life by persuading a subsequent girlfriend to behave like a prostitute. He even paid her for sex.
By the time he reached his late 30s, he says, "I started to realize that my dedication to whoring in my personal life was carrying over to my professional life." He had started turning down challenging feature film projects, accepting instead television commercials for quick, lucrative fees. "I would go to New York on a binge and have two, three, four five hookers at a time. I was pushing the limits, accosting hookers on Sunset Blvd. and taking the risk of being seen by one of my peers, not to mention getting arrested. I was becoming more concerned about AIDS but frankly not taking any precautions." One night in London, a hooker started to strangle him during sex - a dangerous sexual practice that some claim heightens arousal. "There was a sensation of dying, but it was also very thrilling, because some part of me wanted to die. I knew I was in terrible trouble but I still thought about going back to her."
Not long after, Jonathan began to unravel, often finding himself sobbing uncontrollably. For twenty-five years, sex had fixed everything for him. Now, for no reason, it had stopped working. He tried one more binge; flew to New York and swooped down on four brothels in one evening. "I found myself at three o'clock in the morning fucking this girl who described herself as a slave to the man who ran the brothel and, she was inviting me to join this cult of slavery in the New York underworld. I staggered out into the streets in a March wind having gone through God knows how many hookers and poppers throughout the night. . . and caught pneumonia."
Bewildered and terrified, Jonathan went to a meeting of Sexaholics Anonymous (S.A.) in Los Angeles. "I knew somewhere in my brain that I was in a room full of my brothers," he recalls. "It was very profound for me."
Jonathon used to be called a rake, a roue, a womanizer-- all of which implied, at worst a little mischief. Today, he's called a sex addict, a label devoid of any playful meaning. In less than a decade, a dramatic shift in consciousness has occurred. Behavior that only recently was condoned, even secretly envied, is now thought of as destructive, anti-social compulsion, and, in some quarters, as a disease. Though some experts challenge the scientific validity of sexual addictions, there can be no denying that the sexual-recovery movement has seized the American heartland. Skeptics had only tune in to Geraldo one day last winter when the mustachioed, hyperactive host introduced five women, decked out in sunglasses and wigs, as "women who are sexually compulsive. The bad girls who just can't say no. They used to call them nymphomaniacs." Yesterday's nymphomaniac, it seems, is today's sex addict.
On a recent Saturday night in Seattle, twenty eight men ranging from T-shirted teenagers to professional men in their fifties, crowded into a rectangular room in a Unitarian Church for a meeting of Sexaholics Anonymous. The organization takes its name, format, and twelve -step program from Alcoholics Anonymous. One woman in her early 50s, with her short blonde hair neatly parted on the side, was present. "Every now and then a woman comes here," she told me, "but they never stay." After a short reading from "the Big Book," the bible of A.A., each member identified himself by name and type of sexual compulsivity. "Hi, I'm Jerry and I'm a sex addict. My compulsive behaviors are prostitutes, phone sex and masturbation." Most members identified similar compulsivities, including peep shows massage parlors, porn magazines, and "lustful looking" or "rubbernecking," sex addict jargon for obsessive cruising. Four men, however, identified themselves as child molesters and one professorial-looking man in his early 50's referred to himself as an adulterer and a cross-dresser. He said that his adultery had recently cost him his job and that he was skating on very thin ice in his marriage. One gangly young man, speaking quietly and struggling to make eye contact with the others, said "My bottom line behavior is sex with animals."
In New York, S.A. meetings tend be somewhat smaller, and more females present, generally attractive women between the ages of twenty five and fifty. One Los Angeles meeting regularly has more than fifty people, perhaps ten of them women. "Kim," a twenty-one-year old woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, speaks of sex as "an emotional narcotic." "I never went on dates," she says. "I just slept with people." A preppy-looking lawyer in his early 30's talks about the "amphetamine-like high," of his sexually compulsive behavior. He compares his addiction to compulsive eating with periods of bingeing on peep shows, hookers and phone sex alternating with spells of being "sexually anorexic." An older man says gloomily that marriage is no guarantee against compulsive behavior, because a sex addict can easily objectify his spouse. A frequently heard buzz word in meetings is "trance," to describe the drugged-like state of mind that leads inexorably to "acting out."
Richard Salmon, the national director of the National Council on Sexual Addiction (N.C.S.A.), estimates that about 250,000 people have attended meetings at least once. In addition to Sexaholics Anonymous, there are groups called Sex Addicts Anonymous; Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which deals as well with romantic obsessions and seems to be attended by equal numbers of women and men; and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (S.C.A.), whose members are mostly gay men. Each group has its own definition of "sexual sobriety," but S.A. has the strictest program, outlining its goal for members as a "progressive victory over lust." S.A. urges no sex outside of marriage and no masturbation. Sex Addicts Anonymous is considerably looser, and prohibits only "out-of-bounds sex," stating in its literature, "We cannot abstain from sexuality because it is part of our humanity. Instead, we abstain from the compulsive, destructive behaviors that rendered our lives unmanageable." "No bottom-line sexual behavior" is the credo in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which asks each member to define his or her own bottom line. For some this means dating only one person at a time, for others it means no porn movies or dirty-book stores. Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, which probably has the most liberal program, asks members to design their own "sexual recovery plan," of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
A host of other, independent self-help groups have sprung up, grass-roots style around the country, including Relationship Addicts Anonymous, Celibates Anonymous, Impotents Anonymous, Sex Offenders Anonymous, and Crossroads, a support group for cross-dressers. Additionally, there are three fellowships (S-Anon, Codependents of Sex Addicts, Co-Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) for the spouses and partners of sex addicts, who are referred to as co-addicts or co-dependents. "We find each other," jokes "Chris," a burly English rock 'n' roller who says that he has "never paid for sex but has had "several hundred sick relationships." For every sex addict, he says, there's a co-addict waiting to step into "the dance of death," vowing to save him or her. Their programs are evolved from Al-Anon, the sister program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Though the format and program of the meeting are adapted from that of A. A., the tone is decidedly more somber. A. A. meetings are renowned for their high-spirited, even rowdy, atmosphere, in which members are known to howl with laughter over one another's debacles with the bottle, divorce, car crashes and general humiliation. There might as well be a sign reading NO LAUGHING in sexual-recovery meetings -where anguish as thick as the cigarette smoke permeates the room.
Curious to know how sexual compulsivity affects women, I call "Viv," a tall, handsome Nordic ex-model, who's been active in sex addict meetings since their beginnings, in the mid '70s. After a meeting of Sexual Compulsives, where she sponsors several gay men, we go out for coffee. In the early 60s, Viv was one of the highest paid models in the world. Her exquisite Scandinavian looks launched her as one of the first reps for a major cosmetics company. In one television commercial, wrapped only in a white towel, she cooed seductively to millions of viewers. Men flocked to this gorgeous creature, fueled with the expectation of meeting their compliant fantasy women. And they were not disappointed.
"I would work all day long, then hurry home," she says. " I put on different perfumes, then lace underwear, then something both sexy and shocking. Once dressed, she had her driver take her to any number of high-powered parties in Manhattan until she found her prey. "I looked for the most powerful man, no matter how bad his reputation. I was always the seducer, because that made me feel like I was in control. I used to get beaten a lot with a leather belt. I couldn't reach a climax unless they were choking me to death. A lot of times they got so fixated choking me, because by that time I had tormented them into trying to kill me. I was looking for the perpetrator to do me in."
"Let me give you an example. A girlfriend of mine from Norway, a top model, had gone out with this powerful guy who almost killed her. She warned me. I told her, `With me, it's gonna be different.' One night we did a lot of drugs and he took me to this back room in his house in Southampton. He had a king size bed covered in taffeta, and there were white lilies around a portrait of his mother in Victorian dress. I realized I looked like her. The script was that I dress up like her and lie on my back and talk like Mommy to him. Then he starts swearing, lots of profanity - how he really felt about his mother - and just before he climaxed he would pull this knife and stab the bed around my head and between my legs. And he would end up crying, and we'd go back to the master bedroom like it never happened. One night, I refused to wear his mother's outfit. He threw me down, called me a cunt. He was going to kill me. I got real quiet, because I knew this was it. `You're finally gonna get it, Viv. This is the end of your pain.' And he pounded on me. But God wasn't through with me yet, and I ended up in the emergency room, like I always did." Viv continued her search for an upscale Mr. Goodbar for another twenty years.
Patrick Carnes, who started the nation's first hospital recovery program for sex addicts, in Minnesota, is the charismatic guru of the sexual-recovery movement. Carnes estimates that between 7 million and 14 million Americans, or between 3% and 6% of the population, are sexually addicted. He has been "assailed by both sides" he says, who want him to increase or decrease the numbers, and that makes him quite certain of their accuracy. Other experts hazard that as many as 10% of American men are sex addicts. Eli Colman, who is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality, says, "Some people argue that this is a few strange cases but it is much, much more prevalent."
Carnes' book, Out of the Shadows, which is regarded as the seminal text in the sexual-recovery movement, describes a four step cycle that is the common modus vivendi of the sex addict: it starts with a trance that creates the "obsessive search for sexual stimulation," which leads to a ritual of definite routines that builds arousal, which leads to the compulsive sexual behavior - the actual score - which results in inevitable despair. Addicts, says Carnes, bail out of the despair temporarily by "doing it again." The function of the addiction is to obliterate feelings, to achieve a numbness that blankets the shame and self-hate that addicts describe as the cornerstone of their being since childhood. The continuous pursuit of new, intoxicating, and illicit sexual highs generates more secrets, which in turn fuels more shame. "Sexual addiction is not about sex," says Carnes. "It's about avoiding pain."
Carnes separates sex addicts into three categories beginning with people who binge on multiple affairs and prostitutes, make occasional visits to porn shops and blue movies. Carnes says there are millions of people in this category, the vast majority of them living in denial. Second-level addicts have graduated into behavior that involves some kind of victimization and is often punishable by law, such as exhibitionism, voyeurism, and obscene phone calling. Third-level addicts are serious sex offenders, engaged in child molestation, rape or incest.
Sexologist Martin Levine, who is perhaps Carnes' harshest critic, calls this classification system a "disgrace," insisting that the "etiology of pedophilia is very different from the etiology of rape, which is different from incest." The only thing that they agree on is the frightening recidivism among rapists. "We know that rapists continue to rape until they are caught," says Levine.
The incorrigibility of most rapists is dramatized by Oscar Kendall, who made headlines fifteen years ago as "the Richard Avedon rapist." Kendall was arrested and held on $1 million dollar bail in 1977, after thirty three women in twenty five cities had made charges that he had defrauded or sexually assaulted them. Police believed however, that as many as several hundred women had been accosted by Kendall, although only a fraction notified the authorities, which is typical in such cases. Kendall would allegedly stop a pretty woman, introduce himself as fashion photographer Richard Avedon, admire her beauty, and ask to photograph her, and then assault her. Kendall, who once reportedly bragged to a California detective that "you can always beat rape charges if you don't put marks on them," was given a seven-to-twenty-two-year sentence to be served in a maximum-security prison, but he managed to get into a Phoenix halfway house instead. In 1985, Kendall simply walked out of the facility and has yet to be apprehended.
After conducting a study three years ago, psychologist Mary Koss concluded that one out of every thirteen male college students has committed or attempted rape. Even more amazing is her finding that 27% of female students has been victims of rape or attempted rape. Sixty percent of the cases studied were found to be date rapes or acquaintance rapes.
Patrick Carnes is quick to point out that not all rapists are sex addicts, adding that rape often has nothing to do with the pursuit of sex but is an act of misogynist violence. While Carnes estimates that 58 % of all sex addicts have engaged in behavior for which they could get arrested, he says that only a small percentage deteriorate to the point of committing rape. According to Carnes, 81% of all sex addicts were molested as children. In addition, Eli Coleman believes that nearly all sex offenders have been victims of incest or some other kind of abuse.
Like alcoholism, sexual compulsivity often runs a track through families, frequently for generations. However, it carries significantly greater social stigma and consequently more shame than alcoholism. One 43 year old Seattle man claims that treating his alcoholism was "a walk on the beach" compared with coping with the self-loathing and degradation involved in his sexual addiction. It's one thing to be called tipsy; it's another to be known as a pervert. Consequently, the vast majority are incapable of seeking help until society intervenes to punish them. Even then, many are incapable of facing the wreckage of their lives.
On December 7, 1989, in Southampton, Long Island, Rodney Wood, a handsome, silver-haired doctor of 60, shot himself in the head with a shotgun. For years, Wood had been listed in the local blue book and had been a member of the Meadow Club, on of the most exclusive club in the Hamptons, as well as a regular parishioner at Southampton's Episcopal Church. He was chief of anathesiology of Southampton Hospital, and he owned a yacht. He and his third wife, Nancy, an attractive 40 year-old, seemed to have it all, at least until September 16, 1989, when they were arrested in an Oregon hotel room and charged with soliciting male students on the University of Oregon campus to have sex with Nancy while her husband videotaped and tape recorded the proceedings.
The couple had handed out fliers on the campus inviting men eighteen to twenty-three to participate in "an Oxford University project" on the "sexual potential of the mature female." A student was paid ten dollars for every orgasm he or Mrs. Wood had during the encounter. Although the Wood's attorney argued that his clients were doing legitimate academic research, the pleaded guilty to prostitution charges. Soon Wood was suspended from his job at the hospital. He fought hard to be restored to his position, but was unsuccessful. Although Wood must have been aware of the risks involved in his sexual behavior, he was irreparably shattered by his disgrace. Suicide, according to a number of experts, may claim the lives of a greater percentage of sex addicts than of drug addicts or gamblers, owing to the intensity of the stigmatization grafted to their actions.
Eli Coleman believes that people who are sexually compulsive have "experienced some kind of abuse in their family of origin, which can just as well be emotional as physical, and develop a deep shame and anxiety disorder which their sexual behavior temporarily assuages." He talks about a "damaged sense of self," which fuels the addiction. For Jonathon, there had been neither physical nor sexual abuse but "a desperate struggle to individuate from my adoring and suffocating mother."
Most sexual abuse goes unreported. Viv's story, for example, is a classic and not uncommon case of intergenerational sexual abuse. Long before modeling taught her to sell and seduce, she had been trained to please. "From age five on, I would listen and watch as my father or uncle, usually drunk, would stumble into our bedroom to have sex with me or one of my sisters. When my father had sex with me, I felt special. I would compete with my mother and sisters for his attention. It was the only time I had his attention, and I felt loved and safe for awhile. I didn't know the difference between right and wrong. In our family, incest was normal."
"It's a rare sex addict that hasn't been exposed to sexual abuse," says "Timothy" a40-year-old computer controller who grew up in an affluent neighborhood of Seattle. "My disease began at birth. We were an upper-middle-class Capitol Hill family, and I went to the best Jesuit Catholic schools. Recently, I was able to remember that my father molested me as a child. By puberty I was a compulsive masturbator and fantasizer. I spent most of life being in a sex trance. When I was thirteen, a man approached me in Volunteer Park. It had no intimacy. It was what I wanted.
"For a long time my addiction saved my life. I would have lost my mind from the pain and fear I lived in. It gave me the feeling of control and the sense that I could get my needs met. I lied to every lover. I once had sex in the bathroom of a gas station while my wife and son were in the car. I lived in the closet. I was having gay sex, but I wasn't admitting that I was gay. Mostly it was anonymous sex with men in tearooms [public restrooms] and places like parks and adult bookstores. I would have sex with six or eight men a night. If you're really a sex addict, in the end you'll have sex with almost anybody."
Timothy came out in 1979. Although he dropped one charade, he continued the double life of a sexual compulsive. "In 1984, I was arrested in Seattle for having sex in the men's room at the University. The cops humiliated me. I went back to the same place a week later. I guess I was spending six hours a day looking for sex before I bottomed."
Timothy, who had already been sober for four years in A. A., started attending meetings of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. The process of recovery, he says, is much trickier than getting sober, where the mandate is simply to stop drinking. "The goal here is to find one's original, authentic sexuality," he says, which requires the painful task of "disentwining the addictive process from one's core sexuality."
The difficulty of the task is attested to by the amount of "slipping" talked about in meetings and the relatively brief periods of "sexual sobriety." Sobriety of anywhere from five to thirty years is not uncommon in A. A. Sexual sobriety, (defined as precluding any act that triggers the addictive process) of more than one year is rare. In one L. A. Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meeting of 33 men, three had been "sober" for one year, five for several months, and the rest for less than thirty days. One factor frequently cited by "slippers" is the ubiquitous billion-dollar porn industry. While brothels and escort services have seen their profits slashed by the AIDS crisis, X-rated, movies, video arcades, phone-sex exchanges, and dirty-book stores have boomed. "There are many places in West Hollywood that I don't visit anymore," says a man at an S.C.A. meeting. "I walk by and get triggered, and I know I'm gonna get in trouble."
At most meetings a request is made not to use obscenity while sharing, and to avoid sexual explicitness and salacious accounts that could prove stimulating to group members. Participants are also asked not to name the particular places, people, or events while recounting their experiences, in order not to tempt others present to pursue the trail. At Sexual Compulsives Anonymous meetings, members are told that sex within the group is discouraged, particularly among newcomers. One man I talked to admits, "I can't go to S. A. meetings. I tried twice. The first thing I do is cruise the room and find the one girls who's ready to slip." Meetings for some, says Viv, are like free "976" calls.
Eli Coleman believes that the recidivism apparent at meetings exposes the inadequacy of twelve-step programs to treat the problem. Although he believes that the meetings are excellent for support and fellowship, he sees group psychotherapy, often in tandem with medication, as the real cornerstone of treatment. "You can ask someone to give up drugs or alcohol. You can't ask them to give up food or sex," he says. "A. A. has proven quite successful - which is not the case of Sexaholics Anonymous. I think there is much more similarity to eating disorders which are compulsive than alcoholism or drug addiction." Coleman also finds the term sex addicts "very unfortunate." He argues that the problem has to do with compulsive behavior, not addiction. Carnes, on the other hand, insists that the term "compulsive behavior" understates the severity of the problem.
Some critics charge that one of the reasons that recovery eludes so many is that no one is suffering from a disease in the first place. The disease concept strikes Gilbert Herdt, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, as "hocus-pocus." Herdt says the lack of any proven physiological basis disqualifies sexual compulsiveness from being a disease. "Alcoholism is a disease," says Herdt. "It has a progressive, degenerative course with distinctive symptoms. But to make the leap to sexual behavior, which almost everyone engages in, when there's no agreed upon definition of what is norm, is simply not valid. I'm not convinced that there is such a thing as sexual addiction."
Carnes responds that thirty years ago the academic and scientific communities had the same disparagement for alcoholism they now have sexual addictions. He believes that there is a physiological basis for sexual addictions, and says that the pursuit and consummation of sex produce a whole host of chemical reactions and distinctive brain-wave activity.
"Certainly there is a physiological basis during sex and orgasm," scoffs Levine. "But there are also physiological things that happen in your body when you smell perfume or when you eat chocolates. Just because something physiological happens doesn't mean that it's the beginning of an addiction."
Peter Trachtenberg, who wrote The Cassanova Complex, believes that the case for a physiological basis for sexual addiction is a week one, but argues that that makes little difference. "It certainly is an emotional compulsion that arises from the same root as all compulsions," says Trachtenberg, "a damaged, shaky sense of self, that requires endless grounding and reassurance through some external object."
It's hard to imagine this 'disease' being invented at a time when sex was not linked to a fatal disease such as AIDS," says Martin Levine. However, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous had its birth in Boston in 1976, a good seven years before the eighties and AIDS. Still, the fear and threat of AIDS have irrefutably fueled the momentum of the sexual-recovery movement.
"There's no question that my dread of AIDS got me to seek help," says "Curt," a forty-three-year-old successful novelist. Curt was among the first members of Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, which was founded by a group of gay alcoholics in Manhattan. Meetings were held at a Methodist church off Washington Square. "Often there were only six people there," says Curt, who explains that the terms "addictive" and "compulsive" are interchangeable. He says that his main addiction was "picking up men in porno houses," and that he hasn't been in one since he began attending meetings nine years ago. He laughs at the guiding principle of his recovery sex plan: "To have sex only in bed - no bars, movie theaters, or parks." He still has a problem with phone sex, but he shrugs and says, "I'm willing to live with it."
"Jeff," a handsome 47 year-old, began attending S.C.A. meetings in L.A. four years ago, shortly before he tested HIV-positive. He feels that S.C.A. offers the solution for him, although he has not always been able to follow it rigorously. He cites the experience of a slip a year ago. "There's this rough bar downtown and I had heard there was trouble with gangs who were into gay-bashing. When I slipped, I went there. As I was leaving, four guys jumped me. I saw a knife and lost consciousness. I woke up in County Hospital, and the doctor told me that my lung had been slashed and he didn't understand why I was alive. I may die of AIDS in five years, ten years - who knows? But my addiction could kill me tomorrow."
Anthropologist Herdt and others are concerned that the self-help sexual recovery movement is part of a trend to legislate sexuality. "Certainly there is a strong tendency in American history to scapegoat people who have not engaged in the right kind of sexual behavior, or too much of a certain kind of sexual behavior, or with the wrong kind of partners. Anything that deviates from the norm is very quickly regarded as bad, immoral, corrupt, and degenerate. Masturbation, for one, was called a disease from the 1860's to the early 1900s. These things really do operate in terms of historical trends and fads."
Paul Abramson, a U.C.L.A. psychologist, who edits the scholarly Journal of Sex Research, also quarrels with the concept of sexual addictions and wonders whether the health-care industry hasn't simply found a new marketplace. "There are all these sexual addiction centers popping up all over the place which are quite lucrative."
For Martin Levine, the intervention of a sexual recovery movement sounds suspiciously like an Orwellian anti-sex movement, part of a sociopolitical backlash against the sexual permissiveness that started in the late 60s, fueled by the plague of AIDS and the resurgence of the religious right. Levine has developed a theory that the trouble began with the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. "In the last fifteen years, these people who came out of the twelve step drug and alcohol movement," he says, "have begun to look around at all kinds of problematic behavior. I see them as empire builders, expanding their realm, and all of a sudden, everything is becoming an addiction."
What does Levine say to the thousands of people attending sexual recovery meetings who believe they have a problem? "Well, they think they have a disease," says Levine "I disagree with them." For treatment of such individuals, Levine advocates traditional psychotherapy. "To label a person an addict or a compulsive only shuts down the sexual behavior. It's bad therapy, it's bad politics, and it's incredibly bad science," he insists.
However, several of those interviewed believe that it is precisely the failure of psychotherapy that has led them to seek recovery in self-help meetings. "I talked to shrinks for more than twenty years," says Viv. "I knew what the problem was. I knew I had no self-esteem, but knowing I had a problem never stopped my behavior. I was incapable of change until I began going to meetings."
Jonathon also dates his recovery to when he began attending S.A. meetings. "I decided very quickly that I was going to be sober. And the definition of sobriety was absolutely no sex. No masturbating, nothing. I thought, well, I've tried everything else. And it was the toughest thing I ever did. I wept every day. The bottom line in recovery," he says "is the need for a spiritual solution - whether it's the program or Buddhism or chanting or whatever."
t is, in fact, the spiritual basis of twelve step meetings that seems to rocket psychotherapists into an apoplectic tailspin. "It is almost secularized Catholicism," says Levine. "The only kind of sexual expression sanctioned is for purposes of intimacy and affection." Levine further believes that the irresponsible may seek to hide out behind the badge of addiction and disease. He cites a California woman who divorced her husband for philandering. "To reduce his alimony," says Levine, "he's claiming he's a sex addict. I know of another case where a man sued a Catholic order, claiming that he became a sex addict because a priest molested him fifteen years ago."
Author Peter Trachtenberg calls himself a "compulsive womanizer" but he differentiates himself from hardcore sex addicts, saying, "I also needed the pleasant illusion of romance." Trachtenberg, who compares his obsessions to that of "a high bottom drunk," never saw prostitutes. Yet, he says that his incessant pursuit of non-relationships was just as demoralizing.
Such views strike Gay Talese, the author of Thy Neighbor's Wife, an empathetic chronicle of the sexual revolution of the 1970s, as so much yuppie nonsense. "We are supporting and underwriting problem solving at every level in our society. In this puritanical society, fun is a problem. Fun is not on the agenda of the successful individual. People who think they're sex addicts," he quips, "are just indulging in wishful thinking." The only problem is an age-old problem, says Talese: women want monogamous relationships, while men crave to play the field. "Women need to know whom they're making love to," he explains. "Men are terrified of knowing whom they're with."
On Talese's recommendation, I spoke with a well known Beverly Hills hairdresser who was the inspiration for the hopelessly womanizing hairdresser Warren Beatty played in the 1975 movie Shampoo. If anyone was a sex addict, said Talese, this man was. He remembered meeting the hairdresser at Hugh Hefner's in the early 80s, and being struck by his saying, "I can't take the strain of relationships anymore. L.A. is a town of beautiful hookers. I'd rather pay for it. It's easier."
When I phoned the hairdresser, he asked to remain nameless. His voice was soft and he had an easy laugh. "Sex doesn't make me unhappy. It's not having sex that makes me unhappy," he joked. "I'm just a guy with a healthy, normal appetite. I'm blessed." He said that Robert Towne (the co-writer of Shampoo) had moved into his Beverly Hills shop for four months in the late 60s to observe him. Towne even stayed at his house at times. Yes, he said, Shampoo was "pretty true" to his life and character, but that didn't mean he was a sex addict. Yes, he liked women. He liked sex. He frequently saw several women at the same time, in addition to call girls. "It all depends what you want to devote your time to. But I'm not a rapist. A girl says no, and I'm devastated." He laughed again, a soft, boyish laugh. "Look," he said, "this is kind of strange talking on the phone. I was just cooking dinner. Maybe we should get together to talk...Whaddya say?"
Evidently the hairstylist didn't think he had a problem. Carnes and others might argue otherwise and suggest that he's paying a psychological price he's unwilling or unable to admit. The dilemma, of course, is who decides who has a problem. After listening to the experts blast one another, I turned to a group with firsthand experience - prostitutes.
"Penny" started turning tricks when she was eighteen, in her hometown of Salt Lake City, which she claims has a prostitution industry that rivals Las Vegas's. Later she moved to Los Angeles, where for the next ten years she was a "working girl" for the five top madams, including the infamous Madame Alex. On some occasions, Penny earned a thousand dollars for a half-hour appointment with any one of a number of Hollywood's leading lights and studio chiefs. "They'ld have to be sex addicts," she says, referring to her johns. "I mean these guys came in a couple of times a week. It's a fix, an absolute fix." She discounts the theory that hookers are simply offering a service by providing recreational sex for the deprived. The sex, she says, always escalates into a quest for more illicit highs. "They would go from just having normal sex to being way out there," she says.
While most prostitutes loathe their work, Penny feels that her drift into "the life" was feeding her own sexual addiction. "From the earliest moment I can remember, I was in trouble for having my hands between my legs." At thirteen, she began an incestuous relationship with her brother. She's been out of the life for the last ten years. "I was emotionally and spiritually destroyed," she says. For several years she felt asexual, and was celibate. She's gay now, which she says is not uncommon among ex-prostitutes.
Jenny, of Le Menage, says that about a third of the clients are "into dominance" or some kind of sadomasochistic sex that involves humiliation. Carnes believes one psychological basis for dominance is sexual shame. "It's often kids who were sexually shamed and physically abused at the same time. Children who are asked to take off their clothes and then are beaten, so they have the erotic content [associated with] the physical pain," says Carnes. "One guy came in and he seemed pretty normal," says a New York madam. "He asked to be verbally abused... no big deal. Within the month, he wanted to be slashed up with a razor."
An L. A. prostitute told me that the sex between her and her johns is not about pleasure of love, its about control and power. Perhaps that explains why what some would call sexual compulsiveness seems to dog so many business titans and politicians. Aside from Gary Hart, whose sex life lost him a presidential nomination, and John Tower, whose "womanizing" helped cost him the position of defense secretary, six congressmen found themselves fighting for their political survival owing to their sexual behavior during the 1980s alone. The decade began with two conservative Republicans, Robert Bauman of Maryland and Jon Hinson of Mississippi, charged respectively with homosexual solicitation and attempted sodomy. The charges against Bauman were dropped after he agreed to enter an alcohol rehabilitation program. Four years later, in 1984, Republican Daniel Crane of Illinois failed to be re-elected after he admitted to having had sex with a female page. Democrat Gerry Studds of Massachusetts admitted having done the same with a male page, but he was re-elected. A year later, Donald "Buz" Lukens, a Republican congressman from Ohio, was convicted of paying for sex with a minor and was sentenced to thirty days in jail and a $500 fine. This past October, Lukens was forced to resign, following charges that he had molested a woman in an elevator in the House of Representatives. Although last year's sex scandal concerning Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank precipitated an initial fire storm of outrage, it quieted down when Frank threatened to name five Republican congressmen who had secrets of their own.
By 6:30 p.m., Jenny has booked more than fifty men at Le Menage, and that's just the day shift. She looks up at the surveillance screen, grateful to see that "Suzanne," who works the night shift, has arrived. As the two women change places at the reception desk, Jenny explains which girls are with whom and what customers she has booked for later. It's an important piece of business, because the bookers get a percentage of each client they book. She quickly finishes her paperwork, totaling up the receipts of the day and the girls' share of the credit card transactions.
"At least 80 percent of our clients are regulars," Jenny tells me in an East Side restaurant after work. "And a regular, as far as I'm concerned," she says between forkfuls of pasta,
"is a sex addict. They can't live without it."