AA is for drunks, NA for junkies, GA for gamblers and OA for over-eaters. So far so clear. You have reached your bottom, you don’t know where to go, and the answer is as simple as two letters in the phone book.
If you seek help for a sexual addiction, however, you will be faced with five independent programs to sort through: Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexual Recovery Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. Why so many and what are the differences?
The history of recovery from sexual addiction is a bit murky, especially as to which of the fellowships was the first to come into existence. It seems that almost all of the groups came into being in the 1970s—perhaps in reaction to the sexual revolution. The only obvious splinter group is SRA, which broke off from SA in the early 1990s because SA would not budge from its anti-homosexual, anti-sinning-out-of-wedlock stance.
For many in all facets of recovery, treatment is the beginning of their sobriety. For me, it was the end.
Twenty years ago I spent a month in rehab for drugs and alcohol, followed by a year-long attendance at a full-time county outpatient program. At 26 years old, my indoctrination into 12-step life was quick and easy. Within the first 90 days of sobriety I was convinced that besides my heroin, cocaine, LSD, and alcohol addictions, I also had a dangerous, out-of-control problem with pornography, masturbation, commercial sex, fetishism and BDSM. After I shared one night in my regular meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous about a $1,500 phone-sex bill, a fellow approached me and brought me to Sexaholics Anonymous.
Since then I’ve sought help in all five fellowships for the sexually addicted. I attended an outpatient group therapy program—Sexual Addiction Training and Treatment Institute (SATTI)—for over two years, and went inpatient for a 31 day stay at KeyStone Center Extended Care Unit, also known as The Residential Center for Healing from Sexual Compulsivity and Trauma. The following impressions are based on personal experience:
Sexaholics Anonymous is by far the most rigid, fundamentalist and conservative of all the fellowships. Most of its members, like its founder Roy K., are religious. In New York most attendees are from the Orthodox Jewish community, along with Episcopalian or Roman Catholic clergymen. Serious problems such as pedophilia or incessant patronage of prostitutes are the main concern. “Deviant” behaviors such as sodomy, onanism, sadomasochism and a penchant for gang bangs are also addressed. Sexual sobriety is defined not only as freedom from all “inappropriate” behaviors but also “progressive victory over lust.” The only acceptable expression of the sexual impulse is through vanilla heterosexual carnal relations with one’s legally recognized spouse—man and wife, ideally in the missionary position, as sanctioned by the Holy Bible. Homosexual members are welcome—so long as they commit to a life of celibacy.
If SA is too draconian for your tastes, Sexual Recovery Anonymous may be for you. When I first came around in 1993, it was there, in the then-newly founded fellowship, that I put together a solid year of sexual sobriety, attending meetings regularly, working with a sponsor, going out to coffee, doing step-work and being of service. I accepted total abstinence—including six Tantric months without an orgasm, at which point I started dating again. For the following six months I approached sex with a new sunny outlook, enjoying a monogamous relationship, before I felt something was missing. I returned to the underworld for more research.
SRA is the progressive offshoot of SA. Many of the members still subscribe to conventional ideals of marriage, family, and the establishment without being dogmatic. The mix is far more diverse, with a strong presence of women, African Americans, Asians and members of the LGBT community. (There are, however, a number of businessmen awkwardly getting in touch with their feelings, who cannot wrap their heads around the concept that the transvestites and transsexuals they act out with are fully dimensional people.) There’s a discernible abundance of musicians, for some reason. The work of Patrick Carnes is held in the highest regard; he’s considered the indisputable authority on sex addiction. Inner children run amok, talk of mom and dad, incest, trauma and sundry therapy buzzwords abound. Higher Powers are usually framed on the Buddhist, New Age, Yoga trip, in conspicuous contrast to SA’s decidedly Judeo-Christian emphasis. Sometimes folks will sing their shares.
Sex Addicts Anonymous is serious and renowned for its Green Book. A distinguishing feature of SAA is the central importance of its “Three Circles” concept, which every member is encouraged to use as a tool to maintain sobriety. The Inner Circle contains all bottom-line behaviors that characterize your sexual addiction, including masturbation, prostitution, cruising, infidelity, leather bars, autoerotic asphyxia, glory holes, stalking, exhibitionism, child pornography, rape and so forth. The Middle Circle contains all those behaviors considered a grey area, to be monitored with the help of a sponsor. Obvious examples here include fantasy, objectification, euphoric recall, ritualization, preoccupation and any non-pornographic provocative images. The word “intrigue” has special meaning here—defined as lusting, flirting or taking a sexual interest in someone. The Outer Circle is where you would place all your top-line behaviors, those activities that cement your sobriety and affirm a healthy, happy life.
Maybe all of the above is too much. Maybe you’re not such a pervert. Maybe you just have a problem with intimacy and can’t commit, or you keep falling in love with unavailable people. Sure you masturbate with porn to soothe yourself when lonely, but you don’t think that’s a problem—everyone does that—it’s all the money you waste on hookers, the fear of AIDS and arrest and getting caught by your partner that bothers you. Or maybe you’re a desperate weirdo sexual anorectic and haven’t been sexual in any context whatsoever with another human being for many years. Or maybe, for some reason, even though you swear you’re straight, you keep acting out with men. Or maybe, even though you’re a good girl, you keep seducing your friends’ boyfriends and husbands and fathers and sons and dudes on the subway or, y’know, you just love too much.
Inevitably, I’ve been inappropriately touched during the coffee break.
Well whatever it is, check out Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, where you define your own sobriety! This is where you may enjoy the sexual equivalent of saying, “I want to stop shooting heroin but continue to drink beer and smoke pot.” A roomful of fellows will applaud your success, however you choose to define it.
Finally, there is Sexual Compulsives Anonymous. I’ve attended these meetings only a handful of times and upon hearing most of the shares I felt humbled, like a youngster encountering a veteran of AA telling me, “Kid, I’ve spilled more than you drank.” The men of SCA gather to escape the brutal merry-go-round of relentlessly pursuing high-risk encounters—such as engaging in unprotected anal and oral sex despite the mounting probability of contracting the virus. Mutually rewarding arrangements typically found in bath houses, sex clubs, rest stops, bus stations, public urinals, parking lots and Craigslist—while undeniably stimulating—all too often end darkly. Especially in this light, the recalibration of one’s behavior—as opposed to completely withdrawing from all indulgent pleasures—makes perfect sense. I was under the impression that many of these members would gladly de-escalate their harrowing pursuits to something as relatively innocuous as masturbating home alone in front of the computer with poppers and toys.
I am no tourist. I’ve gone to over a thousand meetings for sex addicts of one kind or another seeking relief and hope. Like a typical consumer, I have pledged loyalty to—and believed in the superiority of—SA, SLAA and SRA at various times. I would surely have done the same with SAA or SCA if I had given either a regular rotation. All the meetings were kind and helpful, and in turn, I’ve made good friends and had many positive experiences. I still receive program calls from men seeking help, needing to talk about matters that they couldn’t take anywhere else. I know how to be helpful and I’m happy to give away what was so freely given to me.
But. I’ve also encountered weirdness that is ludicrous relative to AA and NA standards, especially in the realm of sponsorship (perhaps because the meetings are young, and old-timers are in short supply). One clown jotted down notes while I spoke candidly, later saying he needed material for a screenplay. Another sponsor reacted with grave disapproval when I mentioned happily that I’d been out dancing the night before with sober friends, which had felt both innocent and life affirming: “Dancing is very sexual,” he admonished. Outside a meeting, in front of our group, he once saw fit to mock me for one of my more humiliating proclivities, revealed to him in confidence. I wondered how he’d feel if I casually mentioned his transsexual prostitute habit to his wife.
In my time, I have sat knee to knee with flashers, pedophiles and other perpetrators and listened with compassion to their side of the story. I’ve been ostracized for slipping too often. Inevitably, I’ve been inappropriately touched during the coffee break. And I’ve witnessed grown men crying and screaming about their mothers.
The meetings can be rather grim. Unlike AA, where we all tend to laugh at our most mortifying experiences, here, where sobriety is less black-and-white, there is a grey earnestness to the proceedings that fails to cheer. The specters of shame and trauma loom large. Protocols regarding boundaries can become so convoluted that interactions display little resemblance to routine social exchanges. In many gatherings I cringed at how easy it was to inadvertently molest someone’s inner child.
I’ve been banging my head against this wall for 20 years, after acting out sexually since the age of six. My final, desperate attempt to attain sexual sobriety was to go down to Pennsylvania where I attended Keystone Treatment Center, as recommended by many from SLAA, SRA and SA. I went full of optimism, recalling the experience of going to rehab for alcoholism at the age of 26. After a few days there, we went out to our first meeting in the outside world, in the facility’s unmarked van. And given all the options in the sexual recovery world, our outside meetings were…Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Right back where I started! For many in all facets of recovery, treatment is the beginning of their sobriety. For me, it was the very end.
The things I do to get off are child’s play compared to most of those in sexual recovery. I can’t say the meetings haven’t helped me but I have found that I am unable to comply with their suggestions. I also bristle at the morality bandied about by men who are not qualified to declare what is right and wrong for anyone. AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson wrote on page 69 (yes) of the Big Book, “We do not want to be the arbiter of anyone’s sex conduct. We all have sex problems. We’d hardly be human if we didn’t.”
I drifted from the meetings without making a clear decision to do so. I’ve been in a relationship for over two years and I feel happy, virile and loved. At this point, I am healthier—at least sexually—than they would have me believe in the five sexual recovery groups’ rooms. And from what I hear, I’m definitely happier.
Of course that doesn’t mean I stopped all the questionable behavior—after all, I still like the high.
Morty Finklestein is a pseudonym for a programmer in New York.