This post is the second installment in my “new voices in sex writing” project. This was actually the first pitched piece that I read, and it went straight into the YES pile, on the grounds that it made me cry. Taylor’s story is extremely powerful and I think will resonate with lots of us who have had our perfectly normal and healthy sexuality and/or romantic life pathologised. I have long been in the “sex addiction is not a thing” camp, and if you want to learn more about this from an expert’s point of view, I suggest you check out Dr David Ley’s fantastic book, “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”
Now over to Taylor…
“Liberating Myself from the Confines of Sex and Love Addiction”
“Maybe she abuses sex as a means to cope like her dad abused alcohol,” my psychology classmate said, as she tapped her leg against the barstool, waiting impatiently for her second beer.
“No,” the next one said, as she hung up with her boyfriend for the third time in 15 minutes. “It sounds like she has borderline tendencies. Like, she’s not actually borderline, she just has the borderline-like tendency to act out sexually and lose herself in each and every partner.”
My friend inhaled as if she was about to speak. Finally, an ally coming to my defense, I thought naively. “I think Taylor just picks the wrong men and she lets sex negatively impact her life. She’s definitely an addict.” Then, she changed the subject to talk about her last failed casual hookup.
I had been the subject of many armchair psychology sessions such as this one. In these scenarios, my body served as the blank screen onto which people projected their greatest sexual anxieties, judgments, and fears. I would often sit quietly, as I did that night, listening to people talk around me as they attempted to diagnose and explain me away. I suspect that it was easier for them to categorize me and squeeze me into neat little pathological boxes than to listen to my lived experience. If I were the only broken toy in need of repair, then no one else would have to engage in any self-examination.
At that point, I had been in recovery for over 3 years, after my therapist and psychiatrist had agreed on a diagnosis of sex and love addiction at age 21.
But I had been a part of this process, as well. The tricky thing about sex and love addiction is that you have the opportunity to diagnose yourself. You can even do it online with a vague questionnaire. In reality, this ludicrous practice opens up far too much space for people who have been shamed sexually to convince themselves that they are, in fact, damaged. When you are raised in a society that defines ‘healthy sex’ in such a narrow fashion – heterosexual, procreative, monogamous sex with cis bodies and few partners – there is far too much room for everyone else to fall into the cracks. Down I fell.
It hadn’t always been this way.
With no basis for self-love, body positivity, or confidence in my youth, I had somehow managed to build and sustain it on my own for a few beautiful years. As I look back on it now in adulthood, I realize how magical and unique that was. When I was 18, I wrote in my diary that sex was “exhilarating and life affirming.” I basked in my own glow. I noted the way my freckles curved around the right side of my back, and named my legs as my favorite body part. I wrote with excitement about my last sexual encounter, reveling in the limitless feeling of orgasm.
While my friends pined for monogamous relationships, I preferred casual dynamics that spoke to my need for exploration and freedom. But that kind of authenticity and self- assuredness had no place in a world that refused to see me as a sexually autonomous being, especially as a young woman. My wings would have to be clipped before I reached the sun.
In those same years before the diagnosis, I was harassed and stalked both on and offline, slut-shamed relentlessly by friends and classmates, sexually assaulted, and victimized by image-based abuse (also known as revenge porn) on more than one occasion. The last encounter with image-based abuse destroyed my budding career and all of my future ambitions when the photos were sent to current and former employers and coworkers.
These events sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, which had been the goal all along. Once I had convinced myself that sex was negatively impacting my career and relationships, I surrendered to the label of sex and love addict.
I went through the 12 steps, making amends to friends and loved ones, apologizing for “acting out” and allowing my quest for sex to overrule my life.
I examined past traumas, attended women-only meetings as often as possible, and took the program seriously. But as the years drudged on, questions and doubts loomed in the back of my mind. Why were straight and bisexual women overrepresented in all of these recovery meetings? Why were men defined as sex addicts, while women were always identified as sex and love addicts? If the scientific community had never legitimized this addiction, why were we so convinced that these diagnoses were correct? How could doctors even diagnose someone with a condition that did not exist in the DSM? These questions were left unanswered in meeting rooms, and they were always met with pushback and anger, as if I had pulled the rug out from underneath us all.
The underlying, bare bones message from clinicians and fellow addicts were the same: “We see that you enjoy sex, but you don’t seem to feel an adequate level of remorse or self-disgust about it.” The brazenness and the confidence, the casual nature of my relationships – these were the attitudes and behaviors that needed to be fixed, or eliminated entirely. While other people in the program insisted that recovery would bring freedom from shame, I could not taste the independence. Instead, this so-called
‘recovery’ was a pillow held firmly over my face, suffocating me with shame. Every subsequent sexual experience was an exercise in self-flagellation. Whenever I looked at a man and felt a mere twinge of lust, or yearned for a casual encounter, I berated myself internally for falling back into toxic behaviors and ran off to a meeting with my head
When society grows tired of policing women’s sexual activity, they teach us to police ourselves, and I was monitoring my own behavior so closely, no one else had to weigh in. It was a dull, colorless existence, and it only served to exacerbate the depression that was already simmering underneath.
If authenticity was my goal – and it was – I would have to liberate myself.
The first step was to exit the program and leave the sex and love addict identity behind. I sought out a sex therapist that had worked with other defectors from the program, and over the past few years, he has helped me re-learn how to have pleasurable, exhilarating, life-affirming sex without the existence of shame. It is a process that has yet to reach its
conclusion, but for the first time in over a decade, I have no interest in contorting myself to fit into a tiny box in order to be more palatable or acceptable to society. My healthy relationship with sex will not be explained away, or pathologized. You will just have to sit there quietly, and listen to my lived experience.
Taylor Morley is an activist, writer, and advocate who writes and speaks on topics ranging from sexual liberation, to anti-imperialism and human rights issues. She does marketing and development for non-profit organizations in Los Angeles, where she resides with her Dorothy Parker books and her vinyl collection.