Erica Garza, who has written a memoir about her sexual compulsion. Photograph: Rachael Lee Stroud
Pretty soon Garza was picking men up in bars and having unprotected sex with them, which left her with an emptiness she vainly tried to fill with more reckless sexual behaviour. What’s unusual about her case is the pattern of her recovery. As she tells it in her book, she met a man she fell in love with and sex became a medium for expressing love rather than anaesthetising pain. In her new “healthy” relationship, she avoided pornography and put a premium on monogamy, because that felt the safest way to live her life.
No one can be certain, but by some assessments the relapse rate for sex addiction seems to be quite high, partly, perhaps, because of the ease and proliferation of casual or commercialised sex, and pornography.
“After a while,” says Garza, the monogamy and no pornography strictures “felt inauthentic, as if I was cutting off a part of my sexuality. That didn’t feel right.” Now she and her husband have boundaries in place, though she seems to suggest that they’re quite permissive – at least by the standards of most recovering sex addicts.
And this is where sex, as a form of addiction, is a problematic concept. The alcoholic, the drug addict, the compulsive gambler all know that recovery involves total and, ideally, permanent abstinence. But what of the sex addict? Celibacy is not much of an answer. So what is?
“Identifying what is positive sexually to that person,” says Hall. “When, after a sexual encounter, you feel worse about yourself, that’s not a good sign. So the exercise we do is write down what is definitely OK and what is definitely not OK, and they’re allowed a temporary space, which is ‘iffy’.”
“Pornography almost certainly is not OK ever [for the sex addict], but it can be OK – and this is the critical understanding of sex addiction – if it is coming from the place of libido, from sexual desire, as opposed to dopamine arousal. Masturbation is the classic one. When is it OK? When is not OK? Not in Sainsbury’s.”
For Rob Joy, the road back from sex addiction has been long and difficult. Earlier in his life he underwent a dramatic change when he became a Christian. For 10 years before that, from the age of 16 to 26, he’d been a drug addict, and for most of that time a crack addict. Yet when he took to religion, he was able to stop overnight. He got married to a fellow believer, and told his story of overcoming drug addiction, criminality and gang life to rapt audiences around the country. But not even his love of God could stop his sexual compulsions.
Like many addicts, Joy traces the source of his problem to childhood trauma – in his case being introduced to pornography as a four year old by older children on his estate. His father, he says, also had a lecherous attitude to sex and, in fact, died in a brothel while having sex with a prostitute.
“You don’t want to become a victim,” Joy says, “but sex addicts are victims, too. You see people being named and shamed at the moment, and their behaviour is absolutely wrong and it needs correcting, or punishment, but the way we are shaming people is causing so much more damage to them, because most of them probably have similar stories to me. Their brains have been set like wet concrete at an early age.”
Joy, who also describes himself as “an author and itinerant Evangelist”, undertook treatment with Gary McFarlane, and that made him come to terms with the nature of his problem. He now has a security app on his phone and his laptop that alerts his wife to any ill-advised communications. Recently, he sent a message to her that ended with a loving “XXX”, which triggered an alarm owing to its pornographic connotation.
“I genuinely do not want to watch porn,” he says. “I do not want to dishonour my wife or degrade the women on the internet. I weep over it. I walk into shops with my 12-year-old son and magazines are at eye level. And I say, sorry that’s wrong. You can go two or three weeks and one day you just go, I need it. And the risks you’ll take in being caught are ridiculous.”
Luckily his wife, Lydia, has been extremely supportive and understanding.
“Obviously I was very hurt,” she says. “I went through different phases. At first I felt sympathy, because I saw how people were looking at him with total disgust. But there were also times when I just felt anger, mostly at the situation, but that came out as being more distant from him.”
Lydia never lost her belief in his strength of character but, watching his efforts, she also regained her trust. Having gone through the experience, she has contributed to a book he has written about his addiction.
“I want to help people and the partners who feel that they can’t forgive or understand it,” she says.
Sex addiction may not have made it into the psychiatric manuals, but it does seem to have entered plenty of people’s lives. In many respects it’s a modern phenomenon, born of increased opportunities, the anonymous and hyper-sexualised online world, and the forlorn urge to find transient respite from the all-too-common internal voices of angst and self-doubt.
Yet, like some fiendishly adapted parasite, it’s made its home in humanity’s oldest and most vital urge. And this means that, whether or not clinicians agree that it exists, it’s unlikely to go away.