All sex, all the time.
When George Michael was arrested April 7 on a charge of engaging in a lewd act in a park bathroom in Beverly Hills, the tabloids went wild. The New York Post's April 9 cover screamed DOWN AND OUTED IN BEVERLY HILLS, and the banner for the article inside was ZIP ME UP BEFORE YOU GO GO. Much fun was made, mostly because Michael had always been coy about his sexuality, never really making a firm statement about which gender he preferred. Boy George told Michael not to be ashamed. "We are sisters under the skin, " he wrote in an open letter published in The [London] Express after the arrest.
The shock, though, was not so much that Michael was gay. Rumors about that had been circulating for years, and in an interview last year he talked about his love for a male Brazilian fashion designer who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1993. What everyone kept asking was, "What the heck was he doing in a bathroom?" This is a wealthy, talented, attractive man. If he was doing what he is accused of, if he was trying to pick up a man in a public rest room, then how down on his luck must he have been that a toilet stall was his best bet for human hip? A few people wondered aloud, Is George Michael a sex addict?
When Michael talked to CNN a few days after his arrest and said he is gay, he also implied, without coming right out and saying so, that he has a problem. "I think it was the danger of the situation that must have compelled me to do it, because it was absolutely compulsive, " Michael said to interviewer Jim Moret. Earlier in the interview Michael had said, "I won't even say that it was the first time that happened. You know, I have put myself in that position before. I can only apologize. I can try to fathom why I did it, to understand my own sexuality a bit better, but, ultimately, part of me has to believe that some of the kick was the fact I might get found.... I feel stupid and reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way."
While it is impossible to know what is going on in Michael's mind, his words are similar to those used by many sex addicts to describe some of their worst actions and how they felt when they hit bottom.
Reaction to the Michael incident epitomizes a recurring debate among gay men and lesbians concerning differing interpretations of sex addiction and sexual freedom. Talk to therapists and self-identifying addicts, and they say Michael must be a sex addict. Talk to Keith Griffith, Web master of www.cruisingforsex.com, the site that described the park in Beverly Hills as having "an exceedingly cruisy men's room," and you'll hear anger. "The question I wish the cops would be asked," Griffith says, "is why they waste so much tax money on this type of activity."
Griffith and many other gays, such as members of Sex Panic!--a free-sex advocacy group established in 1997--see public sex as the solution to centuries of sexual repression. But equally as many gay men and lesbians equate public sex with something quite different--addiction. By relegating sex and love to the literal gutter, they say, bathrooms and sex clubs are the ultimate repression.
As an idea, sex addiction arrived with political baggage. Events of the 1960s and `70s, when gay men and lesbians first started to come out in large numbers and when so many people were fighting in the sexual revolution, led to the disappearance of some so-called sexual mental illnesses--namely, homosexuality and nymphomania--from the bible of mental health, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, commonly referred to as the DSM. Other problems that involved having too little or insufficiently pleasurable sex, such as impotence and premature ejaculation, were added. But then, with the epidemics of venereal diseases such as herpes, syphilis, and, later, AIDS, there was a reaction against the free and easy sexual lifestyle--the lifestyle that gay men and lesbians came out into and historically consider part of their golden age. People were having too much sex, and bad things were happening.
"In the `70s sexual behavior didn't represent pathology," says sociologist John Gangnon of State University of New York at Stony Brook. "But in the `90s, because of the AIDS risk, having a large number of partners is [considered] wrong. This seems to me to be the wrong construction."
Still, sexual addiction is a concept that took hold. And it may have been helped along in the backlash atmosphere of the early `80s by Patrick Carnes's seminal book on the subject, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. To Carnes, sex addicts have a "pathological relationship with a mood-altering experience." They can't stop having sex; they can't stop seeking it out, thinking about it, doing anything within their power to get off all the time.
"Sex was the only thing that was important to me," says Ken, who has been in recovery for sex addiction for ten years. "It was like trying to eat only sugar. It may fill you up, but you starve anyway." Addicts, experts say, will continue their behavior even when faced with horrible consequences, such as the loss of their family, jobs, freedom, and lives. They are out of control and feel powerless. "I was starving," Ken says, "and I was on the verge of suicide."
The causes can be many, experts say. Sexual abuse at a young age, emotional abandonment by one or both parents, shame over homosexuality--or just sexuality in general--can all lead to psychological spirals that end up in sexual addiction. It's often compounded by other addictions. Many addicts begin looking for approval or love or affection through sex, then end up needing it so much that sex becomes their only goal in life.
Self-esteem problems and childhood trauma ran be primary causes, but a culture that propels sexuality into all corners of life and peers who encourage or, to use the self-help term, "enable" are also partly responsible. Some activists say this is especially true in the gay and lesbian community, where free and easy sex is almost a rite of passage. For Eric, a 28-year-old resident of West Hollywood, Calif., his sex addiction, which had at first been based in masturbation, mushroomed after he moved to Los Angeles and became involved with a man who frequented sex clubs and bathhouses. "These activities are obviously very common for gay men," Eric says. "But I was using them as tools to isolate myself and shut myself off from the important people in my life, most importantly my boyfriend." He began going to orgy clubs and bathhouses all the time and eventually began to hire prostitutes. He finally admitted something was wrong when he tested positive for HIV in December. Although he soon found it was a false positive, he calls it "the straw that broke the camel's back." He ended up at a clinic and has been "sober" for five months.
Bathrooms and parks, bathhouses and bars, chat rooms and sex lines are our meeting places. And as Gabriel Rotello, pointed out in an October 15, 1996, Advocate column, some AIDS charities raise money by promoting and sponsoring circuit parties that exist primarily as delivery devices for disco drugs and anonymous sex. "The gay culture is so encouraging of that behavior that the person who might be questioning it doesn't really have the support, resources, and access to say, `Maybe this isn't OK; maybe there's something wrong with this,'" says Robert Weiss, clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute of Los Angeles, who studied under Carnes and served on a police commissioner-appointed committee to discuss public sex and related arrests in Los Angeles. (It was as a reaction to recent criticism of the highly sexed state of gay male culture that activists formed Sex Panic!)
Still, it isn't just the gay community that sometimes takes issue with sex addiction. The term itself hasn't hit the right chord with all psychiatric professionals either. Sex isn't a substance, and one can be addicted only to a substance, many addiction specialists will say. It should be considered sexual compulsion, sexual impulsivity, or a variation on obsessive-compulsive disorder, they say. Gangnon won't go even that far. "I'm against the medicalization or psychologizing of people's behaviors," he says. "It seems to me people do things for a lot of reasons. Nobody would have thought about unsafe sex among gay men as an addiction if HIV wasn't out there."
But some experts on sex addiction say it does involve a substance--brain chemicals that bombard the body during orgasm. "It's a psychobiological process that involves arousal and a neurological high," Weiss says. "In strict psychiatric terms it is not a compulsion. Sexual compulsion is really a misnomer. Compulsions are things that people do over and over again that don't give pleasure, like hand washing or checking to see if the stove is off. Addictions are behaviors done repetitively that cause detriment and bring pleasure." The disagreement over what to call this behavior is apparent in the absence of sexual addiction from the current DSM; there is only the category "Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified."
Society, though, sometimes moves faster than professional publications. After 1983 sex-addiction recovery groups started springing up all over the country. Each group is slightly different, and they each have different cultures, but they all basically follow the same guidelines and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
As much as their affliction is debated, sexual addicts' stories are compelling. Tom, who lives in Oregon, talks about how sex was a substitute for the love he really wanted. "My first introduction to sex," he says, "was cruising the men's rest room. It was easy and safe to casually glance over to the other men who were using the rest room legitimately. It was not long before I found men who were willing to `act out' sexually with me. When I did engage in sex with these people, I felt I was cared for and loved. Soon I began cruising for sex in public rest rooms whenever I had the free time away from school and family."
After he graduated from high school, Tom met the man who is now his partner. They were living together, and during the "honeymoon" period of the relationship, Tom says, he was able to keep his addiction under control. But he soon found himself in the bathrooms again. Tom admitted he had a problem when he could no longer have sex with his partner. He went to counseling, and it didn't work. "I merely lied and continued to act out," he says. When he hit bottom last April, he went to a 12-step group as a "last-ditch effort." So far it's worked, he says. "Sex addict ion would have eventually killed me and my partner too, because I was unwilling to disclose to him what I was participating in. I would have contracted HIV and given it to my partner, and then we both would have died. Period."
For those for whom a 12-step group is not enough (or for those who have enough money), sexual addiction has spawned a number of in-patient recovery clinics, such as the Sexual Recovery Center of Los Angeles and River Oaks Hospital in New Orleans. "Sexual addiction, sexual compulsion--it's pretty much the same thing," says Carol Ross, a sexual-recovery therapist at Sierra Tucson in Arizona, one of the best-known clinics. While several kinds of therapy are used--including cognitive-behavior, body-image, and movement therapy--most of the treatment revolves around group activities and group therapy. "Sex addiction is a way to isolate oneself from other people," Ross says. "While on the surface they're involved with a lot of people, they're involved only to a very limited extent. They don't allow [the other people] to see much of themselves below the surface."
Recurrence is common, even after clinic stays or years in a 12-step program, as illustrated in Carnes's 1991 book Don't Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction. He tells the story of a patient, a successful psychologist, who was so addicted and anxiety-ridden by his addiction that on the way to a support group meeting, he stopped in a park and had unsafe oral sex with a stranger. Driving to Carnes's office, he became so distressed and scared by the event that he forced himself to vomit up the semen. While vomiting he lost control of his car and crashed into a truck.
This is an extreme example, to be sure, but just take a look around any gay bar in America at closing time and watch the men spinning around the pool table desperate for attention, affection, and sex--the same men night after night. You'll probably ask yourself why they don't just leave. The answer is much more difficult than many of us are willing to admit.
RELATED ARTICLE: Lesbian sex parties and clubs Pushing the envelope
"As a rule the whole culture of cruising in public spaces doesn't exist for women," says New York--based sex writer Tristan Taormino. Nor is sex addiction a big lesbian issue. For lesbians who simply enjoy public sexual outlets, the search takes energy. If a gay woman doesn't mind being with men, she can tap into the mixed "swing" scene. But these parties may not be queer-friendly, even though women get it on there. While "bi-curious" women bound, a women may be welcome only with a male partner. ("I being a gay male friend along," says Taormino.)
What about women-only options? "In the '80s lesbian sex clubs would open and then close," says San Francisco-based party promoter Karlyn Lotney (a.k.a. Fairy Butch). "Sex isn't as much of a function for us as for men. We have too many lookers and not enough doers." But lesbians do flock every two weeks to the In Bed With Fairy Butch parties at San Francisco's CoCo Club, where sex advice, naked dancers, and a dating game create a campy but sexually charged atmosphere, "We succeed at setting up dates because we have lost of audience participation and no attitude," says Lotney. I'll go out of my way and debase myself to ensure that."
Taormino agrees that erotic dating nights, also held at venues like New York's Meow Mix, are the new wave of lesbian sex culture. "Dating games are an attempt to get women to interact sexually in public spaces. It's a signal that we want to push it."
RELATED ARTICLE: Are you a sex addict?
Ten signs that point to a problem
* A pattern of out-of-control behavior
* Severe consequences due to sexual behavior
* Inability to stop despite adverse consequences
* Persistent pursuit of self-destructive or high-risk behavior
* Ongoing desire or effort to limit sexual behavior
* Sexual obsession and fantasy as a primary coping strategy
* Increasing numbers of sexual experiences because the current level of activity is no longer sufficient
* Severe mood changes around sexual activity
* Inordinate amounts of time spent in obtaining sex, being sexual, or recovering from sexual experiences
* Neglect of important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of sexual behavior
SOURCE: Don't Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addition by Partick Carnes
RELATED ARTICLE: Inhibition: A silent plague The flip side
To assume all gay men are wildly sexual would be a gross exaggeration. In fact, complex forces can often interfere with a gay man's acting on his sexual feelings. While many people use sexual activity to help define and strengthen their identities, the young gay man raised in an area where homosexuality is condemned, for example, or where gay people are taunted may well fear acting on his sexual feelings.
Gay men raised with strong religious or cultural prohibitions about sex in general may have great inhibitions about acting on their sexual feelings. While some men do act like kids in a candy shop--and have as much sex as possible--when they first come out, others are shy, fear approaching others, expect rejection, repress their sexual feelings, or suffer sexual problems when they do attempt to have sex. Impotency, premature ejaculation, and pain during anal sex are just examples of the many sexual problems that may limit sexual activity.
Guilt--whether from fear of family disapproval or religious, cultural, or ethnic factors--is a great turnoff. Drugs, which many gay men use to overcome that guilt and fear, are another turnoff in that they increase desire but cause impotency.
All gay men are not created equal, and all are not sex machines. But many gay men believe they should be and are afraid to talk about sexual problems or seek medical or psychiatric help. Still, sex can be put in a balanced perspective, especially after the last vestiges of internalized homophobia are removed.
Cabaj is a San Francisco psychiatrist and author and coeditor of the Textbook of Homosexuality and Mental Health and On the Road to Same-Sex Marriage: A Supportive Guide to Psychological, Political, and Legal Issues.
RELATED ARTICLE: Support groups for sex addicts
* Sex Addicts Anonymous: (713) 869-4902, National 12-step program that encourages participants to define their sexual sobriety through a "sex plan" evolved by working with other members.
* Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous: (617) 332-1845. National 12-step program for people who find themselves in abusive, non-nurturing relationship as well as sex addicts.
* Sexaholics Anonymous: (615) 331-6230. A 12-step program that uses the most restrictive definition of sexual recovery: "No sexual behavior outside a committed marital relationship."
* Sexual Compulsives Anonymous: (800) 977-4325. Twelve-step program attended primarily by gay and bisexual men and some women.
* Sexual Recovery Institute Web site: www.sexualrecovery.com
SOURCE: Sexual Recovery Institute
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|Title Annotation:||includes article about lesbian sex clubs and parties, and also article on sexually inhibited men, and also list of support groups for sex addicts; having sex can be an addiction or compulsion|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||May 26, 1998|
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