I had the privilege of growing up with wonderful females in my life—including my brilliant mother, who remains my hero, and my sister, who earned a PhD. My father has a penetrating kindness for the planet and all its inhabitants, including women, about whom he advised me: “Be their friend. Never cheat them. Love them.”
My desire for female companionship started young. As early as sixth grade, I was drawn to intelligent, confident girls. As I grew older, I was fortunate enough to often have these attractions requited.
In my teen years, I did not experience the stereotypically male desire for attractive, submissive playthings. I wanted smart, full-spectrum romantic partners who enjoyed sex but were not shy to assert their own needs, thoughts and feelings. My joy was my partner’s joy, and vice-versa. Later in adulthood, I would learn that sex, at its best, is the ultimate expression of intimacy. But I would also learn—at a much earlier stage in life—that sex, at its worst, is toxic, traumatizing, violent and dehumanizing.
* * *
I was 17 years-old the first time I paid for sex. This was in Amsterdam, that canalled, bicycle-mad city, which I was then visiting with my mother, sister, their partners and a few of my close male friends. It started as a bit of a dare. We egged each other on to visit Rosse Buurt (the red-light district) late at night, after the adults had gone to bed and we’d smoked a few joints.
Women in lingerie and high heels stood before full-length windows, illuminated by fluorescent lights. Many dragged cigarettes, faces glum, waiting for the next John like lonely tollbooth workers. Their makeup was heavy, cakey. Men walked by, mostly drunk, tipsy, oafish, gazing lustfully if they saw something they liked. We decided to split up and meet back in an hour, none of us saying out loud what we intended to do.
I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say the experience was three steps below perfunctory, one above terrible. For the first time in my teenage life, I had trouble maintaining an erection. This was not the sex I wanted, but it was the sex I paid for. Having lost my virginity in the normal fashion a year earlier to my high-school sweetheart, I knew sex well enough to know that what had happened here at Rosse Buurt wasn’t right. Masturbation would have been a less grubby, more fulfilling experience. Even then, at 17, I considered myself a “feminist”—and had read books such as The Feminine Mystique. So it wasn’t just my emotions and moral sense that rebelled against the experience, but also my intellect.
The next night, I went back to the same place, alone, without my friends.
* * *
I have had sex with over 200 sex workers. I have done it unprotected, in filthy places, in strangers’ homes, in motels, offices, my motherʼs home, my fatherʼs home, and several different ordinary apartments I’ve rented. Many of the women were clearly broken, vulnerable, beat-up creatures. They were of various shapes, sizes and colors. I have been mugged, threatened, had knives pulled on me. I have had a few car accidents rushing out for in-calls to fit my habit into a dayʼs work schedule. I have pressured women to do things they did not want to do. I have witnessed some take drags on meth and crack pipes before, after and during the act. I have made a few cry for reasons that were not connected to physical pain.
By my calculations, I have spent about US$150,000 on this habit, all told, once all related expenses are imputed. I am a 34-year-old professional with several university degrees, earning a good salary in a big North American city. But my hourly rate is lower than what most of these women charge. So my sex habit not only broke me emotionally, but financially as well. Yet I never told anyone, not even therapists, until, like most addicts, I hit rock bottom.
What did it was the lies—including the lies to girlfriends whom I respected and loved. When I found a woman I wanted to date, I made great efforts to stop acting out before engaging. I would try to time my STI tests so as not to expose them to danger. (By sheer good luck, I never contracted anything except one asymptomatic case of chlamydia). But a self-sabotaging pattern always emerged. As the word “love” started getting thrown around, my urge to act out intensified, and I often would end the relationship under some fictional, face-saving pretense.
The first time I cheated on a woman, I was 25. I had unprotected sex with an escort, thereby exposing the woman I loved to potentially contracting a venereal disease. The shame I felt at having done this was devastating. I wasn’t just betraying my girlfriend, but all women. My claim that I was a female “ally” had been shown to be a joke. Not long after cheating, I initiated a break-up, lying about my reasons. On the last evening of our journey as a couple, we had drinks and cried, each for our own reasons.
I spiraled and binged, sleeping with more prostitutes, engaging in higher-risk sex. As the self-inflicted pain of the break-up grew distant, the binge subsided, and I was back looking for a new partner. Like most addicts, I promised myself I would never relapse again. Like most addicts, I did.
* * *
Throughout all of this, I used my claim to feminism as a lure to seduce women. And this was not completely a lie—in the sense that I did not hate women quite as much as I hated myself. Even in my worst moments, I tried to do, say and think the right things about women. And I was tortured by their traumas, including the ones I had inflicted. I felt powerless to stop acting the way I did, while also desperate for women to forgive me for doing it.
In almost all cases, I went into a session of paid sex with some drug in my system—cocaine, alcohol, but mostly just plain marijuana. This helped keep things business-like on the surface. Still, I found myself acting tenderly to some women, despite my efforts to be drugged and numb. I sometimes could not help it. My natural reflexes pull in that direction. If I had enough spiritual energy, I would make a joke, get a laugh and even reveal a bit of my true self.
I didn’t want any of these women as partners, though a few could have been my friend were the context different. I was disciplined enough to partition them from the other women in my life—the women I dated, loved and was ready to love. There is a kind of inherent cruelty in partitioning women into different categories like that.
I liked the world-worn wisdom of some of the older ones and, yes, the paradoxical innocence of some of the younger ones. The stretch-marked mothers who compromised their bodies to help feed their children made me feel oddly respectful. The overtly drug-addicted ones terrified me and always made me sad. The tough, guarded ones confused me. I did my best to resist imagining how that disposition developed. The immigrants, the wanderers, the ones I considered exotic—they intrigued me. I really wanted to know their stories, though I rarely asked to hear them.
The aggressive, dangerous, scheming, weaponized ones who mugged or stole from me constituted the most upsetting group. But what they did to me felt cosmically appropriate, and we both knew it. I considered it a cost of doing business, a fair comeuppance. To be honest, I worried about them, fearing what would happen one day when they tried the same stunts with a different kind of man on a different kind of drug. None of this makes me compassionate any more than a butterfly collector shows tenderness by studying the markings on insects under glass.
I still have trouble with the question of whether these women were victims. I never did anything non-consensual with them. But consent isn’t a binary—and things had happened to these women in life that had led them to these moments. Seen through the rosiest of possible lenses, they were self-empowered women running their businesses, and I was just a client. Some sex workers swear this is true, and find it condescending when people suggest otherwise. But I could never escape the feeling that almost all of these women would have chosen different paths if they had better luck or the world were a gentler place.
Men and women might experience sexuality in different ways. But all humans are social creatures who desire safe companionship. Sex can work fine without companionship, and (more obviously) vice versa. But, in my view, over time, sex without companionship corrodes the soul. I know this because it happened to me.
* * *
I was a sensitive kid. I wet the bed until after it was age-appropriate. I was obsessed with death, unfriendly monsters, and I often drew ultra-violent scenes of muscled anti-heroes and sci-fi boogeyman. My mother had me skip a grade during my early education. She thought I might be gifted, though I don’t think I was. I was a disorganized student who acted out a lot. I was voted “class clown” when I graduated from high school.
I was a daily masturbator from the time I was about five years old, having discovered my parents’ porn collection. I knew too much about sex for a little boy and, worse, I thought I didn’t know enough. I was overcurious about things for which my young mind wasn’t ready.
This was around the same time my parents separated, and then divorced. Their rupture went down relatively well. It was civil, consensual. There was no real custody battle, no real fight for assets or alimony. My sister and I lived with our mother, slept over at my father’s every Friday and split holidays. Post-separation, my mom was happy to give my dad the key to our house. He visited us nearly every day after school. From kindergarten age, I went to a therapist—maybe too often. Encouraging a young mind to go to strange places will have all kinds of consequences.
It was in my mid-twenties when I finally told my then-therapist that I compulsively slept with prostitutes. A cognitive behaviorist, he approached the problem with the tools available to him. He had me challenge cognitions, journal my urges, and encouraged me to not judge myself. He was a kind, intelligent professional, but his efforts failed. On my habit, he said: “I’m not the morality police. I know men who pay for sex and don’t beat themselves up about it. Do what makes you happy. Just stay safe and don’t hurt people.”
The next session, I told him we should stop seeing each other. I had told him I wanted to change therapeutic modalities, that cognitive behavior therapy did not answer the questions I was asking myself, even if it helped in other ways. I suggested my acting out had the hallmarks of addiction. I asked for a referral. He replied: “Well, there’s the 12 Steps, but it’s far from empirically validated. They’re also God freaks, so I don’t think you’ll have any buy-in.” I asked how much it cost. “It’s free,” he told me. My brow furrowed. It must be shit, I thought.
I was desperate enough to go anyway. The only 12-Steps program I could find was AA. The fellow who opened the door after I knocked was so welcoming that I immediately grew suspicious. I walked in, glanced at the addicts sitting in a circle, and one word bounced in my head: cult. Twisted people with good intentions, high off the pageantry of ceremony, tricked by the illusion of human connection, dying to overshare, tripping over themselves to define an undefinable God (or, rather, a “Higher Power”). Cult. Cult.
Like most addicts, I struggled in 12 Steps, though I do count it as the start of my recovery from sex addiction. I am not an alcoholic, even if the parallels between the two habits are striking. (I did consume drugs and alcohol but, as I explained earlier, it was mostly a means to numb myself in advance of paid sex.) Eventually, I migrated to SA (Sexaholics Anonymous), flirted with its sister groups (Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) and went to see a sex-addiction therapist. I read the literature, made friends, and cycled through a few sponsors. My very first remains special to me. We keep in touch.
In SA, my record was more fully shared with other men like me. (I only ever saw a few women there, and they rarely stuck around.) I like talking and I like people, so those parts of the program played to my strengths. What did not play to my strengths was the first three months, which required total abstinence. No sex, no masturbation, no porn, no second looks at attractive women, no sexual language, no mind-altering substances (they want your mind fully sober) and, most challenging of all, no sexual thoughts. They don’t police any of this. They can’t. It’s an honor system. You get what you put in.
I put in a lot, eventually getting the hang of abstinence. But I could never get to three months, just two and a bit. My biggest obstacle was that I still loved an ex-girlfriend and hoped to cure myself, see about her, and make things right.
I now understand that this was a form of self-negotiation. Addicts are skilled at it. As my first sponsor warned, “guys like us can negotiate our way through a pinhole.” Thinking there was something like a cure for what ailed me and some fairytale ending lying in wait was what recovered addicts sometimes call “stinkin’ thinkin’.”
I was taught that addiction has no cure. You can only “recover.” The distinction means a lot. An addict will always be an addict. It is a chronic condition, like diabetes. It necessitates lifelong caution. This can be discouraging. But ironically, a life led with caution enables a certain kind of freedom. Living with complete abandon, on the other hand, always yields a prison.
My functioning improved, and my insights sharpened. I even got back with my ex and revealed to her the real reason I broke up with her. Our relationship gradually improved, and we became more connected than ever. Recovery programs typically suggest at least one year without romantic relationships. But I negotiated through that. After all, this was love. I wanted this woman’s babies. “I’ve been good. I deserve this.”
Together, we tried to do the three months of abstinence. But we weren’t up to it. Assuming it was partly her job to enforce the moratorium was a great mistake. The subsequent “forgivable” slips gave way to a devastating, nearly rock-bottom relapse. I went missing. She found me in a hotel and demanded I go to rehab immediately. With little hesitation, I accepted.
She broke up with me shortly thereafter. The pain was tremendous. I don’t blame her. Would you want your daughter or sister to stay with a man addicted to prostitutes?
* * *
I was at a males-only sex addiction rehab center in the United States—the kind that famous (or infamous) people such as Tiger Woods and Harvey Weinstein sometimes end up at. It was expensive.
There were 30 of us living in isolation for 45 days. Most had money, far more of it than the ones I’d met in 12 Steps, but they were not all masters of the universe. Over time, I would meet executives, doctors, accountants, engineers, dentists, lawyers, judges, politicians, trust-funders, programmers, actors, athletes, soldiers, police officers, bureaucrats, writers, professors, salesmen, truckers, drifters, carpenters—some of them very outwardly religious—trying to figure out what went so damn wrong.
Isolated in a compound in the middle of nowhere without Internet access, we bonded. We shared things with each other we had once thought we would take to the grave. Some were pedophiles, rapists, voyeurs, flashers, gropers, workplace-harassers. Others were porn obsessives and chronic masturbators. A few were seducers, sexual anorexics, sadists and masochists. Many paid money for sex. Most of us were hybrids, straddling different categories. Plenty of them had wives and children.
Many were smart, playful personalities, though not all. Cliques developed. We busted each others’ chops and held ping pong tournaments to pass the time. Some of us clashed, but it wasn’t high-school-level nastiness. We took to calling the place “sex camp.”
Were these “good men”? As good as most. Had they done reprehensible things? Definitely. Did they deserve punishment by the state, ostracism within their professional community, or even some sort of enforced quarantine from respectable society? Some, definitely some. Others needed serious psych medication, more than just anti-depressants or anxiolytics.
* * *
When I think about the men I met at “sex camp,” I’m not sure I met any who called themselves feminists—or who struck me as feminist in outlook. You might think that this is a weird detail to notice. But I had never stopped wondering how this aspect of my own thinking squared with my addiction. Throughout all of that 12 Stepping, the answer to that question remained a mystery. Even as my life was unraveling, I always took abstract ideas seriously. And it never stopped bothering me that I could not bring my life into compliance with the feminist ideals I’d inherited from my parents.
I never found any grand unified theory that explained the contradiction. My behavior was the result of a mix of childhood traumas, misplaced anger and resentment, a pinch of genetic predisposition, “bro” culture and its demeaning attitude toward women, insecurity, ego, the enabling effect of wealth, narcissism, ready access to increasingly intense pornography and, yes, plain horniness. I also failed the marshmallow test. Bad.
As with other addictions, recovery from sex addiction requires you to avoid triggers and cut off enablers. It helps to be vigilant but not too self-serious. Keeping an eye on self-care and stress management is fundamental. So is finding pro-social hobbies, checking resentments, finding a comfortable identity, continuing to explore root causes, forgiving parents and communities for whatever things they could have done better, forgiving yourself, preferring “I” over “you” statements, being open to guidance from masters while also helping to guide newcomers without egocentricity. As a long-sober fellow once put it to me: “The key is knowing, really knowing, that nobody on this planet is better or worse than you.”
The man who is thought to have popularized the term “sex addiction” is the Arizona-based psychologist Dr. Patrick Carnes. He calls it an “intimacy disorder.” His 1983 book Out of the Shadows was valuable to me, and I urge others to read it. He speaks of fear of abandonment as a root cause. Were I to collapse the message I took from his book into one paraphrased quote, it would be this: “The sex addict deep down fears intimacy because he considers himself unlovable.”
You might want to know if I ever got back with my girlfriend, or if I am today in any kind of relationship. The answer to both questions is “no.” I still love this woman, but we do not talk, and I keep my love tucked away in a safe place. Since I checked out of rehab, which is many years ago now, I have not been in a relationship. I sometimes desire one, but I am still more focused on trying to be a better man. I want love, I want marriage and I want children. I am sure they will come when the time is right.
* * *
My mother now knows rather fully the bad things I have done. It warped my relationship with her for a time, but things now have been mostly put to right. She is someone who feels a lot and is sometimes too smart for her own good. We are similar in that way. Her love for me is and always was oceans deep, but the truth about me disgusted her nonetheless. I understand that. It disgusted me, too.
My sister, the clinician with the PhD, was more patient with my recovery, but no less hurt when the truth came to the surface. Responding once to some of the things I confessed, she said: “There is no such thing as a bad person, only a person who does bad things.” I asked her if this was some noble bullshit parents tell their children or some philosophical jujitsu she learned in university. She laughed and admitted that both propositions were true. She also affirmed that that does not make the observation any less true.
When I revealed to my father the things I did, I held back tears. I told him I was ashamed. He paused and then asked if I knew the difference between guilt and shame. I did not. “Guilt is having done something wrong. Shame is hating yourself because of it. Let the shame run its course. Never forget the guilt.” We speak regularly, and he is not shy to celebrate my sobriety nor ask direct questions if he feels I am under a lot of stress.
The guilty voice in me now says, to women: I am guilty. I am guilty of hurting your kind. I cheated women after gaining their trust. I loved many and then betrayed them. I lied to them. I exposed them to injury. I broke their hearts. I also disrespected many dozens of women by paying them for sex.
I have heard it said that men give love for sex and women give sex for love. But I have learned that it is high-order delusion, for men and woman alike, to think sex can be monetized without injuring human dignity. Men might be more inclined to sexual misconduct than women, but I do not think it is in their nature per se.
I am a sex addict and I will be one until I die. I still have urges, but they are less invasive, I let them pass and I do not judge them. The potential for them to manifest will always be there. Hopefully the next woman I love, and who loves me back, will care for me enough to accept that.
Eric Frances McKillen is a pseudonym.
Featured image: Interior of a brothel in Naples, Italy, photographed in January, 1945.