Whither The Female Sex Addict?

A throwaway line in in a recent piece on sex addiction says it all: "high-profile women never seem to have these problems." With guys like Tiger Woods and Charlie Sheen so visible (to the point that they become tiresome), where are the sex-addicted women?

In his story on the topic for Time, John Cloud points out that some of the earliest literature on sex addiction was actually written about women. But the addict he profiles is a man from Los Angeles who says things like, "If you have this addiction, you objectify women. There's a lot of skin, a lot of beauty in this town." And it's in reaction to Cloud's piece that LA Weekly blogger Dennis Romero makes his observation about the dearth of women in the ranks of contrite philanderers.

According to NBC, about a third of sex addicts are female. Recovery workshops specifically for women exist, and the Sexual Recovery Institute lists specific behaviors that may signify sex addiction in women (examples include, "excessive flirting, dancing, or personal grooming to be seductive; wearing provocative clothing whenever possible [a form of exhibitionism]; changing one's appearance via excessive dieting, excessive exercise, and/or reconstructive surgery to be seductive"). Oddly, there's no corresponding special section for men's sex addiction behaviors, implying that female sex addicts are still seen — even by those who treat them — as somewhat of an exception to the rule.

One woman to come out publicly about her sex addiction was Susan Cheever, who wrote a memoir on the subject in 2008. The Times of London quoted her in a story about female sex addicts that year: "My parents spent a great deal of time telling me that I was unattractive and would never find a husband. Perhaps proving my parents wrong was one of my motivations." Indeed, many accounts of female sex addiction seem to cast it as really about something else, often family troubles — says the Sexual Recovery Institute,

Most sexually addicted women have not had parental role modeling for how to have emotional intimacy in nonsexual ways. Research has shown that there often is a combination of rigidity and lack of emotional support in the sex addict's family of origin. The majority of women sex addicts were sexually abused in childhood — 78% in one study.

And the Times of London quotes advice columnist Sally Brampton, who says,

For women, sex addiction is a form of self-abuse, to hand their body over to the nearest taker. In all the letters I get from women, the core issue is an inability to connect and a lack of self-worth. Funnily enough, the impulse behind women's sex addiction is essentially a good one - an attempt to be intimate - but, because the person doesn't understand what intimacy or boundaries mean, they get locked into this behaviour.

It's true that male sex addicts sometimes also locate the cause of their disorder in childhood — in a 2009 Modern Love essay, Benoit Denizet-Lewis wrote, "while I take full responsibility for my actions as an adult, I suspect that my addiction is a misguided attempt to find the acceptance and unconditional love I didn't feel growing up." But the language of male sex addiction still tends to figure it as an excess of a normal, or at least common, male impulse to fool around — Cloud speaks, for instance, of the distinction between "rakes" and "patients." We don't really have female "rakes" in American culture — a woman who had sex with lots of partners was already seen as sick, even before the advent of the addiction label.

Maybe that's why we don't see more of them making public declarations and heading to treatment. Some have speculated that women are just better at hiding their sexual indiscretions — but maybe there's an incentive for them to do so. Jesse James and Tiger Woods were widely reviled for cheating on their wives, but they still had a well-established Powerful Male Philanderer script to follow. Women don't have that kind of script, and the ones they do have — the whore, the nympho, the damaged girl with daddy issues — are even less appealing. And that may make it all the harder for them to get help when their desires get out of hand.

The Truth About Sex Addiction [Time]
Sex Addiction: The New Obsession In Los Angeles [LA Weekly]