She simply could not help herself. Despite being in therapy, working to understand and hopefully alter her behavior, Mary Smith* placed a very personal ad online. It was brief, just five words that succinctly summed up her enthusiasm for a specific aspect of the male anatomy. It certainly got her point across, because men visiting the sex website responded immediately. “I found myself feeling a rush from all the sordid replies and scared at the same time,” recalls Smith, 39, a customer service representative from Connecticut, who began reaching out to the responders.
It hadn’t always been this way. Smith tried conventional dating after her divorce in 2005, but whenever things started to get serious, she’d lose interest. Deliberately seeking sex online so she’d “have something to do” was a new twist, and she was reaping the results. One night, a few months ago, is seared in her memory. First, she met a 40-something man in a park near her apartment and performed oral sex on him in a public place. Then, she went home and invited another man—this one in his early 20s—to her place, where they had intercourse.
The next morning, “I felt awful,” Smith admits. “That’s when I realized just how crazy things had gotten.” That two-in-one-night stand convinced her it was time to take her recovery a lot more seriously. “My therapy had been on and off,” she says. “Now I knew I needed to make much more of an effort to get well.”
Well from what, exactly? Sex addiction. Although some may roll their eyes, considering that just a fancy term for people who can’t keep their drawers on, sex addiction is a bona fide psychological problem that can have devastating consequences. And while we may recall hearing a celebrity fess up to the affliction, chances are that person was both male and White. African-American females represent the hidden sex addicts. They may exist in shadows, but they do exist. And as they lay their burdens down, we will come to comprehend why these women can and must find help.
The “It” Addiction
No doubt, sex addiction is having its 15 minutes of infamy. The 2012 movie Thanks for Sharing followed Gwyneth Paltrow’s character dealing with her sex-addict boyfriend played by Mark Ruffalo. Hot on its heels is Addicted, the film version of the Zane best-seller, starring Kat Graham, Sharon Leal, Boris Kodjoe and Tyson Beckford, scheduled for release in September. For many, that book was our first and only experience with a sex-addicted Black female, and it was a novel, a made-up fantasy.
In real life, much of the scientific research conducted to date has been focused on men. “Identifying as an African-American female sex addict is more nuanced than coming forward as one if you’re male, White, or both,” says Elana Clark-Faler, LCSW, CSAT-S, Clinical Director of Recovery Help Now, Inc. in Los Angeles. “It’s a more layered narrative, and one that’s hardly represented in our current culture and our current research.”
The Tragic Effects of Trauma
At its core, sex addiction is often a reaction to childhood trauma, particularly physical or emotional abuse. “In about 85 percent of cases, sex addicts report being sexually abused as children,” says Linda Hudson, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta and co-author of Making Advances: A Comprehensive Guide for Treating Female Sex & Love Addicts. “What happens when children are physically or emotionally abused is twofold: They develop an incredible sense of shame, and they develop a dysfunctional definition of intimacy because they don’t have any positive role models. Both issues cause them to turn to sex as a coping mechanism.”
That was certainly the case for Smith, sexually assaulted at age 14. For Anne Brown,* the abuse was emotional. Abandoned by her mother, who struggled with drug addiction, Brown grew up in foster care and was pretty much ignored. Only now, in the rearview mirror lens of recovery, does she understand how her past is the direct cause of her current challenges. “No one ever told me they loved me,” explains Brown, 36, of Atlanta. “So in high school, when guys started noticing me, I had sex with them—lots of them—because I thought that was love.”
Interestingly, when women like Smith and Brown turn to sex as a reaction to childhood trauma, what they often get hooked on is the process of finding partners—the fantasizing, the scheduling—more than the sex itself. “As long as you stay in an escalated state of excitement and anticipation, you don’t focus on your real-life problems. You lose yourself in the experience of the hunt and the possibilities,” says Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S, an international sexual addiction expert, author and the founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. In other words, the thrill that surrounds sex, not the act itself, which may not even be pleasurable, serves as a short-term fix that masks the bigger problem: an inability to connect, both with themselves and with others.
And, sadly, some Black women can be especially vulnerable to the condition. “There are a lot of absentee mothers and fathers in our culture as well as a lot of dysfunction and abuse, so many girls grow up not having a role model of a healthy relationship,” Clark-Faler says, pointing to the cyclical nature of the problem. “Sex addicts can play out the same story of how they grew up because that’s what they know.”
Perhaps the most tragic aspect about African-American female sex addicts is that so often, they neither acknowledge their addiction nor seek help. When Lynn Jones,* 32, a recovering sex addict from New Rochelle, N.Y., discovered she was HIV positive after being tested, she spent the next two years in silence. “Being Caribbean, we don’t accept HIV,” she says. “So for two years, I was silent. I felt like I went to sleep and never woke up. I cried myself to sleep and banged on my cement wall, but I did not speak of it.” Instead, her coping mechanism was overeating; at her heaviest Jones was 320 pounds.
While some men may brag about their conquests, still considered a mark of status and power, 95 percent of those seeking help for sexual compulsion were male, according to a 2012 study on the subject. Yet Black women keep mum because the stigma is so enormous. “We have a history of being sexualized and abused that goes back to slavery,” says Clark-Faler. “Black females often don’t come forward about their addiction because they don’t want to be ostracized or mistreated in their own community.” She goes on to point out that everyone wants to be the strong Black female, and no one wants to reinforce the popular misconception of Black females as sexual objects. So these women tend to suffer in silence.
Finding Hope and Seeking Help
Keeping these kinds of secrets inside is incredibly painful and perpetuates the cycle. What’s more, an ongoing sex addiction can create more problems. “Sex addiction, if left untreated, can lead to families falling apart, shared diseases, children being exposed to inappropriate images or worse, humiliation, self injury, arrest, career and educational setbacks,” cautions Weiss.
That’s why it’s crucial to get help. As is the case with other addictions, some women experience some sort of epiphany that pushes them into recovery. For Brown, it happened out of the blue, when she noticed a copy of the book Smart Women/ Foolish Choices on a friend’s coffee table. “I was at my lowest then, and the title alone intrigued me because I felt smart but knew I was making dumb choices,” she says. “So I read it, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God; this is me.’ That book made me realize that I was addicted to sex and approval and validation, and I needed to learn how to love myself.”
Brown proceeded to dive into information about sex addiction, reading books on the subject and attending seminars about how to develop herself as a person. That’s one way to do it, according to Weiss, but there are also support groups, therapy and the church.
The first step toward getting help is simply going online to sash.net (Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health), slaafws.org (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) or sexualrecovery.com. These sites list therapists and support groups in your area; the last one has a recovery expert on call 24/7. Once in therapy, the most popular course is cognitive behavioral treatment. “It helps you understand how your behavior now is related to your past and why you turned to compulsive sexual behavior as a coping mechanism,” explains Clark-Faler. “Then we give you tools to manage your negative emotions and reduce your shame, through meditation, exercise, and connecting with the world in a positive way.” Clark-Faler also notes that therapy does not necessarily remove sex from the equation. “Going to the other extreme can lead to depression,” she says.
The key to healing is connection, which is why support groups are extremely beneficial. “Most therapists encourage group treatment sessions, and anyone can start exploring these issues for free in a 12-step sex-addiction meeting,” says Weiss. “Everyone is there for similar issues, so there’s no judgment and no shame. Many people claim that it’s the first time they felt truly connected and cared for by others who know everything about them [but] supported them just the same.”
Psychological therapy is not the only route to recovery. “As African Americans, our journey is a spiritual one, and [the church] is equipped to help you and accept you,” assures Keith “PK” Jenkins, lead pastor of New Life Christian Center in Los Angeles. “It can be as simple as going to your pastor and bluntly saying, ‘I have a problem with sex and need help.’ We provide love and acceptance first and foremost, then help you deal with the problem in a safe environment.” What’s more, most pastors have strong connections outside the community of faith to provide additional therapeutic resources.
All that said, recovery is a process, and experts say that it’s tough to ever be fully healed. “When your patterns start at an early age, they become your foundation. And in times of crisis, you’re so overwhelmed that you become extra susceptible to going back to old behavior,” cautions Clark-Faler. Her advice: “Be mindful of this fact moving forward. When you’re in crisis, be sure to stay connected with your network and your support group so that you seek support through your community, not through compulsive sexual behavior.”
Smith admits she doesn’t feel fully recovered at this point, but she’s on her way. She hasn’t had sex since that two-in-one nighter and plans to keep it that way until she’s in a committed relationship. In the meantime, she continues to heal. “I make time every day to say positive affirmations, pray and attend therapy sessions and support groups,” she says. “I am positive that if I stay connected, all the bad feelings about myself will eventually disappear.”
*Names have been changed