In support of National Women’s Health Week (which was May 13-19 this year), I would like to mention a few ways that female sex and love addicts are different from males. Perhaps this will help women recognize which excessive behaviors can be signs of an actual addiction.
Women always have been overlooked or underrepresented in studies of alcohol, drug, gambling or sex addiction. It has been 73 years since the founding of AA and 60 or so years since the American Medical Association recognized alcoholism as a disease.
Yet it was not until the late 1980s that significant findings regarding very powerful gender differences in the development of alcoholism surfaced in research studies for other diseases, such as heart disease or AIDS.
Using some of his early research discussed in his book Don’t Call It Love, Dr. Patrick Carnes discovered that, in general, male sex addicts tend to objectify their partners. They seem to prefer sexual behavior involving relatively little emotional involvement. This leads male sex addicts to engage primarily in such activities as voyeuristic sex, buying prostitutes, having anonymous sex, and engaging in exploitative sex. This may be seen as a logical extension of the way that men in our culture are raised to view women and sex.
As the dozens of pop psychology books on male-female relationships can attest, there is no end to the lament that men in our culture have difficulty with bonding and intimacy issues. We live in a culture that prizes competition and autonomy, particularly for men: getting ahead, going for the gold, becoming an individual, gaining mastery of feelings, making sexual notches on one’s belt. Taken to the extreme, these values can easily lead to extreme isolation, objectification of sex partners, an inability to express feelings, and a strong sense of entitlement at the expense of others—all fertile breeding ground for addictive behaviors.
Women sex addicts, on the other hand, tend to use sex for power, control, and attention. They score high on measures of fantasy sex, seductive role sex, trading sex, and pain exchange. Unlike men, female sex addicts do not seem to be following an intensified trend already existing in the general culture. In fact, by acting out sexually, these women seem to be reacting against culturally prescribed norms.
Author Charlotte Kasl has noted that women in our culture are primarily trained to be sexual codependents. In her book, Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search For Love and Power, she defined such codependency as letting one’s body be used in order to hold onto a relationship, regardless of whether a woman really wants to have sex. In general, sex addicts tend to use (manipulate) relationships in order to have sex, whereas sexual codependents use (manipulate) sex in order to keep relationships. Neither group has a clue as to true intimacy.
Codependency has become an overused term; it tends to brand all helping impulses as pathological. In her groundbreaking work on normal female development, In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan describes how women create a sense of identity through relationships, through the development of an “ego-in-context-of-relating.” Male developmental theorists from Freud to Erikson have emphasized the need for human beings to become autonomous, basing these models on themselves and then projecting them onto women.
Gilligan points out that normal female development involves an early need for intimacy skills, with autonomy becoming an issue when women are older, perhaps in their 30s or 40s. Men, on the other hand, are encouraged to find their autonomous identities first and then to explore intimacy skills.
This may explain why, so often, we see the phenomenon of women going back to school after the kids are grown to “find themselves,” at just about the point when their husbands may be wanting to get closer, wanting to “settle down.” The point here is that a woman’s need to understand herself in the context of relationship is not by definition pathological. It is only when these normal developmental needs are distorted (usually through early abuse experiences), that desperate, compulsive, and obsessive behavior emerges, culminating in various women-who-love-too-much scenarios.
Sex addiction in women cannot truly be understood without being constantly aware of the interrelationship of addiction and codependency. Often it appears in my outpatient practice that some women sex addicts are actually trying to “fix” their codependency (a self-perceived sense of weakness and vulnerability) by taking the initiative to act out sexually “like a man.”
Many women have found the fellowship of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous helpful in reducing the shameful feelings that surround the problem of compulsive sexual behavior, which is the first step toward stopping this behavior. Love Addicts Anonymous is another 12-step fellowship that is developing a network of followers. Finding a therapist who specializes in these disorders can be tricky. I suggest looking at www.iitap.com or www.sash.net to find clinicians who are experienced in treating sex and love addicts. Inpatient treatment of female sex addicts can be found at The Ranch in Tennessee or at the Life Healing Center in New Mexico.