A member's story

Sexual anorexia, or compulsive sexual avoidance
My name's James, and I'm a sexual anorexic and addict. It's not so usual to hear people introduce themselves that way in SAA, so let me explain. Sexual anorexia (or compulsive sexual avoidance) is what got me into the Twelve Step fellowships that focus on sex. I had my first sexual experience with a woman when I was 25, a lot later than I would have hoped, and since that relationship broke up, there had been nothing apart from a few dates filled with terror. Some people may choose to wait to be sexual, but I didn't choose it that way, and I was utterly powerless over avoiding or sabotaging intimacy in my life, sexual or otherwise. I knew I wasn't gay, but I couldn't explain what the problem was.

My journey in Twelve-Step recovery started in a group for the families and friends of alcoholics. I gradually thawed out there, starting to be able to name my feelings, trust people, be open-minded towards some kind of spirituality and talk honestly about my family for the first time. Sex was either a joke or a threat when I was growing up: something talked about with bawdy humour or with the undercurrent of possible domestic violence.

I owe a lot to that fellowship, and I was becoming happier, but there were still parts of my life where I wasn't being honest with myself or others. When my health crashed and burned, I realised that my relationship with work was not healthy, and another Twelve-Step fellowship helped me start to get a better work-life balance. My fragile self-esteem was completely tied up in what I did and not who I was, and the adrenaline buzz I got numbed my loneliness and despair.

I was asked several questions which lead to the biggest light-bulb moment of my recovery. “How have my relationships or lack of them been affected by my work problems?” “Do I use work to avoid sex?” And I was introduced to the concept that anorexia or “reduced living” can apply not just with food, but with any part of life. I looked on the Internet for “sexual anorexia” and found a leaflet which described who I am: I had found a name for the force which had blighted my life.

As a member who lived a long way from face-to-face meetings, it was the SAA telephone meetings, which take place over a conference-call facility, which were my lifeline to the fellowship. At first I was resentful, judgemental and terrified. I sneered at people who talked about their healthy sex lives, let alone the unhealthy behaviours that these people shared about with such courage. Gradually, more ice melted, and I had to ask myself a few difficult questions. I don't think there's anything wrong with masturbation in itself, but I realised that it was taking over my life, and was causing me problems at work. I was hooked on a website which wasn't officially pornography, but I was using it as such. I was ashamed of the way I looked at women. And I had been having crippling secret infatuations with women for as long as I could remember. I was an addict too!

To be an avoidant and addict at the same time sounds like a contradiction, but eventually I had to agree with the idea that it's two sides of the same coin. If I'm “acting out” with pornography or anonymous sexual encounters, or “acting in” and avoiding the whole thing altogether, the feelings beneath are often the same. Shame and negative attitudes about sex, low self-esteem, and a fear of real intimacy and vulnerability with someone who loves me and knows who I am, whom I am not paying, who is in the same room as me.

What advice would I give to someone who identifies with sexual avoidance, or whose addiction hasn't yet reached the depths other people's has? I keep coming back, even when discouraged. I try and look for similarities rather than the differences – I've found the people who seem worlds apart to me are often the same deep down. Instead of judging others, I try and be grateful that my disease hasn't gone to those places so far. There are many ways of working the Steps, so if one way doesn't appeal or doesn't work for me, I can try another. There's bound to be someone in the fellowship who I really identify with, it's just that I may have to look a little harder.

I think it's an exciting time to be a member of SAA. Our book, “Sex Addicts Anonymous – From Shame to Grace”, features a member's story about sexual anorexia. The leaflet “Recovery from Compulsive Sexual Avoidance” is a great resource, and more literature is being worked on. I'm so grateful that recovery for what has caused me so much pain is becoming more accessible. The Twelve Steps work on any compulsive behaviour, addictive or avoidant. What was impossible and unimaginable for me is gradually, imperceptibly, becoming doable. Wishing you joy and true happiness in your recovery.

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