Facing Sex Addiction: A John Comes Clean
“Mike” contacted me for advice about the stripper he was seeing after he’d read my column on The Rumpus. He told me that when his wife was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he flung himself at sex workers as a way to escape his own loneliness and grief. He wrote to me about “Pattie,” a stripper he had become so taken with that he ended up risking his job, relationship, and family, waiting in parking lots at 4am for Pattie to get off work. One drunken night, he admitted to his wife that he’d been unfaithful and sought a 12-step program designed to help sex addicts recover.
At one point, Mike asked me if I considered myself a sex addict. I don’t, but I have addictive tendencies that leak out in every area of my life, including sex work. I asked him if he would be interviewed. At first, he declined because he didn’t want to revisit that dark time. But we kept corresponding. As he delved more deeply into his recovery, he decided that by telling his story, other people could possibly benefit. We had both read bell hooks’s The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, and decided to use it to inform our discussion, with a focus on patriarchy, feminism, and intimacy.
The Rumpus: I’m so glad you agreed to have this conversation.
Mike: To be honest, I am scared about doing this. I have a mountain of shame about how I have acted in relation to my interactions with sex workers.
Rumpus: My hope is our conversation will open a new door—one of forgiveness, emotional awareness, mutual growth, and well-being. As Janna Malamud Smith wrote in the most recent issue of The Sun, maybe the retelling of your story will “tame the unmanageable anguish” lurking within.
Mike: Since I consider myself a sex addict, my story is best understood as a progression from compulsive masturbation to interacting with sex workers, which is why I describe it as a series of forbidden doors being opened. In my addiction, I totally acted against my convictions. My stiff cock led me through the gutters of a city draped in hedonistic venues, with my mind fixed on gratifying my selfish desires. But as bell hooks makes clear in her book The Will to Change, men are socialized to compartmentalize their lives and I have done that. I’ve been a hypocrite and justified my actions. Also, I can dissociate in a heartbeat.
Rumpus: bell hooks also talks about shifting consciousness and self-love. She really opened my eyes about what men learn about masculinity in this culture: domination and destruction. I don’t think only men compartmentalize, though. Women do that, too, especially as a result of being knotted up with shame and grief or trauma. I think many readers will relate to your experience of addictive behavior and disassociation. I’ve brought all of my wounds into the sex industry looking for salvation, and behaved compulsively both in my personal and professional life. I remember at times, that feeling of soaring above myself as if I were in a movie because I was anxious or afraid. After a while, I began to look forward to the movie feeling and then was disappointed. That was a sad moment—the moment I couldn’t feel. So I dug my nails into my thighs as a reminder I was still there. I remember feeling surprised that my feelings could shut off like a faucet. Other times, they’d flare up, like during a spinning class at the gym.
As a young boy, what did you observe about sex in your household?
Mike: My dad was a verbally abusive alcoholic. My mother was a narcissist who said she didn’t like children. So I experienced lots of neglect and I learned at an early age to seek refuge under the sheets. Both parents lacked boundaries. My father had many affairs that my mother tolerated because my dad was from the wrong side of the tracks. When I was a preteen, my dad’s mistress came to stay with us at our summer home, which was isolated so we all swam naked. So there I was swimming naked with my father’s mistress, while my father lounged naked beside the pool.
Rumpus: What was your first introduction to sex? What was your first experience with sex workers?
Mike: My first introduction to sex and workers was looking at pictures of naked women in “dirty” magazines. When I was a kid— not sure how old I was, but certainly I was in elementary school—a friend of mine found his father’s stash of Playboy magazines. I thought this was wrong and something we shouldn’t be doing. But they were fantastically gorgeous with their beautiful breasts and submissive poses. I was very excited about seeing those pictures and even though it felt forbidden, my mind took note of this experience for sure. And I can even remember the smell of those pages—the magazines had a certain sweet aroma.
My first sexual experience with another person was with my high school girlfriend, who was a loving, caring, beautiful person. We were two lonely people who became intertwined, in love, and then eventually had sex. I wish I had better understood why my relationship with her seemed like it was not enough.
Rumpus: How were sex workers viewed by your father, friends, and neighborhood or in your culture?
Mike: In high school and college, talk about strippers was rare. Perhaps the closest I came to thinking about this was listening to Dylan singing about a woman who worked in a topless place, who shared a book of poems with him written by an Italian poet from the thirteenth century—intriguing and romantic. But probably if you had asked us at the time about strippers, we would have paraded out the usual ideas about these women having difficult lives either because of poverty or abuse and leading them to use their bodies to make money, because they didn’t have any other way to get by. However, even in the counter-culture that I ascribed to, the message of patriarchy in our society remained strong. And that message was: men can use their power to dominate women and they are entitled to having sex with them. Intellectually, I was trying to rebel against that message, but a part of me wanted to be that powerful man having any sexy woman available to him. And we were busy doing the hippie thing at the time.
Rumpus: The “Make Love Not War” hippie thing? I wonder if—aside from fighting for our civil rights—hippies were interested in working towards partnerships that nurtured integrity, wholeness, and humanness, or were they just getting baked and screwing to Jimi Hendrix?
Mike: Yeah, Intellectually, I was trying to rebel against that “free love” message, but a part of me wanted to be that powerful man having any sexy woman available to him. When I looked at explicit images of naked women at that time, there was no thinking of about who these women really were. There was no thinking that other men saw these same images. There was no thinking there was a photographer, or somebody taking advantage of these women to make millions of dollars. That would contaminate the fantasy. It was complete sexual objectification. And it seemed harmless. Cybersex provided access to women who would chat with me and masturbate for money. I fell deep into this world again with no regard for what this arena might really be like. There were times when I would get very depressed thinking of the women in Eastern Europe who frequented the rooms of cybersex. In my clearer moments, I knew sex slavery could have been a component of this, and in those moments I would clear my accounts, cancel my e-mail addresses, vow to never go back. But like any addiction, I would rationalize and justify until I was back spending money and pretending I was special to Ilithya or Evana or Nadia.
Rumpus: I know that routine. Not only with drugs (in the ’90s) but that spin cycle of quitting and starting behaviors. I would swear off meeting johns in my apartment and clutch my last $3, and get a call and agree to meet a manic attorney or sad comedian at my place. I read recently that Backpage alone counts for an estimated 20,000 sex ads nationwide, daily. And although there are thousands of consenting adults participating in prostitution, there are also minors being trafficked. [For more information about this topic and how to stop it, check out FAIR Girls, a small nonprofit that helps underage girls escape prostitution.] Exploitation and abuse happen in illegal enterprises, but also legal ones like schools, institutions, corporations and homes.
What impression did you have of the other men that you saw in the strip clubs?
Mike: For many of the men I know who have interacted with sex workers, this was very much part of their secret life. We hid this part of our lives because we didn’t want other people to know. One of my skills was to filter out the men and only see the women. But when I did see the other men in clubs, I often thought they looked pathetic. Somehow I deluded myself into thinking I was different. There were the few handsome young men, and it was clear they were appreciated. For example, I saw one woman in the strip club take a particularly charming-looking guy into the women’s bathroom with her after a very flirty interaction. But then there would be the drunken guys who would weave their way back to one more lap dance.
Rumpus: Describe how you felt when you finally had direct contact with strippers. What was your impression of the women you met there?
Mike: If at that time when I first started going to strip clubs, you had asked me about strippers, when I had a cup of coffee in my hand, I might intellectualize about the state of their lives and what drove them to be strippers. But I know as I roamed the streets and then entered into the darkly lit spaces seeing beautiful breasts, sexy asses, gyrating moves, and having drinks to help bolster my courage to be as sexual as I could be with these women, notions of their well-being were not on my mind.
Certain strip clubs felt very much like a new level of sexual activity. There was an energy that things could go much further. There was a sense that these women were more vulnerable and willing to do whatever. It gave me a sense of power, and I know this fed my addiction. At that time, my drinking escalated. My first nude strip club was a forbidden zone. I continued to be nervous and embarrassed, but my heart would race with excitement. I was hooked on this experience and wanted to go back and try to become more comfortable each time. I was very much objectifying these women and considered it a show I could watch, but there was a certain barrier I would not cross.
Then I crossed the barrier. Soon, I was trying to get as close to having sex with these women as I could. I would spend lots of money, lap dance after lap dance. The bubble busted when my money was gone. I realized these women were not interested in me at all. I felt their cold rejection. I was not at all special—just a creepy old guy in a strip club, and our relationship was about me giving them money for feigned sex. Part of me thought I was a big man going there, but another part of me could sense my low self-esteem—that I was shocked when a sexy, young woman offered me a lap dance. I figured they wouldn’t want to interact with me. So my ego got a lift. And then after they got off my lap and it was clear I meant nothing to them, I felt a sinking feeling reinforcing my worthlessness. But like any addiction, I kept going back.
Rumpus: There are theories that suggest it’s human nature to hotly desire the thing just out of reach. I think you beat yourself up too much. Help me understand how this was a bona fide addiction. Was there a point of irrevocability where there was no going back to who you were before?
Mike: A turning point was when I started to search the dark alleys and go off the beaten path. It was there that I met Pattie. I remember entering her club and she was standing by herself with another dancer passed out on an ugly couch. She had a whiskey voice and I did not find her attractive at first. She asked me what I was doing. “I was just curious,” I said, and turned to leave. She said, with an aggressive confidence, “You will be back.” It was truer than I could have imagined.
I returned to her club, and sought her out on a night with a lot of activity in the club. It was hard for me to get her attention. She asked me outright for money—no hesitation—and she said I could stick it in her panties. This was a new experience, and the flash of what I saw gave me a huge rush. I wanted more from her and went back again. I had my first lap dance with her, and I could sense she would be willing to take things much further. I was nervous and scared, but wanted her very badly.
Then she gave me her phone number. To me, this was amazing: a stripper giving me her phone number. I felt like I must be someone special to her. I didn’t think once that this was usual for her. But this certainly became a big, special secret for me. I had Pattie’s phone number. I called her a lot and would find her in these murky situations. I found out she lived in a hotel. It all seemed so shady and dark. I was drawn to this.
Rumpus: Drawn to darkness? What was going on in your life that compelled you to seek out murky darkness?
Mike: Pattie was what my inner addict wanted. A woman whose life was chaotic, who was dark—she was part of a tough world, a sexual one; this was obvious, and she was vulnerable—she was always talking about being broke and needing my help. In fact, many of her phone calls would start out with “I need,” so I felt needed.
Rumpus: You got locked in with the one who made you feel special, even invaluable. Maybe it’s because you were lonesome, not a bad person.
Mike: I would go to her club, and the other girls would be miffed because I was always going to see Pattie. One of them got angry and said I should know she was a heroin addict. That was a strange moment, but I was in denial. I never saw Pattie’s bare arms, even during her lap dances. And she had scars on her neck and ankles. But I ignored the signs of drug addiction to think of her in an idyllic way. In other words, I kept up my delusional thinking to keep my fantasy of who she was and who we were, romantic and alive.
Rumpus: What did you enjoy about Pattie?
Mike: Even through her heroin fog, Pattie had a brilliant mind for details. She remembered and noticed things about me that really were surprising. And sometimes we would not be in contact for close to a year, and when we got back together it would be as if we were together the day before. That is probably her gift for being successful in her trade as a sex worker. She is a very smart and also very clever. There was one time with Pattie that did seem special. She was about to start treatment at a clinic for heroin addiction— to finally give it up—and I held her in my arms as she cried about being scared. I think that was the only real time when I was trying to be there for her, and that I meant something to her.
Rumpus: Who were you to Pattie?
Mike: Looking back, it is hard for me to understand who I was to Pattie.
She said I was her only true friend. We talked about our lives, and I said that if things changed with my wife, I would like to have a future with Pattie. I feel very ashamed now when I think of those empty promises. I also know she was quick to shut down, most likely to protect herself from men who had used her. I told her I loved her a lot, and a couple of times she said she loved me. But whether I was just another client, it is hard for me to say. However, when I stopped and really thought about Pattie’s week, I realized she had a long list of men’s numbers in her phone and I’m sure she was playing lots of guys simultaneously. When I saw her, she would sometimes leave me hanging for hours. Now I realize I was probably just another guy on hold, like a plane waiting to land. Also, I’m older than Pattie by a decade. I never stopped to think that that might matter. I never stopped to think, what kind of man does Pattie really want? She certainly never tried to seduce me outright. So when the denial fades away, I was just an older guy that she could manipulate for money. So in the moment, I was a vulnerable, lonely man she could use.
Rumpus: Do you think Pattie and the strippers you encountered ever felt degraded or exploited? How do you think Pattie felt about being a sex worker?
Mike: When I watched the sexy strippers on the stage moving as if they were getting fucked, it seemed degrading to me. But then again, that did not stop me from staring at them and fantasizing about me being the one fucking them. I also would sometimes look around at the men drooling at them, and realize, like me, these beauties would have nothing to do with us outside the club. I know there were probably as many attitudes among the women stripping, as there were women. I can’t assume they all shared the same point of view of their work.
There is one moment that stands out. Pattie sent me a message before she went to work, saying, “Back I go again to be molested to pay my bills, so sad, so true.”
Rumpus: Do you think Pattie and her friends considered themselves victims? Do you think the strippers you paid considered themselves feminists?
Mike: You also ask me to make generalizations about feminism and sex workers and I hesitate to do so, but we can turn to bell hooks where she provides a very insightful discussion of men and their attitude of, I want to get it when I want it. So it seems to me the participants on both sides of the equation are not usually likely to be working under feminist principles. But you, as a sex worker, might know differently. One of the hallmarks of sex addiction is that we abandon our principles, and for me, as I now try to fully embrace feminism, read about it, talk to women about it, start conversations about smashing patriarchy, and most important, act differently.
I am horrified by my past and how I treated women when I was acting out. Similar to the earlier discussions on this page about Max’s experience, we ignore what we know is right to feed our need for sex.
We also know what Rachel Lloyd courageously points out in her Rumpus Interview with Julie Greicius: that crime and horrible conditions often underlie the experiences we are having. I knew it was there, but became blind as I sought sexual interactions pulled by my insatiable drive for sex.
So, to me, most of the sex industry—from porn, to strip clubs, and then including prostitutes—feeds into patriarchy. I’m ashamed of the fact that I strode out into the night to seek sexual interactions with a feeling of entitlement. It was pure selfishness. It was fake, too, because the power was really obtained by the cash I was willing to throw away. To have some sexy, delicious-looking stripper even consider to ask if I wanted a lap dance felt powerful. I felt entitled to have her grind against me so I would experience arousal.
It was not a mutual relationship based on a love and respect. Even with Pattie, the stripper I had a relationship with, I felt entitled and powerful. She held the promise of hot sex. She would allow me to feel manly and powerful, but really I was putty in her hands, and she pulled a lot of money out of my pockets with her beguiling ways. In fact, looking back, it’s clear she always had the upper hand and she knew it.
Rumpus: I think one way to smash patriarchy is to shirk control over women, and to align yourself with feminist concerns like pro-choice. Many women in the adult industry consider themselves feminist. Steve Bearman, in his essay “Why Men Are So Obsessed with Sex,” describes sex as “the one place sensuality seems to be permissible, where we can be gentle with our own bodies and allow ourselves overflowing passion.” I bring that up because it seems that people don’t allow themselves to enjoy their sexual bodies normally, and so they pay for it. This is a consumer epidemic, not the fault of the adult entertainment industry. I have had many joyful and wondrous experiences with men and women in the context of sex work, and just because I was being paid didn’t make that experience inherently degrading. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s not sex or the sex industry, but patriarchy and consumerism that are dehumanizing, as well as a culture that devalues intimacy.
Was it an intimate experience to be with sex workers?
Mike: I would ask myself, how can I have some kind of sexual interaction with an attractive woman tonight? The fact was—and is—I am married. But if we set that aside for a moment, the thing about going to a strip club is that if you have money in your pocket, you will not get rejected. But it’s so much about objectifying women and treating them like sex objects. Money is power in this relationship, and for the women, sex is power. You asked about our culture condemning men who hire women for entertainment, which really is a euphemism for sex or some kind of sexual interaction. I guess a lap dance is a dry hump, but whatever. I guess one could say men need the service, women are willing to provide the service, but for me sex is more than that.
Rumpus: Needing intimacy is different than needing sex. And there is a wide range of sexual experiences that are meaningful in some way but not entirely intimate. I don’t think it’s black and white. Which reminds me of bell hooks speaking to the loneliness and isolation in our culture. She called intimacy “mutual giving,” not “mutual taking.”
Mike: Sex is a very intimate act, but if it’s not really accompanied with emotional intimacy, it feels empty to me and hollow. Cooking a nice meal for someone and sharing that meal with good conversation can mean so much more than an hour of paid sex. And the people I know would think there is often much more going on in the interaction between men hiring a woman for sex. I can share from my own experience that when I was in this dance with Pattie and other sex workers, it was more complicated than just an hour of paid time.
Rumpus: More complicated how?
Mike: Pattie would sometimes contact me during her break at work at 4am and ask me to pick her up after work. And I would think about the number of men she was with that night and then that week. I then I would get this revolting feeling and feel very sad. So when I think of the women having sex with hundreds of men night after night, it conjures up a difficult feeling, even though as a sex addict I’m naturally drawn to prostitutes.
Rumpus: Maybe you were just drawn to her, the idea of her in contrast to the other parts of your life. Living a double life has its appeal. How did you stop seeing Pattie?
Mike: I was more than drunk—it was a blurry evening. We finally made it to the V.I.P. room. Again, I was very nervous and awkward, but also feeling strange. I had given her a large tip; so three condoms were laid out on the table. She disappeared for a while somewhere in that confused time. When she came back I started to give her a back rub and she abruptly stood up and said we needed more money. I followed her to try to get more money, but I couldn’t get any more, so she simply turned away from me and started talking to another man in the club. I felt humiliated and in a state of despair. I walked out into the street. Dawn was approaching. I felt horrible and wanted to kill myself. I somehow made it home. I disclosed everything to my wife, like vomiting on her with all I had done. It was an ugly, selfish way to give her all that painful information and certainly was not done in a caring compassionate manner. Out of anger, she told my kids what was going on. It was a disaster. I hurt a lot of people. However, I found a great therapist. And the next day I found an AA meeting and started my road to recovery. I kept going to meetings. It also was made clear I was a sex addict, and so I went to meetings for that group also.
Rumpus: What have you learned from your experience with Pattie? What have you lost or gained?
Mike: I am trying to rebuild my life, especially with my wife and family. An important part of that is not having contact with Pattie ever again. I do think about her and wonder what she is doing and how she is doing. But I also know it is selfish to think contacting her would not matter to my life partner. Some people say sex addiction is not real and I am just a pervert or creep. Others may judge me harshly. And the news is filled with condemnation. I am hoping that, as sex addiction becomes more widely accepted as a nasty addiction, treatment for sex addiction will become more widely accepted and recovery will be more tolerated. Younger people are coming to SLA meetings because their acting out it has caused them to lose their jobs, their marriages, or become estranged from their families. And I am not alone in suspecting its reaching epidemic proportions.
I have learned that my disease of sex addiction is an intimacy disorder. Even when I am with my family, who are all very loving and affectionate people, I have trouble being “part of.” I still hang a bit in the shadows, as I was taught for many, many years. But now I am trying to make my way “Out of the Shadows” (the title of a helpful book on sex addiction by Patrick Carnes). Even when things are going well, it’s hard for me to simply enjoy the good things in life because I feel a pull to sabotage my own well-being—throw a wrench into my life. Something as simple as playing a game with my son can help me to better make a connection and build my self-esteem. I am in no way saying that everyone who goes to a strip club or interacts with a sex worker in some way is a sex addict, in the same way that everyone who has a beer is not an alcoholic. But I want to fight against patriarchy and I long to heal. What if all the money that has been spent on empty sex was instead spent supporting community gardens? Think of all the people who could be impacted in a positive, life-affirming way.