A Sexual Compulsive Valentine's Day
Forty years after beginning his work in sex addiction, Dr. Patrick Carnes gave the keynote speech at a Sexual Compulsives Anonymous Convention. The Fix reports.
February 14th found me walking through Plummer Park on my way to hear Dr. Patrick Carnes speak at the SCA Convention. For those readers lucky enough not to know, SCA stands for Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.
Suddenly, a guy who could not have been older than 17 called out to me, “Do you have a Valentime?“
“No. Unfortunately I don’t.”
“I’ll be your Valentime.”
“Sorry," I said. “I’m not against statutory rape but poor grammar is a deal breaker.”
The irony that I was going to a Sexual Compulsives Anonymous Convention on Valentine’s Day was not lost on me. I was seriously hoping to meet the love of my life, but alas the first thing I noticed when I arrived was that I was one of only four women in an auditorium full of about eighty gay men. My hopes were dashed. And if you were ever wondering who was getting laid in LA… well, wonder no more.
The guest speaker was Robert Weiss, sex addiction expert, author (Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age) as well as the founder of The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He first went to SCA in 1985 when he was just 25 years old and by far the youngest person in the meeting. His bottom, which forced him into treatment, was neither legal nor medical. He just found it hard to maintain self-esteem with what he was doing sexually. His first sponsor asked him to have sex with him within the first week. His second died of AIDS. And his third killed himself ten years ago. “I haven’t had great luck with sponsors,” he said jokingly. “I really shouldn’t be here. I've had sex with enough people to populate China and I’m not HIV+.”
Weiss informed us that Los Angeles is the only city with four centers devoted to sex addiction which goes to show the city’s openness about recovery. Or maybe, I thought, it’s that the weather here is amazing and everybody is great looking and works out like a Russian triathlete.
You can’t suddenly be sexual in a healthy way if you don’t notice what’s lovely.
Weiss was a protégé of Dr.Patrick Carnes and his own book Cruise Control was directly inspired by Carnes’ heterosexually oriented book about sex addiction, Out of the Shadows. “I turned to fantasy and escapism as a child because I couldn’t get my emotional needs met. That works fine in childhood but not so well in adulthood,” he explained.
Weiss then introduced his mentor and ground breaking advocate/psychologist in the field of sex addiction, Dr. Carnes. “Pat was literally booed out of SCA at the height of the AIDS crisis for daring to mention a potential connection between the spread of AIDS and sexual compulsivity among gay men,” he stated in his introduction.
Carnes is now 70 years old, a tall bald man in a beautiful suit, soft-spoken, very humble. He was greeted with a standing ovation before he even uttered a word. He is a nationally known speaker on sex addiction and recovery, having pioneered the founding of the Certified Sex Addiction Therapist program and authored over 15 books on the subject.
Carnes was the first person in his field to point out the relationship between trauma and addiction. He himself grew up in rural Minnesota with an alcoholic abusive father who beat him so severely he has lesions on his frontal lobe. I also have lesions on my frontal lobe from my drug abuse and I was curious to know more about the connection between these lesions and increased uncontrolled impulsivity.
Carnes was sexually abused from the age of six by a neighborhood woman. He was then sexually abused yet again by a member of the Catholic clergy while he was in high school. He began masturbating at an early age as a way to seek relief and this plagued him into his twenties when he began doing it while driving—“It was such a rush, the pleasure of being seen”—and was eventually arrested for indecent exposure. He got into therapy: psychoanalysis, CBT, etc. and although he stopped acting out he was not happy, consumed as he was was by constant thoughts about sex. He was hired to run a treatment center and when he saw how happy all the AA and Alanon members seemed to be, he decided to create a 12-step program just for sex addiction. The first group consisted of nine therapists and one judge. The therapists’ clients were also struggling with sexual compulsivity, so they started a separate meeting for their patients, only being a page ahead themselves.
In 1972 Carnes wrote a paper on sex addiction which later became his first book, Out of the Shadows. He had no real data at that point but he had a story and saw people getting better in Sex Addicts Anonymous. It was 1983 and even SAA said that neither they, nor anybody, was ready for his book. But Carnes pressed on, making an appearance on The Phil Donohue Show (Donohue was Oprah before Oprah). Sitting in the green room, waiting to make his first TV appearance, Carnes heard the studio audience roaring with laughter. Terrified, he was approached by Donohue, famous for roasting his guests. Donohue said “I read your book. This is an important book. It’s true those people out there don’t believe you, but I’m going to help you.”
(A curious aside—the original title of Out of the Shadows was “The Sexual Addiction.” A man on a plane told Carnes that the book was important but that the title and cover were an overt admission of guilt for anybody buying it at the bookstore. He urged him to change the name, the rest is history.)
He impressed upon the crowd the importance of staying grateful, that gratitude is the gateway to awareness. “You can’t suddenly be sexual in a healthy way if you don’t notice what’s lovely.” He went on to talk about the second step, “came to believe." “You have to be open, maintain openness to being in free fall. Look for the messages, appreciate the synchronicity, see the miracles.”
He recounted a story of taking his Labrador hunting. Carnes would shoot a bird and the dog would “walk on the water, pick it up in its mouth and drop it at my feet.” He invited a friend to come see his miracle dog. After a few trips across the water, Carnes said to his friend, “Don’t you notice anything strange, anything miraculous about my dog?” “Yes,” said the friend, “He can’t swim.” Thereby proving that you can witness a miracle and still not see it.
“A spiritual life starts on the inside with trusting yourself,” Carnes said. “You must keep the covenants you make with yourself. This builds trust and belief in yourself. If we can trust ourselves, we can start trusting other people.”
Carnes was eventually asked to start a sexual addiction program at a hospital. At the first meeting, half of the clinicians walked out in protest. They thought it would stigmatize the hospital’s reputation. Of course, then the patients deluged the hospital seeking help and the staff changed their minds and got on board.
While leading his treatment program at the hospital, a horrible fallacious article came out about Carnes in a porn mag, beginning with the assertion that he was a “prison psychologist.” “I’ve never worked in a prison in my life, but I have almost done time in one,” he recalled. One patient in the group said, “I knew it was shit but that’s how I got here.” Another patient raised his hand and said, “I can top you. I actually wrote that article and I knew it was bullshit but that is also why I’m here.”
So it just goes to prove that even bad publicity can be good. And boy did I breathe a sigh of relief when I heard that.
Dr. Carnes went onto explain how the internet and video games were creating a new generation of addicts. “Video games lay down the first neural pathway of addiction, hijacking the reward center, changing learning and memory. Every game is about the next challenge, the new rung. When these same kids hit puberty and become sexual, the brain addresses and processes it in the same way. So these kids’ whole arousal system is already altered.”
Because of the stigma of 12-step programs and addiction, membership in AA and other fellowships has declined greatly in the last decade, he said. Even in the tabloids people who are problematic or struggling with addiction or mental illness are put out there for our amusement. This reminded Carnes of an old painting where a king and queen are visiting an insane asylum to be entertained. “How have we really changed?” he asked. “Treatment should be paid for and 12 step communities should be respected. There should not be a penalty for being in a program.”
He pointed out that NOBODY in AA has just ONE addiction. Nobody. And that in AA we make a mistake in our singularity of purpose to just help the “alcoholic” or focus on the problem of alcohol.
“Every great leader, every great inventor, was tormented with mental health issues," he declared. "Lincoln was bipolar. Steve Jobs had OCD. Without Jobs’ OCD we would not have Apple!”
I was very impressed with the good doctor. He ended his talk by encouraging all us of who have experienced prejudice for our mental illness or addictions to stand up, to stop hiding and to speak our truth. “We need to have courage and dignity about the battle we have faced,” he said. “We are the veterans.”
And I nodded proudly… even if I am still fighting the war.
Amy Dresner is a columnist for The Fix.