Girls Gone Wild: Female Sex Addiction on the Web
Through sites like Craigslist, more and more young women are experimenting with anonymous sex before they understand the dangers. Welcome to the Net Generation of female sex addiction.
I would still have been a sex addict without the Internet, but it’s hard for me to picture because those two tweaky compulsions are so tightly wrapped together for me. I even discovered my sexuality and the World Wide Web at the same time.
I was 13 in 1995 when we finally went online at my house. It would be another six or seven years before I fully embraced the Internet’s ability to bring me a steady flow of anonymous sex partners. But from the moment I first heard those dulcet dial-up tones and the hopeful purr that followed, the online experience was tinged with sexual possibility.
I remember signing into a Prodigy chat room and communicating with another purported teenager whose screen name was “slyweasel13.” My mother stayed seated next to me at the computer desk, so the chatting never turned explicit, but it was loaded with flirty winking emoticons that left me panting.
Before the first dis-inhibiting sips of alcohol allowed me to go on dates with these guys, the Internet enabled me to talk to them, and maybe more thrillingly, to remake myself in the image of someone boys would want to talk to. Online, I wasn’t overweight, nearsighted, brace-faced and lacking in social skills. I was a sexual being capable of courting and receiving male attention. This was to become my most intoxicating drug.
The Internet is a dangerous place for any sex addict, but for female sex addicts, there is the extra appeal of judgment-free access to an endless stream of sex partners willing to offer intimacy, flattery, money and whatever else it takes to get our attention. While straight men may attempt to use the Internet this way, they're bound to meet with more resistance, based on the rules of sexual supply and demand. Men seeking anonymous casual sex more often have to pay for it, or at least put in a significant amount of effort.
As my sex addiction escalated, my fantasies grew more bizarre, specific and dangerous. Craigslist was the only place where I could orchestrate exactly what my increasingly twisted psyche was craving.
As a woman, my ads could have said nothing but “ooga booga,” and as long as I included my gender, I probably still would have gotten responses. Ads placed by women net hundreds of responses—as confirmed by the six women I interviewed for this article (whose names have been changed)—while men are lucky if they receive one that isn't sexual spam of the "Look at my porn site" variety. If straight men could use these sites like women do, I believe they would, as evidenced by the fact that gay men do, on sites like Grindr and Manhunt.
The “Internet boyfriend” is a rite of passage among women of my generation, especially those of us who were bullied or otherwise given to low self-esteem. Many of my female friends report finding comfort as adolescents in the attentions of older men saying nice things to them in chat rooms.
I don’t see many women in my sex recovery meetings, but I saw them online, noticed their offers of easy, no-strings-attached sex or glimpsed their shadows in my partners’ stories. I even met a few of them in person when I escalated to group sex and prostitution.
While my own first interactions were limited to the virtual world, 22-year-old Carly started using the Internet to meet men in person at age 15. “I was always a chubby kid and it was a place where I went to find men who were attracted to me," she says. "On a very regular basis I made arrangements to meet with men who were significantly older than I was.” She describes trysts at hotels, in cars and once at her home.
It's easy for insecure, underage females to meet the predatory older men everyone is always warning us about online. For me, the feelings of power, desirability and importance afforded by such an experience were more than a passing indulgence. They quickly became my whole world—even back then, I was getting in trouble for racking up huge Internet and long-distance phone bills while having phone and cyber sex with older men I thought were impressed by my maturity.
By the time I moved to New York City at 18, I was well versed in the art of self-soothing through masturbation, pornography and casual sexual relationships, cyber and otherwise. But it wasn’t until I discovered Craigslist, the community message board, and its well-populated sections for dating, sex work and casual sexual encounters, that flame truly met gasoline.
The first time I posted an ad for sex on Craigslist, my inbox was flooded in minutes with hundreds of responses. They came in faster than I could keep track of them and I spent the next several hours engaged in the trancelike process of respond-delete-refresh until the emails finally slowed to a trickle. Soon I was doing this all the time, literally losing entire days in the cycle.
“Click click click refresh refresh refresh,” recalls 31-year-old recovering sex addict Sarah, laughing about her own email obsessiveness. “I was the rat waiting for the pellet.”
The search itself was an important aspect of Carly’s story as well. “The interaction prior to meeting someone is definitely part of the allure," she says. "You’re building up to it. You’re interacting with like five people at once and when you know you’ve found that one person who you kind of have hooked or they’ve hooked you, the connection is made. Whether it’s an hour or a couple days, it’s as much of what I’m looking for as the sex.”
Craigslist doesn’t cause sex addiction. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with using the Internet to find casual sex in a non-addictive way. Among the female sex addicts I interviewed, some used the Internet in pursuit of their addiction and some didn’t. But among those who did, the Internet was a combustion engine that allowed us to fall deeper and faster into our addictions.
Sarah met partners in Craigslist’s dating section while simultaneously selling sex through the site's Erotic Services. She says, “I was going to do it no matter what. The Internet just made it easier and I could do it more. It’s like the difference between an open bar and having to buy. If you’re an alcoholic, you’ll get drunk either way, but you can get drunk a lot faster on the internet.”
For many heterosexual women, Craigslist and other hookup sites make finding your preferred partner and scenario as easy as ordering a pizza. I don’t know any other addiction where you can write a few sentences, press a button and then be treated to offer after offer of your substance of choice. Women experience this advantage in real life too, of course, but may find it easier to exercise online, where risk of rejection is less immediate and personal. While most women could probably walk into a bar and point to the guy they'd like to take home, not many of them are bold enough to do so, unless behind a veil of Internet anonymity.
As my own sex addiction escalated over the years, my fantasies grew more bizarre, specific and dangerous. Craigslist was the only place I knew of where I could orchestrate exactly what my increasingly twisted psyche was craving on that particular day. I arranged gang bangs and roleplaying scenarios, specified exact dialogue and used other humans as puppets to work out my sexual neurosis.
Much of the research and discourse on sex addiction and the Internet has centered on increased access to pornography and higher rates of cyber porn addiction. What isn’t talked about as often is how easy it is for women to take their Internet sexual obsessions into the real world. Why? Because sex addiction is a disease of escalation.
Dr. Leslie Beth Wish, a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker specializing in women’s issues, agrees that "acting out" online is especially easy for female sex addicts. “After a while you want something else or something more. It’s no longer satisfying to do whatever you’re doing, and now you want greater intensity—greater pain, more frequency or a sense of danger.”
The accessibility of these online connections allows those of us who are Looking for Mr. Goodbar-type addicts to get sicker more quickly. The character in the book has one-night stands with men she picks up in bars, night after night, eventually resulting in her own murder. Carly says, “If the Internet didn’t exist, I probably would never have had the opportunity to do a lot of what I’ve done. It just made it really easy and really anonymous. I could just sit down with my computer and within an hour or two have it nailed down.”
The Internet makes possible a sort of extreme promiscuity that can easily grow out of control. Lisa, 37, who recently hit a year of sexual sobriety, says, “I lost count of how many people I'd slept with when I was in my early twenties. At that point it was around 100 people. I spent years after that without slowing down, so I'm not sure how many. I used a dating site for anonymous hookups. The form was life-threatening unsafe and unconscious sex. It was and is a compulsion for me. Almost like a nervous tic.”
According to Stanford Researcher Al Cooper, 40 percent of the most extreme cyber sex users are women, and those women are likely to ignore normal safety precautions to put themselves in high-risk situations with men they don’t know.
Sometimes, after a successful encounter with one person I found online, the door would barely close behind them before I checked my email and started the whole process over again. At my worst, I was holding down a full-time job, but having anonymous sexual encounters up to three times a day—in the morning before work, on my lunch break when I would slip out to meet a man at a short-stay hotel, and after work before I headed home for the evening. That level of acting out would have been difficult to arrange without a steady stream of sex partners coming from online sex ads.
Dr. Wish says, “In the '80s, you had gateways. You could go to Plato’s Retreat in New York and meet other people who did 'swinging.' Now the Internet isn’t a gateway, it’s a floodgate.”
According to Dr. Wish, the biggest difference between female sex addicts she’s treated pre-Internet boom and post- is that both the opportunities and the shame have increased exponentially, as the addiction has gone from something out in the open to a secret life played out in a virtual world.
Both addiction and the Internet are weird compartmentalized shadowlands. They make great bedfellows, the Internet aiding and abetting in the addict’s tendency to lead a furtive double life.
“There are no last names,” says Carly. “It’s very rare that there was ever someone I had a repeat encounter with. As soon as you don’t want to interact with that person anymore, it’s as simple as blocking them. Game over. You move on like it never happened.”
“Even though you can get pornography and hookups, it’s now seen as something that you can do in private on the computer and nobody knows about it," Dr. Wish explains. "You’ve got freedom, but the other side of the coin is ‘Oh my god, I’m doing this in the dark furtively. I have a part of my behavior that is closed. The black curtain has been drawn on how other people see me and how I present myself to others.’”
I eventually found my most intense, satisfying and secretive sexual experiences in Craigslist’s Erotic Services, where I took what seemed like a short jump from having lots of anonymous sex for free to having lots of anonymous sex and getting paid for it. I just switched sections and threw in some cutesy puns about “tuition money” and “oral reports,” without really understanding how the dynamic of encounters fundamentally shifts when one participant is employed by another.
The ease of use may well attract a breed of woman who would never have become sex workers any other way. Sarah says she would have found a way to sell sex with or without Craigslist's Erotic Services. But she also reads (to me at least) as traditionally attractive—slim with long honey-colored hair and an attractive face. For women who don’t (or think they don’t) fit that mold, the Internet offers the opportunity to cater directly to a specific audience: those seeking BBWs (“big beautiful women”) or “mature” women, for instance, or those who want to just dip a toe in with a foot fetish. Even for those who don't do to real-life prostitution, there are still opportunities to make money through your addiction—I’ve known girls who did phone sex, cam shows and virtual prostitution in online worlds like “Second Life.”
The truth is, I never would have stood on a corner or found an escort agency, but once I realized I could get paid for the behavior I was already engaging in for free, I fell deeply for online sex work.
A lot of men wind up in sex addiction recovery for financial reasons; they lose all their money acting out with prostitutes and masseuses. For women, sex addiction can do the opposite because it can be so lucrative that it contributes to a cycle of reward that can be very difficult to get out of. The money is as addictive as the intense attention and the high-risk sex, and we use it to soothe feelings of unpleasantness or emptiness that come from our doing it in the first place.
When I first sampled the world of sex work, I was a broke college student, but I continued to dabble even while holding down a full-time job and making a respectable living. I would sneak out on my lunch break to turn tricks for money I didn’t really need.
Because we are driven more by our addictions than financial incentives, sex-addicted sex workers make an already dangerous profession that much more dangerous—by keeping our activity, partner and location a secret, by not insisting on condoms and by not properly vetting clients.
“You can’t manage your addiction intelligently,” says Sarah. “Most sex workers rely on regular clients because they’re businesswomen, but I never saw a guy more than once. That uniqueness got me high. And that’s what’s inherently dangerous; meeting strangers and locking yourself in a room with them and identifying yourself in a stigmatized way.”
Many women also take the other tactic and use social media and online dating, two behaviors that on the surface are very normal and socially acceptable, in a compulsive manner.
Sheri, 32, who has recently started attending a 12-step sex group and identifies as both a love and sex addict, tells me about a man she is seeing who admits that he is a sex addict and is not interested in getting help for it. She met him on OK Cupid. As she describes him, this man she is “dating,” I feel a strange tingle in my stomach. It goes away when she says that he has five children, but returns when she mentions that he sometimes gives her money.
“What’s his name?” I ask her. She tells me.
“Does he really have five kids?”
“I was exaggerating. He has three.”
She describes what he looks like and a few other details, including his penchant for spitting on girls during sex.
Yes, I have had sex with him, too, a few years ago. I met him at a sex club. Apparently his stomping ground is large. On the face of it, our addictions are so different, but we ended up in exactly the same place, getting spit on by the same guy.
While Sheri doesn’t use online dating compulsively yet, she is worried about her behavior with the men she meets through it, since she has immediately had sex with almost all of them and had unprotected sex with the admitted sex addict. She knows there is potential to abuse the technology itself.
“I’ve been very cautious about doing online dating because of my ability to become preoccupied with it," she says. "I feel like I’m on the edge and if I continue to pursue it, it has the potential to get a lot worse.”
Thirty-eight-year old Sandra’s addiction took the form of elaborate fantasy relationships with men she met online. “I started using the Internet to connect with exes I knew were still obsessed with me, and landed on message boards and social networking sites where I could get fake boyfriends to have cyber-sex. I specialized in friend-of-a-friend unhappily married dudes who may have been out of my league when we were younger (thanks, Facebook). We exchanged dirty pictures, I exercised my filthy talk skills, I got presents in the mail and I was always on the verge of meeting somewhere between our two cities. I liked to have multiple people who were ready to leave their wives for me. All while in another relationship myself.”
Both Sandra and Sheri could be described as love addicts as well as sex addicts, although almost everyone who is one has some of the other. The Internet is perfectly suited for love addicts as well—the false intimacy of online communication and the ability to portray yourself in multiple ways make it the ideal petri dish for unchecked fantasy. This can be just as dangerous as real-life sexual activity, as in a case in pioneering sex-addiction researcher Patrick Carnes’ Out of the Shadows, in which a Colorado woman became involved with a man on the Internet who kidnapped her for six weeks and then murdered her. In fact, Sandra tells me that when she got on a plane to meet the Internet paramour who would become her husband, she had decided she didn't care if he killed her. Instead, he ended up getting her into recovery.
My own time in that online fantasy world became more and more powerful with the passage of (not very much) time, until I was spending hours and hours of my workday posting, responding and emailing, once even using my work phone number to verify my account.
“When I start feeling really shitty about myself again, I go to those deep and dark places on the Internet and find what I need,” Carly says.
My anonymous email inbox—a generic, naughty-sounding screen name @yahoo.com—became the cluttered, pulsing shame center of my addiction. The first thing I would do when I started emailing with a new potential sex partner was search my inbox for his name, half the time to realize that I had emailed with him before or even had sex with him in person previously. Or I would receive an email from someone I had met and had sex with and be unable to summon any recollection of the occasion, even with a picture and a description of our encounter. Whole sexual encounters were missing from my memory like a sexual blackout. I had had sex with so many strange men that they had been rendered one nameless, faceless blur.
When I mention this to Sarah, she recalls something that happened to her during the years she was responding to ads seeking a “non-pro,” a popular Craigslist term with a nebulous definition that seems to boil down to “a woman who hasn’t had sex for money before or doesn’t do so regularly.”
“One of the most devastating moments of the whole experience was getting an email back that said, ‘No, actually you’re not a non-pro because you’ve contacted me like 12 times, and you’re a prostitute.’ It was true. This person just called me on my shit.”
But the more ashamed and desperate we feel about out behavior, the more we turn to it in order to help us feel better.
As your sense of shame increases, which really goes along with that sense of secrecy and a double life, it almost becomes that drug effect, where you really long for some kind of escape, Dr. Wish says. "The greater your shame, the more you do the thing that gives you shame. You feel bad about yourself, you’re lonely, you feel low self-worth, you don’t have enough endorphins to make yourself feel good, so you go back to the addiction because it pleases you and punishes you at the same time.”
More plainly, Carly says, “When I start feeling really shitty about myself again, I go to those deep and dark places on the Internet and find what I need.”
Still, I struggled desperately to stop. I swore to sex partners that “this time was the last time” so many times that they stopped even reacting. I would delete my email addresses, only to reactivate then delete them again endlessly in the following weeks. When I couldn’t access my old email addresses anymore, I would just use a personal one. More than once, someone I corresponded with tracked down my real information and threatened to inform my partner and employer about my online activities if I didn’t meet them for sex. One guy would IM, call and email 20 to 30 times in one day, demanding that I take naked photographs for him and describe sexual scenarios that he could masturbate to. He was unmoved by my pleas to please, please, please just leave me alone.
At perhaps my lowest point, one of those men threatened me into leaving work and meeting him in the middle of the day, at which point he steered me into Central Park and coerced me into giving him oral sex in a bush while kids played nearby. I entered treatment.
Today, I know the number-one thing I can do to stay sober is to stay out of the Internet’s dark corners. My life still presents plenty of other opportunities for my sex addiction to flare but there is nothing quite as readymade as the Internet.
The Internet’s power to enable sex addiction pulls Sandra as well. “I’ve been sober for 22 months. Masturbation and seeking ‘inappropriate attention’ on the Internet have been my biggest struggles. The Internet is crazy because I know all it takes is a tiny typed innuendo and I could be meeting up and taken out of my life.”
Sarah, who has maintained her sexual sobriety for over three years, says, “I didn’t go on Craigslist for a long time, not even to buy a couch. I couldn’t. I have a real healthy fear of it.”
Again, the freedom of sexuality online isn’t a bad thing for most people—I’d argue it’s done more good than harm, decreasing shame by connecting like-minded and often-stigmatized people, and allowing women to discover their sexual agency in new ways. But for sex addicts, it can be the ultimate enabler. For those of us in recovery, it is a constant reminder that, like alcoholics and drug addicts, we are just an arm’s length from a slip.
Emma Lee is the nomme de plume of a writer and editor who lives in New York City.