Tim Lee's sex addiction clinic is inside one of those nondescript beige buildings right outside Penn Station. If you've ever been in New York, you've probably walked right by it without a second look; I've used the bathrooms in both the restaurant and the hotel lobby in the building's first floor and never would have guessed that a few staircases above me, people were pouring out their hearts and darkest secrets. Lee's clinic is called New York Pathways, an intensive outpatient facility where people seek treatment for compulsive masturbation, sex addiction, serial monogamy, and escort use, among other things.
Even as admitting to being an addict has become more socially acceptable over the years, sex addicts are still stigmatized, even mocked. Even though people eat up programming like Californication and fawn over Shame, both of which featured sex-addicted protagonists, the idea of someone actually suffering from sex addiction is preposterous to many people. For a sizable portion of the public, when they hear about high-profile celebrity sexhounds like Tiger Woods their reaction might be summed up by an incredulous headline on an Australian news site: "Is sex addiction really an excuse to cheat?" Marty Klein, a sex therapist and writer who is perhaps the term's biggest opponent, wrote a 2012 takedown that what we refer to as sex addiction is "a special weapon now used by the religious right to combat perceived liberalism, to ignore science, and to ignite fear."
I didn't know very much about so-called sex addiction or how that kind of compulsion is treated, so I popped by Pathways to speak with Lee, who has a master's in social work, a mousy appearance, and a pretty good sense of humor about his business. Besides sharing with me his own tale of bad behavior, he insisted that sexual addiction was not only real, but becoming more prevalent.
"I've been a therapist for ten years," he told me. "I'll tell you what—the apps and the internet has really brought people down to depths they never thought they would go."
Here's the rest of our interview:
VICE: We're here to talk about sex addiction, but I'm not even sure that it's a real thing. Can you clear that up before we begin?
Tim Lee: So, first of all, the term sex addiction kinda sucks. I like it because it brings me business. I can put "sex addiction" on my website, and people will google it because that's the keyword that's out there. But medically speaking, no, it's not a thing. Sex addiction is a term used to define a specific type of treatment. The term "addict" is a stereotype. Also, you can do better than that. Everyone asks that question. I think it's really corny.
OK, so if it's not technically addicts who come in here, who does?
We treat about 100 people a week here—there's probably two or three guys here who were arrested for putting mirrors on their shoes to look up women's skirts and charged with unlawful surveillance, which carries a felony and a ranking on the sex offender registry.
There are also people who are traumatized—usually sexually—and then they recreate the behavior in a certain way. For example, there's a guy I worked whose thing was taking pictures of people performing oral sex on him and posting them online. I started talking to him, and I asked him if there was any abuse in his background. He said no. I asked him about the first time he masturbated. He thought about it for a second ago goes, "Oh, I remember. My father gave me a picture of mom performing oral sex on him and told me to go masturbate." And for the fucking life of him, he couldn't connect the two.
What about people who go out and have sex with five different people a week? If that doesn't bother the person, and they're not hurting anyone else, is that necessarily problematic behavior that requires therapy?
OK, so, not necessarily. But what if this person says, "I had a couple drinks, and I didn't use a condom. Not going to do that again." But they go out again, have a couple drinks, don't have any condoms, and say, "Fuck it." Then they contract an STD. Then there's the emotional consequence of shame. Versus the person who's on there swiping and hooks up and feels fine about what's going on.
So, it's fine until you get an STD?
Or you say, "Shit, I wanna settle down. And I can't settle down doing this." There's always a person who meets a great person, but then wants to meet another great person. They think they have two, but they have none. That's a classic set up. The consequence there is that they'll never have a relationship and they aren't trying to work through the anxiety and the intimacy issues. They don't wanna stay with one person because it kicks up too many grief issues of one of his parents who died as kid. So it gets a little tricky.
Can you give an example of someone who's young and not married who might require treatment at a place like Pathways?
Well I can tell you, I had a client in here yesterday and we were going over his sexual history, and the guy's doing great. He's finally found a long-term committed girlfriend, and he's anxious as shit about the whole thing. We're going over it, and he's in his 20s, and there was this woman he hooked up with in graduate school.
They had this arrangement where she would come over, they would cook a great meal, they would have sex, and she would leave. And they had a rule that the first time anyone said, "I love you," it's over. So this went on for about a year. And he said they were having sex two or three times a day. And she called and said, "I love you." They break up, and he starts having panic attacks. So they get back together, and he was probably going through a dopamine withdrawal, and so he reported a lot of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. They had a tumultuous, shitty thing together. But it was all based on sex.
But what was the consequence there?
The anxiety and depression that came after they ended it.
But with any dissolution of a relationship, there's going to be anxiety and depression.
For him, it was the whole addictive nature of the relationship. He didn't really respect her, love her. Also, his previous girlfriend, they were not having any sex, and he would just smoke pot and masturbate to pornography. And then she would go to bed, and she could only have sex in one position, and she had a sexual abuse history. They had no sex life, or when they did, it couldn't be spontaneous. That relationship ended and he got right into this thing, which was destructive.
When someone comes in to be treated for compulsive sexual behavior, what's the goal? Never jerking off? Is it like AA or NA where you simply are not allowed to do the thing that gets you off, in this case quite literally?
In AA abstinence is easy to define—you don't drink. Same thing with NA—you don't use. With sex therapy, there are five different programs based on how you define sobriety. In SA, which is the most rigid, they define sobriety as no masturbation and no sex outside of a marriage, and marriage can only be between a man and a woman. It's pretty intense. It serves its purpose for the Hasidic Jewish guy, for instance. Or the devout Catholic guy.
SRA broke off from SA. Their bottom line is no masturbation and no sex outside of a committed relationship. Then you go more down the pike and there's programs like SAA and SLAA where you define what your behaviors are that you wanna abstain from with the help of a sponsor. But to answer your question, a lot of them have what are called bottom-line behaviors, which are like masturbation, pornography, one-night stands, commercial sex, massage parlors, going on the apps.
I would think if you were having unprotected sex all the time and seeking refuge in these programs, they would want to like, encourage masturbation.
There are also two types of guys—those in relationships who can't stop cheating, and the type of guy who's addicted to the internet and masturbation and has no relationship history. For those guys it's about getting into a stable relationship, which they set as a goal. There's very few of those guys who prefer to masturbate to porn. They wanna be committed but they're hooked on this thing called the internet.
Think of the different programs like they're like political parties. For instance, SCA is predominately gay men, and in that one they have a sex plan. It might be going to bathhouses and having sex, but it has to be protected, and I can only do it once a week. It's a harm-reduction type model.
Is it possible to have too much sex? Like, if you drank an entire bottle of vodka every day, everyone would think you had a serious problem. But if you have sex every day, no one would think you had a problem, right?
If I had sex every day I would feel kind of groggy and foggy and not really up to my game. But maybe once or twice a week? A balance, right? Or if I'm stressed out and I wanna have sex with my wife just to get off, I kind of feel like shit afterwards. I feel selfish. So people are different, and it's very self-defined. I'm in recovery myself, and I used to go to SLAA. You define with a sponsor what your bottom lines are.
Can you talk a little bit about your personal experience with addiction?
I was having sex with folks, and I didn't really want to be in a committed relationship with them because they were either married, or they were just not people i would want my friends to see me hanging out with. So I liked SRA, because the no sex outside of a mutually committed relationship bit cut out a lot of monkey business for me. And they really pushed the 90-day assistance period of no sex or masturbation or nothing. I went a year. The clarity I felt—I was able to process a lot of past issues around mom and dad and trauma issues and grief and loss. This is my third career. I've wrecked two others by acting out.
How can a sex addiction ruin your career? Were you leaving the office to have sex with prostitutes?
I moved here from Georgia and was gonna make it here. I went to Hunter College and busted my ass in the theater department and started doing well. I became a light designer. The more success I had, the more anxiety I had. It got to a certain level where I just couldn't show up. Meanwhile I was involved with someone who was just as crazy as I was. We were having sex two or three times a day. I was having one-night-stands. I couldn't focus. I stopped showing up. There was a distinct point at which I messed up a really good opportunity. She thought I should have been a lawyer, and I had an opportunity to work with a Tony Award-winning designer when I was 22. That's a pretty big fucking opportunity. I didn't show up.
Because you were too busy having sex? I still don't follow.
I was influenced by her saying, "No, theater isn't a good thing for you. I really wanna be with a lawyer." She would tell me shit like that, but in my sex-addict mind, the sex was better than me standing up for myself and saying, "You're crazy." If I had to do it all over again, I might have had sex with her a few times and realized, "Holy shit, this is a toxic thing." But I put my relationship first and then it tanked. Then I became a graphic artist, and the same thing happened with somebody else.
So what's your ultimate goal with people who come in here? Is it getting them into a marriage? Or is that beyond hope for some of them?
A lot of people I work with are very stressed out from living a double life. They waste a lot of money and time. There's a lot of emotional consequences because of missed time with their kids. Lot of remorse around that. They have a whole new life. Not all, but many clients feel like, "What was I thinking?" In fact, I had a client the other day tell me it was his two-year anniversary after he had been discovered. He said he and his wife didn't want to celebrate it, but they did look back and memorialize how rich his life was because they weren't having any sex, and now they're intimate. He was afraid to have sex with his wife, and now they have a kid. He has a better job, too.
That's the other thing—a lot of folks live mediocre lives because they're so caught up in their addiction. It just varies from person to person to person. I would say that, more than anything, it's about saving someone's sanity.
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