Nursing student Sarah* has sexted hundreds of strangers. "There have been weekends where I've spent an entire day masturbating," she admits. "I can't stop."
The 25-year-old from North Carolina started messaging boys ten years ago: "I was the fat girl at school so kept to myself a lot. It gave me an outlet for sexual feelings that I wouldn't have got in real life. I became hooked on the thrill of chatting to new people."
Now in a long term relationship with another woman, Sarah still spends hours each night talking to men via anonymous app Kik, despite only having hooked up with one man in real life. "A lot of my chats are playing out that fantasy of being with a man," she confesses. "There have been times when I've tried to stop but it has never worked. I end up stressed out."
Read More: Is Teen Sexting Really a Crime?
Sexting has become a part of everyday life for anyone with a smartphone and a libido. An online survey from Drexel University this summer found that 82 percent of the 840 participants, aged 18 to 82, had sexted at least one person in the past year. Thing is—just like with booze and food—the majority of people consume in moderation, but there are a few who end up doing it compulsively.
Excessive sexting is usually associated with dick pic bros and cheating politicians, but take a glance at Reddit's NSFW forums and you'll also find hundreds of adult women like Sarah searching for strangers to sext. There's even the website sextbuddies.com—a Craigslist for sext partners—where users offer up Kik, Snapchat and WhatsApp usernames along with their age, gender, and sexual preferences. Posts include: "Daddy, punish me by making me strip for you,""Looking for another girl for a roleplay involving an adult baby diaper," and "Mistress here looking to humiliate slaves. Your obedience makes me wet. SLAVES COME TO MAMA!"
The problems arise for women (and men) who have sex addiction tendencies and find themselves using their 2GB data plans to express their compulsions. Tom*—a recovering sex addict and the media contact for addict-led organization Sex Addicts Anonymous—says he's seen lives wrecked by compulsive cybersex. "Online sex attracts people who are scared of intimacy," he says. "It can seem like a manageable substitute for a real connection with another human, but ultimately it leaves people isolated. Some people are losing their jobs because they're up all night and not getting any sleep. Other people are using paid-for services and getting into debt. Others aren't putting into their real-life relationships what they want to."
Sex addiction (officially known as hypersexuality) missed out on being recognized as a brain-changing clinical disorder like drug addiction in 2013, but a 2014 Cambridge University study suggested it does mirror the latter. It found that when sex addicts were shown pornography, the regions of their brains which process anticipation were more active than those of people without compulsive sexual disorders. The same regions kick into action when drug addicts are shown drug stimuli. Either way, all researchers agree that people who identify as sex addicts need treatment to deal with the underlying issues behind their disordered behaviour whether it's a clinical addiction or not.
British psychotherapist Paula Hall regularly treats sex addicts and says that compulsive sexting is usually part of a bigger disorder. She says that there is a common misconception that sex addiction is an addiction to sexual satisfaction, but people who suffer from hypersexual disorders are actually hooked on the "excitement of seeking and searching for a partner, not necessarily the sexual gratification." Apparently, it's this anticipation that leads to the release of dopamine in the brain—the same chemical that's unleashed when you do a bump of coke. "Lots of sex addicts don't actually have sex," Hall tells Broadly. "I work with people who are messaging and going on webcam—they don't actually meet up because they get enough excitement from all of that."
My behavior got riskier and riskier, until I passed out one night with my phone in my lap and my fiancé found a video of one of the guys jerking off.
She adds that women rarely come forward for sex addiction treatment because of the stigma around female sexuality, but that the ten female sex addicts she has treated over the past decade have all had problem with sexting. "I've found that sex addiction often presents itself in women as an addiction to sexting," she explains. "They're less likely to have stranger sex than men because it has more dangers for them; generally [women] have less physical strength than men, risk unwanted pregnancy, and are more likely to get judged for it."
Tara*, a 40-year-old who works at a state finance office, started sexting guys she met on Scrabble-inspired app Words with Friends. It almost led to the breakup of her relationship. "The first guy started messaging me on the app in 2012," she says. "I am very shy in person and communicate more comfortably when I'm texting. After a while we started sexting. He sent me pictures and videos. I sent him some pictures but no nudes. For a while it was fun and exciting and then disgusting. My behavior got riskier and riskier, until I passed out one night with my phone in my lap and my fiancé found a video of one of the guys jerking off. We had a big fight and he took back my ring."
She promised her partner she would stop, but found it hard to disappoint the men asking her to message them. After getting caught out three more times, she was kicked out of the house. "I went to a counselor," Tara says. "He didn't think I was addicted to sexting so much as it was a self esteem issue. He said I really wanted the validation that I was attractive."
Robert Weiss is a clinical social worker and author of a series of books on sexuality in the digital age. He agrees with Tara's counselor that excessive sexting can often be less about sex and more about seeking affirmation. "I've treated people who've experienced early abuse and have used sexuality as way to gain control over their adult life," he says. "It's not really about the sex at all, it's about feeling wanted and special. They constantly objectify themselves. But whenever we turn ourselves into objects, we reduce our own humanity."
I'm not proud of this, but at times the validation that comes from sexting is what has me hooked.
Both men and women can become obsessed with feeling desired, but Weiss believes women are more likely to seek out sexual validation online because it's easier for us to find it, thanks to the way we're constantly objectified by society. He says that women who are hooked are likely to describe feeling powerful, rather than affronted, when someone gawps uninvited at their cleavage, and will repeatedly seek out similar situations to recreate that feeling. He says: "If this is the primary way they get their emotional and sexual needs met, then they're missing the thing that really feeds us: to be appreciated and valued for who we are and not just what we look like."
Clare*, a 34-year-old financial advisor from St. Louis, says she's hooked on the affirmation that comes with sexting. "The first time I sexted, I had been drinking with a male co-worker one night and there was a confession of mutual attraction," she says. "Since then I've sexted guys from Match.com and Reddit." Now she has a sext partner who she talks to daily for "a minimum of five hours a week."
"For me, it's addictive because it makes me feel desired. I'm not proud of this, but at times the validation that comes from sexting is what has me hooked," she says. "I get depressed when I don't have anyone to message."
Sex psychotherapist Hall says that the danger of sex addiction—especially when it's expressed online—is that it can escalate without anyone noticing. This means people often won't think to do anything about it until it has an actual impact on their lives. She says: "You can't drink for eight hours straight without getting sick, but you can sext for eight hours a day."
Plus, digital media provides an unlimited resource of partners for sex addicts looking for a hit. Weiss says: "In the tech world they use the world 'friction' to describe what it takes to get you to an experience. All of the friction has been taken out of desirability and sex. The anonymity, immediacy and affordability of finding sex via digital media has made the potential for sex addiction greater."
For Tara and her partner, this doesn't come as a shock. "Right now we're working through another one of my screw-ups," she says. "He caught me messaging another man—again. I might have messed up the best thing that ever happened to me."
* Names have been changed