Friend of Bill's

Thursday, November 17, 2011


How does a sex addict make amends? I am working with a sponsor who says I should just look at step number one. But I know if I stay in “the program,” sooner or later I will have to do this. I've had a lot of anonymous sex. Sometimes I was using glory holes or visiting the tubs when I knew I had an STD. Am I supposed to reimburse them for getting treated? How can I track those guys down and apologize to them? I also had many affairs with married men. How can I make amends to any of them without jeopardizing their marriages? Isn't a phone call or a letter from a random gay man going to make their spouses angry or at least suspicious? There are sex workers I paid well, but I realize now they were troubled young men who probably didn't want to get me off. But their ads are long-gone; there's no way to send them more money. With all the faces I've forgotten, bus stations and rest areas in cities I can't recall, hitchhikers and other truck drivers—I feel overwhelmed. The feeling of being so dirty and ashamed is so strong sometimes that I get too depressed to go to a meeting. I know I couldn't keep on going the way that I was. Every time I had sex I just felt worse and worse and more unhappy. Even getting arrested didn't stop me. I sometimes wish I was a drunk because it's easier to just quit drinking. I still want to have sex but I don't know how I could without triggering another sinking sensation of being worthless. Can you throw me a lifeline out of the crazies?



The readers who are not seeking to recover from addiction to alcohol or other drugs should probably know that Bill W. was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Members of AA or any of its stepchildren often identify themselves as “Friends of Bill” much like gay men and women used to call themselves “Friends of Dorothy.” I have no explanation, however, for the latter idiom.

Your sponsor is right. Each of the 12 steps is a tall order. Don't rush your recovery. You are seeking deep, personal change that will carry you safely through the rest of your life. As you progress, you will find that you lean heavily upon the things that you learned in previous step work. So don't neglect the process.

However, it sounds like your anxiety or anticipation is reaching such a high level that it is distracting you from your sponsor's good advice. I am concerned that you will crank yourself up so hard that you will start to believe you can't get better. Relapse is a real possibility when we start to believe we don't deserve or can't work the Twelve Steps. Take my word for it—people who are more sick than you are have managed to do a fearless and searching moral inventory, catalogue their shortcomings, and make amends for them. What follows are some thoughts about how this might work in the context of sex addiction.

Many of my sex-radical friends will balk at this term. They will say that it is based on sexual shame. While I've certainly seen evidence of conservative values and fear of sexuality at various meetings, I can also say that unwanted, compulsive, self-destructive sexual behavior is a reality for many people. These behaviors cause genuine human misery. People wind up in jail, financially ruined, infected with HIV or some other STI, or divorced because they can't stop doing things that have terrible consequences. I am all for taking less drastic measures to bring sexuality under an individual's control. But the least drastic intervention is not always effective.

I think it be obvious that I don't support homophobia or any other form of sexual prejudice. Shaming people or scaring them about sex does more harm than good. Sexuality ought to be a source of comfort, pleasure, intimacy, and adventure. Each individual has a right to control his or her own sexual destiny and identity. Addiction is a paradox—unwanted pleasure-seeking behavior. It is also ineffective. You don't get what you are looking for. An addict may be seeking to soothe themselves, avoid boredom, attract a partner, or perform better. These goals don't sound harmful unless you track what it feels like to fail to achieve them. You can distinguish recreational use from addiction when people don't want to engage in the behavior, yet find themselves repeating it over and over again, and not enjoying it, sometimes despite facing scary consequences if they continue.

Twelve Step programs are controversial in part because they talk about God and are biased toward Christianity. But program literature also makes it clear that it is up to each member to define his or her own Higher Power. I hope few of my readers will be offended by the notion that spiritual transformation can often change people's lives for the better.

My opinions about how “the program” works are just my own perspective. I don't speak for any organization, and I certainly don't represent one. Your beliefs or experiences may be very different. But the only thing I can share is the minimal level of understanding I've worked out for myself. 

You seem to be using the term “making amends” in a very literal way. You mention sending people money, for example, to compensate them for having sex with you. I think this misses the point. Bill W. and his friends knew the power that guilt and shame had over their fellow alcoholics. They saw that people would relapse because they believed they were worthless. This corrosive feeling was so painful that alcoholics tried to numb the pain with booze. If you took away the booze and didn't address the shame, permanent abstinence was impossible. The process of taking your own inventory and making amends is meant to heal you from that sort of pain. It also sets up a method that you can use to create your own system of ethics, and a practice that will allow you to correct your course without beating yourself up and relapsing. Ideally, this keeps you from accumulating new sources of shame.

Addicts tend to be perfectionists. We set impossible standards for ourselves and other people. When these standards are inevitably frustrated, we drink or get high or have sex or spend money or abuse food. There are lots of ways to try to kill our feelings (or even ourselves). Even in recovery, we make mistakes. To stay sober and live in a more measured way, we need to be able to forgive ourselves and other people. But we also need to live up to our values. Simply forgiving ourselves every time we screw up is not enough. Knowing you can make amends provides a sense of relief. You don't need to punish yourself forever. You can have a measured, appropriate reaction to making a mistake, and correct it, and feel better.

During years of active addictive behavior, people accumulate a lot of wrongdoing. Taking inventory was never meant to be a form of self-criticism and nothing else. Careful reading of AA's “Big Book” shows that we are supposed to list our positive qualities as well as our shortcomings. This may be more difficult for you than writing out the details of your misdeeds! But it is very important to make a good-faith effort to identify your assets, to express faith that you were not created as a mistake.

Listing the people you have harmed is important if you are going to learn how to forgive yourself and live without harming yourself and other human beings. You don't do it so you can bankrupt yourself or kick up a bunch of drama by revealing exactly who you convinced to cheat on their partner. In fact, you can't contact the person that you harmed if doing so would distress or injure them. Often it isn't physically possible. In that case, you and your sponsor hammer out a form of making amends that fits the situation. A person who is vulnerable to prostitution might make a donation to an organization that does work on behalf of sex workers. If you aren't vulnerable to acting out, you might do volunteer work on their behalf. If you exposed other people to STDs, you might need to do work on behalf of an agency that provides healthcare to your community. If you can't give money, you can volunteer at a fundraising event or hand out condoms at street fair.

Can you see why this process happens later on, when your recovery has had a chance to get a little stronger? Making amends will sometimes bring you dangerously close to problematic people, places, and things. You have to know what you can and can't be around. You and your sponsor need to make sure that you don't use, for example, the condom distribution gig as a trigger to slip into an alley for an orgy of unprotected sex, perhaps during the Folsom Street Fair.

Here's a very safe way to make amends. Write a letter to the person you feel that you harmed. If you don't know his or her name, write the letter anyway. Some of us make “god boxes” that are a cross between a piggy bank and a mailbox. Stick the letter in that as a way of turning it over or giving it up to your higher power, and then move on to the next task. 

During active addiction, you are the person you harmed the most. How can you make amends to yourself? It  can be moving and healing to list the ways that you hurt yourself, the reasons why this happened, and how you are treating yourself better. At this point, therapy might be something you can give yourself to address old wounds and learn new ways to deal with your sexual energy.

Don't worry if you don't get it right the first time around. Many of us have worked all twelve steps a number of times. The more we learn in recovery, the more rewards and challenges we can see waiting on the horizon. As sanity enters our lives, we get enough time and energy to understand the past more accurately. Simply going to meetings, sharing with others, and providing support when you can is a way to make amends. Every time you make a healthy choice or do something positive for yourself and others, you are demonstrating a new level of insight and creating better habits. This is especially important in sex addiction because few of us want to live without sexual energy. Instead of abstaining from desire, we want to find a better place for sexuality in our lives, hearts, and bodies.

Gay men have a special challenge, I believe, because we are always being told that desiring other men is a terrible thing to do. We are made to feel that we are inherently bad or wrong because of a sexual proclivity that we did not choose. By loving or physically pleasing other men, we are expressing a part of our inherent nature. When we come out, we rebel against norms that don't fit. We can't use the institutions or values of straight people to shape our conduct. But many of us give up on the whole project of determining what our values should be. We never ask ourselves what we personally consider to be wrong or right. Sex is perceived as a rare commodity, and we pursue it and feel entitled to get as much of it as we can. If we need drugs to perform, we take drugs. If we need to offer our partners money or dispense with precautions, we do that too. We trample on other people's relationships and values so we can have what we want.

For some gay men, the typical urban lifestyle and its sexual institutions are just a lot of raunchy fun. They can somehow manage to have integrity and sexual license. They can enjoy a wide range of sexual behavior and still have intimate relationships. Some of us are not that lucky. Sex is a source of pain for us. No matter how much we have, we feel deprived and lonely. Instead of feeling radical and gay-affirming, we feel dirty and wrong. Sexual behavior can become more extreme as we seek to dull our pain and achieve oblivion. It can be next door to actual suicide. We may know hundreds of kinky things to do with every body part and secretion, but we don't know how to love ourselves—or another man.

These are two polar extremes, and most people will fall in between these poles. I am describing the negative experience of sexuality because I want to validate the experience of gay and bisexual men who are sex addicts. Unfortunately, what I have to say can also be used by homophobes to claim that all gay male sexuality is self-serving and harmful. That's not the point that I want to make at all! I'm saying that one size of sexual behavior does not fit all of us. Bathhouse sex may be celebratory and healthy for one guy and harmful for the next. Open relationships might be necessary to fit one man's personality and contribute to his personal growth, while another man needs the framework of monogamy. Some of us can experiment with leather and BDSM and find a sense of brotherhood there as well as transcendental experiences that are inexpressibly valuable. But others who get involved in those activities will find them destructive.

As a community, we need to offer our members a wider range of choices, and validate all of them as valid forms of male homosexuality. It makes me sad to see young men with tender hearts who are made to feel like fools or old fogies if they don't want to party and combine large quantities of drugs or alcohol with large quantities of public and anonymous sex. While having many partners can be exciting, it can also be a reaction to our fear of one another. It's a way to be close while holding each other at arm's length. Perhaps because we were rejected by our own fathers and other important male figures in our lives, we are terrified that we might be rejected by other gay men. So we take away the right to say “no,” and we close ourselves off to the emotional vulnerability and romantic needs that being sexually close can awaken. “Don't be a kissy fag,” one of my friends was told when he tried to embrace the first man who fucked him. No gaybasher could have done a better job of telling him he was worth nothing. 

We hold each other's health and well-being in trust. The only thing an addict can do is to seek individual recovery. But entire cultures and societies can also be in need of healing. It's very hard to evaluate or criticize ourselves when we are already under attack. But if we can't create a vision of a better world, what do we have that is worth fighting for?


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