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Cruise Control: Understanding Gay Men and Sex Addiction

Cruise ControlIn 2005 I wrote Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, a book that I took out of print in late 2010 because it desperately needed an update. Essentially, the volume was penned prior to the rise of social media, the explosion of user-generated porn, the advent of smartphone hookup apps, and numerous other advances in digital sexnology. And let us not forget the cultural changes “gay marriage” (and its effect on “gay monogamy”) has wrought in the past few years. Remember, many in the gay community used to deride marriage as an old-fashioned, demeaning, heterosexual ritual. Now, however, gay marriage is a hard-fought-for reality in several states, and with a forward-thinking president who has spoken in support of it on more than one occasion, other states are likely to follow. This has created a dramatic shift in gay men’s attitudes toward marriage and monogamy, leading in turn to quite a lot of individuals rethinking their sexual behavior, wondering if all the “fun” they’ve been having is actually compulsive and destructive rather than enjoyable.

Needless to say, things have changed quite a lot in the eight years since I wrote Cruise Control. In 2005, gay male sex addicts were most likely to be found picking up hustlers on street corners, masturbating in adult bookstores to video and magazine porn, hooking up for quickies in public parks and restrooms, and cruising the steam-room at their local gym for hours at a time. Today gay men search for sex in much safer and significantly less public venues. Hustlers are found on prostitution (and dating) websites; porn of every ilk imaginable is ubiquitous on the Internet; mutual masturbation occurs via webcams; and in-person casual and anonymous hookups are set up using “friend finder” smartphone apps. Public cruising for sex partners is fast becoming a behavioral relic engaged in only by “old school” men (read: over 40) who’ve yet to embrace the technologic tsunami. And the number of old-school gay men is diminishing by the day, as it becomes increasingly clear that if you want to get laid, you’d better get “with it” in terms of digital hookups. Recognizing this, a heavily updated second edition of Cruise Control – already a staple among gay men in recovery – is scheduled for publication later this month in both electronic and print formats. (See: www.gentlepath.com or www.amazon.com.)

Is Sex Addiction a Gay Thing?

Compulsive, problematic sexual behaviors are not solely a gay men’s issue. The diagnoses of sex, love, and porn addiction are equally widespread among straight and bisexual men, and those individuals act out in the same basic ways as gay men. The simple fact is today’s sex addicts, regardless of sexual orientation, locate sex partners via dating and prostitution websites, social media, and smartphone apps. The only real difference is gay men log on to Grindr, Manhunt, and Scruff, while straight guys use Skout, Blendr, and Ashley Madison. Gay and straight porn addicts also act out in similar ways, “losing themselves” in a seemingly endless online array of intensely stimulating graphic imagery – much of it user-generated thanks to the proliferation of webcams and HD cameras. Gay or straight, sex addicts live highly compartmentalized double lives, experiencing a variety of negative life consequences as a result of their compulsive acting out. Simply put, gay and straight sex addicts are much more alike than different.

That said, recognizing sexual addiction in gay men is sometimes tougher than it is with straight men, in part because Western gay culture encourages a wider range of sexual freedoms than does heterosexual culture. And while this is in most ways a positive (gay and proud) reaction to growing up in a shame-based, homophobic society, a counterculture of unrestrained sexual activity also tends to both enable and make it difficult to identify problematic sexual behavior patterns. In simple terms: If you spend all your free time in bars, it’s hard to determine if you are an alcoholic or just someone who likes to drink. Why? Because everyone there is drinking. Similarly, it is difficult to stand out as a sex addict when you live in a sexually permissive community. Most gay men live in such an environment, while most straight men don’t. Thus, it is typically easier for straight male sex addicts to notice when their sexual behavior becomes compulsive, excessive, and destructive.

It is important to note that gay male sex addicts are not compulsively sexual because of their sexual orientation. Rather, they are compulsively sexual as a way to self-medicate individual psychological issues – depression, anxiety, attachment disorders, social phobia, low self-esteem, unresolved trauma, etc. These are exactly the same underlying issues presented by straight and bisexual sex addicts, both male and female. Unfortunately for the gay male sex addict, his increasingly destructive patterns of behavior take place against a cultural background of dramatically greater sexual freedom than that experienced by other sex addicts. In some ways, the gay sex addicts are prisoner of their own autonomy, with fewer cultural opportunities for self-examination and less cultural support for behavioral change than the population in general. But this is changing. Many married gay men are no longer willing to put up with a partner who is out having sex with strangers two or three evenings a week. Like many attached, loving spouses of both genders, gay spouses are increasingly expressing dissatisfaction with non-monogamy and their partner engaging in random, casual sex. This is bringing more gay sex addicts than ever into treatment.

Gay Men and Technology

For most gay men, the Internet has helped them learn about themselves, form supportive communities, and develop healthy intimate relationships. It has also played a significant role in the de-stigmatization of homosexuality – especially among younger people. It has likely saved lives. Unfortunately, the Internet has also facilitated sexual acting out for many gay men. As the accessibility, affordability, and most importantly the anonymity of pornography, online sex, and in-the-flesh encounters has increased, so too has the number of gay men struggling with problematic patterns of sexual behavior. For these men, even seemingly benign online activities can present a danger. Consider Joe:

Sometimes I go online just to check email or pay a bill, and without even thinking about it, I’m looking at porn or I’m video chatting with some half-naked guy who lives a thousand miles away. Before I know it, half the night is gone and there I am, still sitting there, zoned out and staring at the screen. It’s like being in a daze. And this doesn’t just happen to me once in a while. If it did, I wouldn’t be so concerned. But I lose myself online for three or four hours a night, nearly every night, and sometimes entire weekends are spent cruising for sex and masturbating to porn. Some days I sit still for so long that my whole body gets cramped – and I still haven’t eaten or done any chores. I just stare at my stupid iPad and let it drag me away into oblivion. A friend of mine used to do heroin, and he described to me one time what it was like, and it’s exactly the same as how I use sex and the Internet. That really scares me.

Drugs and Sex

Writing a blog about gay men and sexual addiction without also mentioning concurrent drug abuse would be a great disservice. The simple fact is sex addicts often struggle with multiple addictions. In one survey of male sex addicts (a mix of gay and straight men) 87 percent reported also abusing an addictive substance or another addictive behavior. For many gay male sex addicts, stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine are the secondary “drugs of choice.” Users say these drugs allow them to be sexual for hours or even days at a time – without sleeping, eating, or coming down – especially when Viagra, Cialis, or a similar drug is along for the ride. Sadly, safe sex is rarely a priority for such men when disinhibited by drugs. This is especially true for sex addicts who’ve already grown accustomed to marathon sex with multiple partners, greatly increasing their risk for contracting and/or transmitting HIV and other STDs. For some gay men, drug use and sexual acting out are so intertwined that they form a single, fused addiction – if these men are doing one, they are also, without fail, doing the other.

Finding Recovery

There are a lot of gay identified men, no one really knows how many, who utilize the intensity and emotional power of sexual fantasies and behaviors to self-soothe, distract, and emotionally medicate themselves in ways that not only go against their core beliefs and values, but also create emotional, health, relationship, legal, financial, and other consequences. These individuals can find recovery in therapy with gay supportive sex addiction treatment specialists – usually a combination of individual and group sessions – and in openly gay 12-step sexual recovery meetings. Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) and Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) seem to be the most popular and welcoming 12-step programs for gay men. Oftentimes, an intensive outpatient program such as the one offered by the Sexual Recovery Institute or an inpatient treatment setting can jump-start a sex addict’s recovery. For individuals with fused drug use and sexual acting out, both aspects of the addiction must be treated simultaneously, preferably in an environment where these issues are addressed as the paired, dual concerns they have become.

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