What I hear almost everyday from women across the country is, 'I thought I was the only one.' —Marnie Ferree, Executive and Clinical Director of Bethesda Workshops
As a young girl, Sonora Hope's nightmares were almost always the same: She watched helplessly as a giant monster came into her city and began devouring person after person, house after house.
Then it came to her.
If she became sexual with the beast, it let her live.
If she stopped, it would kill her.
The dreams were painfully reflective of Hope's waking life, which was filled with abuse and warped ideas about sex, thanks to a physically abusive mother, a sexually abusive stepfather, and a teenage female babysitter who molested Hope when she was 5.
This early sexualization propelled Hope (her online name) into "sex play" with other kids and promoted an unhealthy obsession with sex, pornography and the power that women in pornography seemed to wield.
"I felt unattractive as a kid," Hope said. "I was overweight and the idea of being a beautiful woman that men wanted to be with so much was a really intoxicating idea to me."
It was so intoxicating that during high school and college Hope found herself in a series of problematic relationships, only later realizing just how far she went to gain attention and affection, even if it was warped and violent.
While pornography and sex addictions have traditionally been viewed as male issues, therapists say a growing number of women deal with them as well, evidenced through behaviors like using sexualized chat rooms, web cams, erotica and pornography, to engaging in serial relationships and affairs.
The Society for Advancement of Sexual Health conducted an online survey of nearly 500 women and found that 261 self-identified as sex and love addicts. In that population, 70 percent of women said they felt degraded by their behavior and 62 percent said they had made failed attempts to stop.
"What I hear almost everyday from women across the country is, 'I thought I was the only one,' " said Marnie Ferree, Executive and Clinical Director of Bethesda Workshops, which she began in 1997 as the country's first program aimed at helping women with sexual addictions. "When women aren't talking about their own struggles, then women don't talk about it. Silence keeps women silent."
It's not that sexual-related problems among women are new, says Robin Cato, executive director of SASH, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sexual health and overcoming problematic sexual behaviors.
Yet there are two major differences about sexual addictions today, Cato said. First, there are infinitely more ways to fall into addictive traps, thanks to the explosion of the Internet with its triple cocktail of affordability, accessibility and anonymity. Women who would never have gone down to the corner store and purchased a pornographic video can now pull it up on their iPad, or visit a sexualized chat room and no one has to know.
And secondly, when these women do become entrenched in an addiction, it's difficult to push aside something that society, as a whole, has already embraced.
"Everything's a temptation," Cato said. "(Women feel like), 'Everywhere I turn there's more of this that I find compelling and seductive, and I want it because it changes the way that I feel.' "
And that's the underlying motive for any addiction, Cato said. Yet trying to find recovery is difficult, because unlike drugs or alcohol, society holds men and women to a different standard when it comes to sexual issues.
"With men, the double standard is, the more sex the better; they're more virile," Cato says, "But with a woman, she's a tramp. There's more shame for a woman to walk into a therapist and say, 'I think I use sex to make me feel better.' "
For many women, the potential for addiction begins in childhood following abuse or a lack of caregiver attachment, thus planting the idea into the woman's mind that she is bad or unworthy of love.
Thus in order to get any sort of attention or love, or as a way to block out negative feelings, she becomes obsessed with sex and relationships (or eating, gambling, viewing pornography, shoplifting) — and addicted to the subsequent high following the release of pleasurable brain chemicals.
In the first chapter of "Making Advances," a new book aimed at clinicians who treat female sex addicts, edited by Ferree, the group of authors write, "Women use sex or romance for power, energy or medicine, and lose themselves in the process. For addicts they unwittingly substitute the high of addictive love and sex for real intimacy and connection."
Even after Hope got married to Jason (not his real name), a kind, preacher-in-training who loved her deeply, she continued to act out through pornography and masturbation, erotica and chat rooms — shamefully hiding all of it.
When Jason caught her in a torrential online affair with a former boyfriend, Hope realized her life was out of control, became suicidal and finally agreed to treatment.
"Dating my husband, having kids, I always felt like they deserved somebody better, and if I got out of the way they could have that, because I could never be what they wanted me to be because of the addiction," Hope said. "It never occurred to me, until I was halfway through rehab, that maybe I could be somebody better."
And today she is.
Following inpatient therapy, counseling and years of 12-step meetings, Hope has dealt with her past, set boundaries and rediscovered herself and her marriage, which she says is stronger now than it's ever been.
She's also working to educate other women through her blog and, hopefully, someday a book. She knows what it's like to go through this alone, and she doesn't want others to have to do the same thing.
"I want to make available for someone else what wasn't available for me," she says. "This is a real disease, it's a real thing that requires real treatment and real understanding."