While the term sex addiction (SA) has a decidedly male ring to it, female sex and love addiction (FSLA) echoes a romantic component seen as essentially feminine. Deprived of early parental mirroring and care, both SAs and FSLAs ache to be seen and loved. But unlike their male counterparts, most FSLAs identify their loneliness and hurt and have, consciously or unconsciously, spent a lifetime trying to abate them through love addiction instead of the love avoidance characterizing SA. Cultural messages that women’s life goal is to couple, and greater social acceptance of their expressing that desire, both permit and perpetuate their view of aloneness as a privation rather than a point of pride, as SAs often construe it. Captured by the ‘happily ever after’ myth, a desperately lonely girl, whether straight or gay, will very early conjure a rescue fantasy and wait for ‘the one’ to save her. Without attachment figures to regulate and soothe her, she embroiders that device of dissociative fantasy in adulthood. Her own attachment difficulties inevitably draw her to problematic partners, leaving her alone, again. In fact, the more grandiose her fantasy, the lower the likelihood she will create a real connection.
Most FSLAs blend flagrant behaviour with self-effacement, perpetuated by Western culture’s contradictory messages that their sexuality is a power but must be controlled by men, and that realizing their truest self requires relationship with a male. Without an integrated sense of self, the FSLA constructs one from an incongruous amalgam of parental expectations and patriarchal, soft-porn advertising and paints herself into a narrow corner of derivative sexuality. ‘Sexually codependent’ (Kasl, 1989), she cannot find safety and validation from another’s desire, and grows lonelier and more self-loathing.
While addictive sexual behaviour (including its avoidance) is an obvious symptom of FSLA, the single-minded pursuit of sex, ‘falling in love’ or both bespeak their essence as the profound inability to attach securely. The FSLA who comes to your office typically sounds as if she is seeking real relationship. But the dopaminergic surge from the chase, extreme fantasy, the delusion of all-consuming love, or compulsory orgasm generates a false sense of control which masks from her, but marks for you, her dissociation from others and herself.
As for male SAs, FSLAs’ (whether predatory or passive) preoccupation that sometimes incapacitates them for work or daily tasks is the organizing force of their life. Her addictive cycle is composed of compulsion, continuing despite negative consequences, tolerance leading to escalating behaviours, hyperfocus to escape emotional discomfort, rituals (including grooming) to increase excitement and finally, acting out sexually.
Ironically, the FSLA has difficulty talking about her sexual issues due to her lifelong, global shame. That shame may also block her from disclosing collateral damage that would facilitate your assessment: surprisingly common anorgasmia or vaginismus, unwanted pregnancies, STDs, partner abuse, loss of female friendships from rivalry, financial disaster from affairs with bosses or coworkers, poor work performance or overspending on wardrobe and grooming. In fact, she may present as glamorously dressed and toned (perhaps through shopaholism and over-exercising) because she defines her inner self by outward perfection, including possessions, looks and sex appeal.
Alternatively, an FSLA may ‘act in’, depriving herself by sexual aversion, staying in an exploitative job, isolating, locking herself into an online primary ‘relationship’ or suffering from other addictions or eating disorders. But whether seemingly self-assured or shy, her presentations cover up disruptions in early development. Thus she will likely present as moderately to severely dissociated. Fear-based hyperarousal appears as accelerated speech, scrambled thinking and emotional flooding, while shame-based hypoarousal announces itself with slow speech and a detached manner. And all presentations demonstrate not just dissociation but compartmentalization – the major defense against dysregulation and a hallmark of any addiction – and automatism, or unconscious activations bubbling up behaviourally as unacknowledged gestures, vocalizations or facial expressions. So an FSLA usually presents as incapable not only of maintaining relationships but also of describing current or past ones. In other words, she lacks an affectively coherent narrative, and that deficit stamps both her attachment style and her reflection about attachments. In brief, despite superficial achievements, her depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, incapacity to bond with friends or lovers, loneliness and helplessness indicate active FSLA.
When it comes to healing FSLAs, therapists must confront the falsity of both enmeshed familial roles and the commodified, competitive, shame-based sexuality of contemporary culture, and help them discover the self-knowledge, self-compassion, and self-determination that invites true connection with another.
About Alexandra Katehakis, PhD
Alexandra Katehakis, Ph.D., is a licensed Marriage, Family Therapist, and Founder and Clinical Director of Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, California, USA. She serves on the core faculty of the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), and consults for behavioral health treatment centers. Dr. Katehakis is a Clinical Sexologist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist/Supervisor and Certified Sex Therapist/Supervisor. She is author of numerous publications and books including Sex Addiction As Affect Dysregulation: A Neurobiologically Informed Holistic Treatment, (2016), published by W.W. Norton & Co., co-author of the 2015 AASECT award-winning Mirror of Intimacy: Daily Reflections on Emotional and Erotic Intelligence (2104), contributing author to the Clark Vincent award-winning Making Advances: A Comprehensive Guide for Treating Female Sex and Love Addicts, in M. Feree (Ed.), (2012), and author of Erotic Intelligence: Igniting Hot Healthy Sex After Recovery From Sex Addiction (2010). www.centerforhealthysex.com