ON A SWELTERING DALLAS morning in August 1990, Ed got up early and went to work before the sun was up. At his office he began pecking away at his computer. At about six-thirty he called his wife to see if she was awake. He told her things were going well. Then he walked out of his office, got in his car, and began driving.
“I get undressed as I drive,” he later wrote in a detailed journal that was part of his therapy. “Once I’m naked, I pull into an alley, pop the trunk, and lock up my clothes. I get back in the car and drive on. I pull up behind an apartment complex where the parking lot joins an alley. My blood is roaring now. I am euphoric. I step out of the car. There is the thrill of those first few moments I always experience at this spot as I walk deliberately from the car to the alley.”
Ed (not his real name) proceeded, in what had become a well-practiced ritual of exhibitionism, to walk around the alleyways and streets that surrounded the apartment complex, flirting with the exhilarating danger of detection. At well over six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds, he would be difficult to miss. But that was what made it so exciting. He wasn’t out to shock anybody—it was the risk that gave him the rush.
Ed recalls that, despite the light of day and the increasing traffic, he was obsessed with the idea of crossing a nearby freeway overpass, completely nude, during morning rush hour. The first few times he started to make a break for it, more cars approached. Finally, he managed to do it, but the police spotted him and blocked his escape route. The aphrodisiacal thrill of risk and escape was now replaced by the throbbing dread of getting caught.
He found a couple of towels draped over a fence and tied them around his waist. He tried to get back to his car by dashing across several lanes of freeway traffic, risking his life. But it was to no avail. “Suddenly four police cars converge on me,” he wrote in his journal. “There’s nothing to do. The numbness hits.”
Ed was taken to a police station in Farmers Branch, booked for indecent exposure, and fingerprinted. He called his wife, as he had on half a dozen other occasions, to come bail him out. And then the shame set in—huge, nauseating waves of it. “I knew then,” Ed later recalled, that I couldn’t go on hurting her like that, or my kids. This thing had total control of me. I had to do something.”
It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried before. Indeed, Ed had been counseled by one therapist or another for twenty years, ever since he was first arrested for indecent exposure, when he was 26. He knew it was wrong, and he knew it was crazy, but he always found himself returning to his bizarre compulsion to disrobe and masturbate in public. He was an intelligent man and, he wanted to believe, normal in most respects: He had been married to the same woman for 25 years, had fathered three children, and had made a success of himself in every career path he had set out on. He was a former PTA president and Sunday school teacher.
How does a guy like that wind up in jail for flashing? He didn’t know, but he desperately wanted to find out. And like increasing numbers of people in the grips of compulsive sexual behavior, he turned to a twelve-step, self-help group called Sex Addicts Anonymous ( SAA). Recalling that first SAA meeting, Ed wrote in his journal, “Not a one of them was like me. Yet they were all like me. None of them acted out as I did. We all did different things, but, I realized, we all did them for the same reasons.”
THEY COME THREE EVENINGS A WEEK to this small room at a Baptist church: men and women, old and young, members of the professional and the working classes. People whose appearance is as ordinary as their problems are extraordinary. Some are like Ed, citizens whose sexual “acting out” is so mystifying that much of society simply regards them as irredeemable. Many more are like Ron (also not his real name), a middle-aged attorney who began attending an SAA recovery group almost ten years ago simply because he was what many of us would call oversexed—promiscuous with multiple partners, female and male, to the extent that it had destroyed two marriages and stunted his career.
They are aware that much of society regards their “addiction” with, at best, bemusement, at worst, derision. “This is even more difficult than, say, alcohol or drug recovery,” says Ed, who eventually served a one-year, unadjudicated probation for his exhibitionism that August morning and has now been “sober” for more than six years. “With [alcohol and drugs], you have a problem that society recognizes, a form of self-help that it endorses. With sex addicts, most of them have come in here on their own—their attempt to recover is as secret as their behavior was.
“Everybody has a private sex life,” he adds. “Sex addicts have a secret sex life.”
It was the secret sex life of an untold number of Americans that prompted Minneapolis addiction therapist and researcher Patrick Carnes to write Out of the Shadows, the 1983 best-seller that first introduced the concept of sexual addiction to the masses. Though Carnes’s book didn’t ignite the sort of firestorm that The Kinsey Report had 35 years earlier, he did propose a highly provocative notion: Much compulsive sexual acting out—ranging from chronic promiscuity like Ron’s to more-aberrant behaviors, like Ed’s exhibitionism—could be understood best as the product of an addictive disease, not unlike alcoholism. Sex had entered the realm of “addictionology.”
Carnes had first struck on the theory while treating sex offenders, alcoholics, and drug addicts in the seventies. He eventually theorized that for certain people,