One saturday morning, a man I'll call Tony phones me to book a consultation and erotic healing body work. He mentions that he's a member of Sexaholics Anonymous (SA). I've had next to no experience with this group, so I assume that whatever SA does, it's helping him heal his sexual issues. On Tuesday I get a message from Tony. In a voice thick with misery, he cancels both our appointments. I call back, leaving a message asking if I've done something to put him off. Despite the stereotypes, I've encountered men who are ashamed and afraid to see me. It's possible, I reason, that I inadvertently frightened or embarrassed him, and if we can get past this miscommunication, we might work fruitfully together. I finish by affirming that of course he is free to cancel without explanation.
Eight or nine days later, Tony calls again. He seems confused about what I offer. I remind him I'm not a sexual companion or girlfriend. In our sessions, I explain, I would act as a creative collaborator, helping him go in the direction he wants with his sexuality.
He says he wants to learn how to stop using sex for escapism. I ask, "So what do you want to use your sexuality for?" The question completely floors him. He flounders, tries to get me to answer it for him. I'm beginning to realize the depth of his panic and confusion. "He goes to a Sexaholics Anonymous group," I think, "and no one has ever asked him this before? What is this SA all about anyway?"
Tony ends the discussion by booking another massage with me. I tell him that this time I need 24 hours cancellation notice or I'll have to charge a fee.
Sure enough, Tony calls a few hours later to cancel. He blurts out that he really wants to hold onto his "sobriety." In the confusion of the moment (I'm on another line), I tell him, "No problem. Call when you're ready to see me."
In the next few hours, his words start to sink in. I go online. I want to find out more about SA.
There it is, in cyber-print. SA members agree that any sex outside a committed partnership will take them straight back into addiction. Any sex outside a partnership, including self-pleasuring, is forbidden - for life. Now I can guess why Tony has never thought about what he wants to use his sexuality for. Does he assume that the SA philosophy has already given him a recipe for sexual health? I now also realize Tony hasn't really heard a word I've said about the fact that I'm committed to helping him achieve a free and balanced flow of erotic energy (which he certainly lacks) through his whole body and may not even touch his genitals for many sessions. He sees me as only temptation, siren, seduction.
I have no choice. I call Tony back and tell him I have to retract my previous offer. "It would be unethical to work with you if the very fact of being on my table pits you against your own goals," I tell him. He says he understands, and immediately tries to book another massage. "I just said I can't work with you!" I exclaim.
The next day I call a sex therapist friend. "Does this SA stuff ever help anyone?" I ask. She says she's seen participation repress people's symptoms but has yet to meet anyone who's actually gotten to the root cause of sexual compulsion via SA. The self-proclaimed sex addicts she was able to help weren't members. She says she's glad that few SA people call her any more: "They cancel all the time."
I'm left shaking my head, wondering about the logic that creates an organization like SA. Sex, I muse, isn't like drink or drugs. Sex is part of our very being. According to the Oriental healing philosophies that inspire my work, without a balanced flow of sexual energy throughout our life we get sick, even die. Where's the balance in an approach that offers such a limited, one-size-fits-all model of healthy sexual behaviour? That doesn't encourage people to learn how to use their sexuality to support their own creative purposes?
Certainly, setting limits on one's behaviour while working out one's issues might be helpful, but to all appearances SA teaches that the addict will essentially never be able to trust him- or herself to make responsible sexual decisions outside the box of "sobriety."
And for all those SA members who don't have a committed partner, like Tony, what's left? Repression. The shame of "falling off the wagon." It would be tough, even damaging, for a healthy person to go weeks, months or years without sexual release, unless they were deeply into meditative disciplines that opened them up to "making love with the whole cosmos."
For someone like Tony, I fear that whatever trauma started his addiction in the first place is twisting its way deeper into his heart. I feel grieved that I can't do anything for him, angry that I've found psychologists online who recommend SA as part of a treatment protocol for sexual addiction. In SA, puritanism, I believe, lives on disguised as healing balm.
Sandra Innes is a pseudonym.