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I was a ‘sex addict’ – I’m now healing from the damage my hypersexuality caused

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I was a ‘sex addict’ – now I’m in my healing eraTaya Iv / 500px - Getty Images

“Have you always been such a slut?” says my friend. “Yup,” I reply with a grin.

In my life, some people called me a sex addict and some – like my friend – have called me a slut. But years after this particular friend queried my supposed promiscuity, a therapist offered up a different descriptor: hypersexual.

My hypersexuality symptoms started at age eight with obsessive masturbation, but I didn’t identify any problematic behaviours until I took a second look at my sexual history, aged 25. My symptoms worsened with puberty, and I treated my body as a sexual tool, forgetting that, of course, it has feelings too. There were reasons for this: childhood grooming and sexual abuse drastically impacted my sexual development, twisting it into a chaotic mess defined by a total disregard for my physical safety, boundaryless promiscuity, obsessive sexual thoughts and an inability to maintain healthy relationships.

sleepless woman lying in bed hiding under duvet
Maria Korneeva - Getty Images

I used sexuality as a shield of false empowerment until a therapist suggested I was exhibiting symptoms of “hypersexuality” and explained the link to sex addiction. Initially, I was repulsed. The only time I’d heard the term “sex addiction” was in public statements from men accused of abuse, so I, as a young woman with no other frame of reference, rejected the assessment.

My denial intensified when I discovered that neither hypersexuality nor sex addiction is recognised in the DSM-5 – the go-to book for classifying mental health and brain-related conditions and disorders. However, several clinical studies have categorised hypersexuality as, “a disorder characterised by sexually compulsive behaviour”.

“Hypersexuality is an intense focus on sex,” explains psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber. “Some people are preoccupied with sexual fantasies; others are compulsive and impulsive, initiating sexual encounters and eroticising experiences. Someone I know refers to it as feeling ‘erotically caffeinated’.”

What’s important to note is that hypersexuality and sex addiction aren’t technically the same thing. They are adjacent, yes, in that they produce similar symptoms and behaviours. But one doesn’t equal the other – something I learned myself as I moved through the process of diagnosis and reckoning with my own sometimes damaging behaviours.

As I grew up, I was regularly shamed for being “slutty” and inappropriate, and chastised by those close to me for masturbating from a young age. At the same time, I saw men (in pop culture and among my friends) celebrated for masturbation, public hard-ons, free-roaming sexual escapades and unabashedly sexualising women’s bodies. I took on a defensive stance by finding comedy in my trauma and proudly identifying tongue-in-cheek as a “whore”. The more people treated me like an irredeemable, improper slut, the more I leaned into it. I felt like an incurable abnormality, so why not go with it?

I would have fit in with my male peers seamlessly if the stigma of female sexuality hadn’t made me an outsider. Many men around me denigrated women loudly and proudly, using them and discarding them with little thought. I attempted to play out a kinder version of this – I wasn’t necessarily the best communicator, but I always respected the people I slept with, though few paid me the same courtesy. The double standards felt suffocating. Men could revel in their burgeoning sexuality, yet an embrace of mine saw me characterised as worthless.

sleepless woman lying in bed hiding under duvet
Maria Korneeva - Getty Images

Things got worse for me in my early twenties as my hypersexual thoughts interrupted exams, family events, parties and even one particularly memorable job interview. I pursued a toxic round of sexual encounters in which I could barely differentiate consent from assault. My body was trapped in a meaningless cycle of fluid exchange peppered with grey areas and only a few notable exceptions of genuine connection. My self-esteem plummeted, and each new encounter felt like an inevitability, not a deliberate choice to connect. I dissociated during sex and felt gross in the days afterward, but kept mindlessly repeating the cycle with zero regard for the consequences for my wellbeing.

I was terrified of the consequences of speaking up about what I was going through until well into my 20s. Mainly because I had read horror stories of women throughout history being locked up for hysteria and nymphomania. What’s the modern day equivalent? If I admitted this was a problem and not something I was doing for fun, I feared what might happen to me.

Clinical sexologist and therapist Ness Cooper explains that “often, cisgender women are labelled as nymphomaniacs or hysterics” because “these terms can be seen as a method of control – they are often seen as unsolvable conditions that need to be stopped or hidden. Cisgender men are labelled as sex addicts more often, as a way of society saying their habits can be fixed and integrated into society again.”

A violent rape at age 24 shattered the illusion of my sexual empowerment. Of course, the assault was not my fault, yet the link between the unresolved trauma of my childhood abuse and repeated sexual trauma as an adult felt undeniable. It was at this point that I had to admit that my behaviour wasn’t stemming from a healthy place. Unchecked hypersexuality was actually confining my sexuality, not liberating it.

I had to start with self-forgiveness. This unwanted behaviour did not make me a bad person; it just meant that there was work to do. I underwent intensive therapy that pushed me to feel compassion and patience with myself. I saw a trauma specialist to identify my trigger points, such as drinking alcohol or being sexualised by strangers. Implementing mindfulness and meditation practices in my daily life also soothed my hypersexual brain with allotted time for peace, which eventually spilled into the rest of my life, allowing me to thrive without hypersexuality looming over every communication, action or encounter.

Now, I allow hypersexuality the freedom to enhance my sex life because I am in control of it: it doesn’t control me. I am happy instead of embarrassed. I get to awaken my hypersexuality when I choose to, by letting it spice up my sex life. And while symptoms rarely rise when they do, I allow myself the grace to work through them. If I make a mistake, I don’t punish myself by making more; I clean it up and keep moving. Finally, I let the weight of the shame disappear into the past, where it belongs.

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