One evening last summer, I got drinks with an old friend who popped back into my life after he started responding to my Instagram stories. I’d been curious to hear all the details surrounding his recent breakup, which seemed messy, by the looks of his now-deleted social-media posts. I was still getting over a less serious breakup of my own, and at the very least, I figured we might find comedic relief in our shared heartache. But when we met up, I was surprised to discover he wasn’t heartbroken at all. In fact, he insisted, he’d never been better.
What was his secret? I asked. He grinned knowingly, lowered his eyes, and uttered four letters: SLAA. I had heard about Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous from friends who recommended it every time I bemoaned an ill-fated hook-up. In the past, I hadn’t been so sure that I needed it. But when this friend talked about it over martinis, it sounded like an exclusive Hollywood club. Los Angeles is full of sex and love addicts, he assured me. Was it possible that I was one, too?
He pulled out his phone and read the 12 characteristics of sex and love addiction, which ranged from a fear of abandonment to a fear of commitment. I was fairly sure I didn’t have either of those, but other characteristics gave me pause. Sure, I’d become sexually involved with or emotionally attached to people without really knowing them, but what 20-something with a Tinder profile hadn’t? And who among us hadn’t sometimes felt empty when alone?
Judging by some of the characteristics, we may as well all be sex and love addicts. Many of them seemed to suggest that all the great love songs, the classic rom-coms, the sitcoms about singles in the city, were feeding us unhealthy, obsessive behaviors in disguise as love stories, undoubtedly written by sex and love addicts themselves.
Still, after he and I split the check, gave each other a hug, and went our separate ways, the realization that I would’ve welcomed a less platonic ending to the night ultimately persuaded me to check out a SLAA meeting.
Several weeks later, I found myself sitting in a metal chair in a church basement with about two dozen strangers of all different ages and backgrounds. We went around the circle and introduced ourselves. Some said they were addicted to fantasy and romance; others identified as emotionally anorexic, or deprived of their emotional needs. Each meeting, someone would start with an anecdote about their recovery, and then others would raise their hands to talk about the behaviors they struggled with that week and those they were proud of. The group discourages sharing details that are explicitly sexual or could be triggering to others, so members often use coded terms like “bottom-line behavior” and “acting out,” which mean different things for different people.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because the 12-step program was founded in 1976 by a member of its more famous predecessor, Alcoholics Anonymous, and follows many of the same tenets for recovery: admitting you have a problem, finding a sponsor and working toward sobriety. But unlike the difference between drinking and not drinking, sobriety for a sex and love addict is a little less easy to define. For some, it means not using dating apps such as Tinder or abstaining from sex outside of a committed relationship; for others, it’s about getting out of a toxic one.
The concept of sexual addiction is controversial. It is not a clinical diagnosis recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and has long been disputed by psychologists such as David Ley, who wrote the 2014 book “The Myth of Sex Addiction,” and neuroscientists such as Nicole Prause, whose 2013 University of California at Los Angeles study showed that brain responses to sexual images were linked to desire, not addiction. But that hasn’t stopped sex addiction support groups such as SLAA from gaining a global following. In Los Angeles alone, there are more than 60 different weekly meetings, including two at a men’s jail.
Sex addiction’s profile has gotten a boost from pop culture, as the Amazon TV show “Transparent” and the Netflix series “Love” both depicted support groups recently. And when Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault by an overwhelming number of women, he reportedly went to rehab for sex addiction — a move that drew ire and skepticism from the medical community and beyond because it dangerously suggested that sex addiction was a cause of, or at least a precursor to, predation.
SLAA offers a self-diagnosis questionnaire — for example, have you had sex at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places? — but no guidance for interpreting the results. Because the support tends to be so individualized, SLAA doesn’t make any claims about its success rates. It does, however, offer a worksheet about signs of recovery: a willingness to be vulnerable and surrender, to avoid potentially harmful situations, and to learn to value sex as a byproduct of commitment in a relationship.
It’s that last qualification that seems to bolster Ley’s argument that sex addiction is more an indication of the perceived morality about sex than it is a physical or mental dependency. In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, the clinical psychologist cited research showing that those who choose to self-identify as sex addicts tended to have more negative attitudes about sex — and, in fact, might actually be having less sex than others.
In spite of such research, plenty of people I know say SLAA has helped them form healthier relationships or halt destructive behaviors. And on some level, it’s difficult to talk about relationships in a room among peers without becoming a little bit more self-aware.
Sitting in SLAA meetings week after week, I realized my own dating life had begun to feel like an endless cycle of crash-and-burn rebounds. In an attempt to put and end to that cycle, I canceled a date with someone I really liked but who had given me the impression he was only interested in sex. I broke things off with the person I’d been casually seeing whenever he felt like returning a text message.
And then I started dating the friend who had introduced me to the program.
In hindsight, perhaps it was inevitable. It was easy to justify monogamy after hearing from so many others who were struggling with dating multiple partners. We, too, were burnt out from the slog of incessantly checking Tinder, analyzing DMs on Instagram and going on first dates with people who might ghost us the next day. Instead, we went on road trips and cooked meals and watched marathons of Netflix together.
It was, like a lot of relationships, wonderful until suddenly it wasn’t. After we broke up, I stopped going to meetings. I unblocked the phone numbers of men I’d previously sworn off. I continued seeing the guy who texted me when it was convenient for him and went out with another who ghosted after cooking me dinner on the second date. I acted on a lot of impulses that, had I kept going to meetings, I might have considered a form of “acting out.”
Even still, I’m not convinced that I’m an addict or that I ever was one. It might feel good to label something as an addiction because it’s caused us suffering, but sometimes dating just sucks, and monogamy isn’t always the answer. Often there’s no good explanation for why somebody stops returning texts after you’ve seemingly had a good time together — or why he might continue to text without any intention of progressing the relationship. There’s a reason there are so many movies and songs and TV shows about the utter torment of dating. And maybe it’s not that we’re all addicted, but that we’re all just trying to figure it out, one confusing Instagram DM at a time.