Was I abused by a sex addict?

I can't tell if I'm sexually healthy or the victim of an abuser. Can you tell?

Published December 13, 2010 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I dated a sex addict for three years. Our relationship always had some problems, and we were always working on it. Overall the relationship got better over time, and we both learned so much about ourselves and about love. But the sex issues were always there. We even tried counseling before it ended. I told him I thought he was a verbal abuser because he often made me feel bad because I did not want sex as much as he did. He made it my responsibility to "mix things up" and "keep it interesting," even though he knew that I did not want sex as much as he did. He complained that I only wanted sex when I had been drinking; frankly, drinking made it easier to let go of the expectations on me.

We broke up a little over a year ago. Shortly after, I started dating someone else. The initial breakup was really hard on him (he'd never been alone before), and I worked hard to stay friends with him. Also, during our relationship, he had loaned me some money, which I just recently paid off. With the loan paid off and both of us in different relationships, I can look at the situation from a new perspective and ask new questions. My current boyfriend never pressures me; everything is easy with him. I don't drink as often, but still, I have noticed that I have sex with my current boyfriend mostly after I've been drinking. Every once in a while I question his motives, and it always turns out not to be the same as my previous boyfriend.

I never thought that I was sexually abused. I have thought of it as verbal and emotional abuse. My boyfriend doesn't have any problems with my sexual health -- he thinks that we are perfectly compatible. I see a lot of promise in this relationship, and I want very much for it to be healthy, happy and filled with love. So my questions are: Was I actually sexually abused? Should I seek counseling to be sure that I am sexually healthy and not carrying old issues into a positive relationship? I doubt the value of seeing myself as a victim, but I strongly value efforts to create a positive, healthy relationship with my current partner and to become a more healthy emotional being myself.

Wanting to be Healthy

Dear Wanting to be Healthy,

I don't know if you were sexually abused. Since you are concerned about it, talking to a skilled counselor or therapist certainly could help. Not knowing what actually happened in your previous relationship, I can't be more specific than that.

I can suggest that in the conduct of our private lives, we are the only experts. It is your privilege and also your responsibility to figure out what is healthy for you.

So ask yourself, Does this feel OK? Am I happy in this situation? Do I approve of what my partner is doing? Do I feel secure with him?

Just let the answers come to you. You don't have to defend them. Just pay attention to them. That way, you can begin to craft a set of requirements that you know are your own. Then, if you choose, you can then proceed to get help in changing what you are doing and communicating with your partner how you want to change what you do together. If he has beliefs or expectations that you do not like, talk to him. If you can't talk to him, or he doesn't seem to hear you, and you think a counselor can help you with that problem, then by all means see a counselor.

But the process must start with you. You are not a body under examination to be judged healthy or unhealthy. You are a free being with choices and preferences and limits. You are the one who decides what is healthy.

Deciding what is healthy for you is a lifelong process. It won't become clear to you overnight. But when you start paying attention to your own preferences, taking note of when you feel strong and good and when you feel anxious and fearful, a pattern will emerge.

I want to suggest that there is no perfect state of sexual health.

We all carry old issues. It's how we carry them that counts.

We carry our memories with us. If we have been mistreated, if we have behaved in ways that we feel shame about, then that is what we carry.

A medical model of "sexual health" implies that experience is a kind of contaminant or  infection that we hope one day to be rid of. The experiential model, on the other hand, implies that as free, conscious beings, we are immensely gifted and flexible in the ways we can host and digest our own past. We do not control the past, but we have some choice over how we interpret it. Thus we can turn the past into rich food for the soul. Thus we ferment the microbes of our mistreatment. (Isn't that a little like a fermented Wallace Stevens line? You ever read Wallace Stevens? He's like a machine of fermenting language.) So we are poets of our own past. We take things that have happened to us and being careful craftsmen we mold them, make use of them, salvage them, build things with them. We eat and digest experience. We are omnivores of experience. Yes, there are things we cannot digest. But to continue in that vein, I would also say that much that is dirty and contaminated spurs our antibodies.

It is not all damage or baggage. Much of it is wealth and wonder! We build things with what has happened to us. (I wonder if I am making any sense at all. I know there is a clear thought I am walking towards, and I wonder if anyone will stay with me all the way until I get there. I know I have had a terrible cold for three days, have been feverish and so forth. Ha ha. I know that writing in this way is a supreme joy.)

I believe that getting across to you this idea is the most important thing I can do today.

So I hope I am doing it.

Let me ask you one more thing: If I told you that you were sexually abused, what would you do?

Give some thought to that. And to this:

There are things that go on between a man and a woman. Our mystery selves awaken. Our mystery hungers are whetted and slaked by sights of hidden and treasured secrets; we feel hungers we did not know we had. Things that happen in sex surprise us and frighten us and give us joy. It happens outside of the law and politics and the rules of school. It is a private thing, a thing between two people who hold each other's lives in their hands afterwards. You let down your guard, you reveal your secrets, and then someone else holds your life in his hands. So you can get hurt. It is a dangerous game, intimacy. You were probably hurt in this relationship. You were probably hurt and you were probably confused and probably angered and mistreated. If by sex addict you meant that he was secretly having sex with many other women or men and lying to you about it, or that he was obsessive and demanding and coercive in his sexual dealings with you, then it was probably a very painful experience and you may have some lingering trauma or emotional confusion that a therapist could help you live through and heal from. If that's what you mean.

Are the drinking and the sex related? Probably. Is it a problem?

A few people are not anxious about sex but pretty much everybody else is. So people drink and have sex. What other things do you do when you drink? Drinking can be "unhealthy," but it can also be seen as a doorway to what we want and need. Sometimes we are not allowed to want and need what we want and need so we drink and do it anyway. Is this bad? Is it unhealthy? When we find out what we want and need by drinking, then we can set out to get those things while sober. We might never have admitted what we need otherwise. It might never have become known. So intoxication can lead to knowledge. It can bring forth what is hidden or forbidden. Thus it is useful. But if it continues and nothing new arises from its explorations, then yes, it becomes a kind of death.

I hope this is helpful. The main point I want to make is that as to your sexual health, it's not for me to decide. It is your privilege and responsibility to decide for yourself what is healthy.

That Special Time of Year

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By Cary Tennis

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