On the second Wednesday in September, Nicole, a Brentwood resident in her mid-thirties, received a call from a single female friend in Southern California. They hadn't spoken in a while, but the friend cut right to the chase: "What the hell is your fiancé doing on Match.com?" she asked. Nicole told the truth: Trevor was a sex addict. She'd known that much two weeks earlier when he'd left for a business trip in Los Angeles. Now, much to her surprise, it seemed he wasn't coming back. And judging from the things she'd discovered in his absence, Nicole was pretty sure she didn't want him to.
Her friend e-mailed over Trevor's Match profile, and Nicole sat in front of her laptop staring at the broad-cheeked face she'd found so appealing in the past. She could tell he'd snapped the shirtless self-portraits in a guest bedroom of his parents' Danville home. His manic grin cut through the numbness that had taken over more and more of her mind lately. She felt disgusted. But it was his description of what he wanted in a partner that shook her to the core: "I want to have fun. After being in a relationship with someone who controlled me for the last 4.5 years, I need to find myself."
Controlled him? Nicole reread the words several times, incredulous, and before she knew it she was crying once again. No one could have controlled this man. That much was obvious from the intricate web of lies he'd spun for so long. She read further: "I am extremely giving and will pamper, but I also need to be pampered. I am looking for someone who likes me for who I am."
Who was he, anyway?
Nicole printed out the two-page profile in full color and added it to what she would come to call her "bucket of evidence," a deep nine-by-twelve-inch plastic bin. This was where she collected proof that the man she'd dated for six years and lived with for five, whom her adolescent son loved and called Dad, was not only a sex addict but a stranger. Her determination that she and her boy not get dragged down by Trevor's lies was the only thing keeping her sane.
Nicole isn't alone. In a trend that has escalated with the growth of Internet access, millions of Americans are now addicted to sex between 3 and 8 percent of the population, experts estimate and many are in long-term relationships. Just about all the ones who seek treatment say they use the Web to feed their addiction, according to psychologists.
"The porn industry is what built the Internet, and it's still the most profitable part of it," says Don Mathews, director of Pleasant Hill's Impulse Treatment Center. "Imagine that heroin were readily available in every household. Some people who never would have otherwise tried the drug would become heroin addicts."
Indeed, it's hard to spend much time online and not interact with the multibillion-dollar Internet porn industry in some way, even if it's just deleting X-rated spam. But millions of adults intentionally wander into triple-X terrain. Last month alone, adult Web sites drew between 42 million (Nielsen NetRatings) and 65 million (comScore Networks) unique visitors, depending on which of these prominent Web-tracking firms you believe. In a JupiterResearch poll earlier this year, 16 percent of US adults reported viewing porn regularly. And because it's not something many like to admit, the true number may be significantly higher.
As recently as twenty years ago, porn aficionados had to work for their fix, and stash physical evidence. Men would trek to the local 7-Eleven to score the handful of monthly porn rags on the stands, and hope they didn't run into a familiar face. Buying videos required a socially risky excursion to the adult bookstore. People seeking anonymous sex had to stake out the bars in the hope that a like-minded lover might turn up. And paying for pleasure often meant betting that the local massage parlor wasn't legit, or that a corner prostitute was.
Today the addict's online arsenal is inexhaustible, often free, and far easier to keep under wraps. Al Cooper, the late Stanford-affiliated psychologist who pioneered cybersex-addiction research, called the Net a "Triple-A Engine": affordable, accessible, and anonymous.
Some addicts confine their behavior to the virtual world, spending countless hours surfing for increasingly arousing photos and videos, frequenting cybersex chat rooms, or paying Webcam-equipped sex workers to do whatever they're told for a fee. Many others start out online but ultimately end up slapping skin in the real world. What they all have in common is a disease that really has nothing to do with sex. This addiction, experts say, is all about the secrecy, the hiding, and the consequences of getting caught.
"It's not a moral issue, or a religious issue," explains Rob Weiss, director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. "It's not about sexual orientation. It's not who you're having sex with. It's not a sign of other major mental disorders. And, like compulsive gambling, it isn't about the payoff."
The orgasm, Weiss adds, may not even be desirable, because it means an end to the exhilaration of searching and anticipating, but the emotional issues the addict is attempting to evade are still there. "I think it will be the defining addiction of the century," Weiss concludes.
If sex addicts are of a type, they tend to be people-pleasers who are eager to avoid conflict. They're often talented deal- sealing businessmen with social graces and charisma. "There's the stereotype of a guy in the dark trenchcoat seeking out some seedy section of town, but in reality they're probably more common in places like churches and synagogues," says Mathews of the Impulse Treatment Center. "Because they're trying to be nice people. Women meet them and think, 'This is a nice guy I have!'"
He might have been talking about Nicole, whose friends had continually cooed about how affectionate and thoughtful Trevor was. She was caught completely off guard in early 2005 when she discovered that Trevor's occasional massage parlor visits involved "happy endings," a euphemism for hand jobs or oral sex.
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