One of Arjun’s earliest memories is a sexual one. Even today, each time he goes back to his village in Andhra Pradesh, he becomes that four-year-old enticed by his older cousin into playing ‘sex games’. While the other kids played in the fruit orchards, they took turns pulling down each other’s pants and revealing their genitals. It was a powerful experience recreated over and over again over eight years. But what started as a ‘boyish pursuit’ soon took over his whole life. “By the time I was in high school, I was proving my masculinity by abusing a female cousin to quench my insatiable hunger for sex,” notes Arjun, PhD scholar by day, sex addict 24/7. He’s 29 and it’s like his life has already fallen through the cracks. The ‘disease’ now has a life and agenda of its own, manifested through anonymous sex, compulsive masturbation, obsessive fantasising and internet porn. “When I wanted to ‘act out’, the urge didn’t go away, nor did I feel satisfied after the fix,” admits Arjun. “It’s an affliction that costs you time, money, relationships, jobs and even freedom, but the consequences do not limit your actions.” Things came to a head, however, after he got into the prostitutes grid. “I was guilt-ridden and escaping from everybody. At one level, I thought it’s dangerous, but at another the thought of having multiple partners was invigorating.” It was this despair that finally led Arjun to Sex Addicts Anonymous, a self-help group in Delhi that runs on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous and deals with addictive sexual behaviour (SPYM building, 111/9 Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, Sector B4, Vasant Kunj, Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
“Even psychiatrists don’t recognise this as a problem. So when you share your thoughts and with people some of whom have had worse experiences, it gives you a little courage,” says Arjun. It’s been only two months but some well-planned deaddiction sessions have launched Arjun on the path to recovery. Or so, he believes.
At the modest sky-blue computer lab-like meeting place, addicts like Arjun follow a ‘12-step’ de-addiction programme based on a template set by Alcoholics Anonymous. There are about 25-30 people holding hands, meditating, discussing past traumas. “I experienced both joy and hope from knowing that the sexual chaos of my life had a name and that it held in it the potential for recovery,” reveals Sagar, 26, who’s just completed 90 days of ‘sobriety’. The weekly sessions kick off with the edict, “I Am A Sex Addict”, the first recognisable step on the ladder to recovery.
Started over a year ago, SAA is a comfort space for sexaholics in Delhi in the absence of adequate psychiatric care or support structures. “Competent psychiatrists or sexologists can help addicts to an extent, but support groups provide the backbone of care. A commonality of experiences binds people,” says sexologist Prakash Kothari, who set up Asia’s first department of sexology at KEM Hospital, Mumbai. With more deaddiction centres for other maladies and an increase in consciousness, sexual healing too got a shot in the arm. Delhi, Bangalore and Ahmedabad now have centres.
Of course the first step to getting cured is admitting that you have a problem. Anil, a charismatic, middle-aged banker, reveals that his super-successful demeanour is mostly a facade—“people would be shell-shocked” if they knew his history. He remembers the bad guy in his 20s compulsively jerking off in office, the picking up of bar dancers (over 100 of them) and the hooking up with random girls on matrimonial sites. “It was after four years of attending the 12-step programme that it finally hit me…the problem lay in my indiscriminate fantasising.” He agrees that the addict must first break the denial mode, realise the problem is in the “mind, body and soul”. Vipul, a 29-year-old businessman from Baroda, calls it a combination of “physical allergy, mental obsession and spiritual malady”. Having undergone a year’s deaddiction programme in Ahmedabad, he feels the malaise could well be the next epidemic unless India wakes up to the ‘real issue’. “Your life becomes unmanageable because of an all-pervasive sexual mania. Most rapists are addicts and who wants a proliferation of more obsessive behaviour?”
Indeed, sexual obsession can be both complex and layered. The term, coined by Patrick Carnes in 1983 in his book Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, has of late become vivid in the popular imagination with several books and films on the subject, not to mention the celebrities unravelling in full public gaze. Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame, and other films like Nymphomaniac and Thanks for Sharing have taken a somewhat taboo subject till now head on. Recent books like Don’t Call it Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction and Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain too have put the spotlight on the issue. An estimated two million internet porn addicts are in and out of recovery today in the West.
According to Dr A. Chakravarthy, consultant in sexual medicine in Kerala, “Diagnosing sexual addiction is primarily through investigating sexual history. Patients spend excessive time seeking ways to gratify sexual urges and feel distressed if they can’t. There are feelings of guilt, but that doesn’t stop them from indulging in similar behaviour again. Indeed, it becomes their coping mechanism to deal with stress and loneliness.”
Suresh, a 46-year-old recovering graphic designer, remembers his former self as a “mentally sick person” scouring through “50 kilos” of pornography in six months and allowing real-world relationships to suffer. “I was an addict from the age of 11 right up to 40. The mind of an addict is differently wired and one has to work hard on one’s sobriety. The aim isn’t abstinence but stopping obsession.” What Suresh laments is the fact that psychiatrists, instead of getting addicts into support groups, are only concerned about their own business. “Even now, when an addict walks into the office of a psychiatrist, he feels the stigma staring right at him.” Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s like a spiritual cleansing when you finally come out on the other side,” says Suresh.