When Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexual escapades emerged last month, they reignited the “Are all men perverts?” debate in the blogosphere.
For Ryan James*, a prominent urban professional, this scandal was more than a titillating headline: It was a page from his own life story. After he'd been married for just a few years, his wife discovered that he’d been doing similar things as Weiner: having explicit sexual discussions with virtual strangers over e-mail, participating in phone sex and, when the technology emerged, sexting. His wife filed for divorce, but even that hasn’t stopped him; the sexting continues.
As we all contemplate the congressman’s seemingly inexplicable actions, James, *not his real name, talked to More, in person and by telephone, about what goes on in the mind of a sex addict. An edited version of the interview follows.
More: Where do we even begin?
Ryan James: My behavior started off as innocent and harmless. I was enticed by porn from a young age; then I started getting addicted and using it as a substitute for real intimacy. What started as a curiosity changed into a substitute for what I really needed, which was one-on-one intimacy and a healthy, monogamous relationship.
More: How exactly did you go after sex online?
RJ: I used to have a separate e-mail account. I found ads online for other people looking for these virtual sexual relationships. I’d send a picture of myself sometimes. I’d have a sex dialogue in e-mail, phone chats, text messages. Women sent me explicit pictures, even if I didn't reciprocate.
I would discuss things with women that I was excited about. I liked to hear from a woman who was turned on by bisexual men. When I learned about transsexual porn, I was like, “What the fuck is that?” I developed a curiosity because it was very taboo.
More: Are you saying you discovered your bisexual side?
RJ: No. I’m definitely heterosexual. I just became curious to hear about taboo topics, but not participate. If it wasn't suggested to me in anonymous phone chat, I probably would've never had interest in any of these topics. It was fantasy, but you talked about it with others safely because it was anonymous.
More: Where else did you find these women to talk to?
RJ: Chat lines. Men pay by the minute to be on; for women it’s free. I spent money on this phone line. My wife never looked at my credit card bill. I sometimes spent $400 to $500 a month on this. I looked at it as an extension of porn. I had to raise the stakes and it became more exciting to hear someone’s voice talking to me. The phone line was safe. You didn’t have to leave your house and didn’t have to worry about your appearance. It was hot, but it was empty. I even met a lot of people on the phone line who I got to know and ended up meeting in person and dating before I got married. It was a very convenient way for a professional guy to meet people. Ironically, I gained a lot of confidence from doing this.
More: What did you talk about with these women?
RJ: A lot of it had to do with oral sex, role-playing or bi-curious fantasies. You can’t talk to your wife about this, but you can talk to a stranger about it. The Internet and chat lines and text messages have made it so much easier to indulge your fantasies. There is so much temptation out there, and I didn’t have the willpower. It cost me my marriage.
More: Some would say men who do this kind of thing hate women.
RJ: I’ve loved women my whole life. I don’t disrespect women. I’m a good guy and I loved being a husband.
More: When did it start?
RJ: Like I said, I was doing it before I got married. I think my wife knew that I looked at porn quite a bit. She came from a very conservative background and found it immoral, indecent behavior. I was a ladies’ man and had lots of girlfriends who were sexually crazy, but I picked a different kind of person as a wife and mother for my kids.
More: Did you think you would stop once you took vows?
RJ: I wanted to be faithful and good. But there were things my wife didn’t want to do in the bedroom. I was unhappy about that . . . and then I saw an ad where a woman indulged men in phone sex while they masturbated and I thought, "This is safe and not cheating."
More: So what happened?
RJ: As your dependence on porn grows, it interferes with your ability to be intimate with someone else and you’re really hurting yourself. Having exchanges with someone on the phone or exchanging pictures with them is not really harmless, even if you don’t perceive it as cheating. It's still hurtful to your partner, whether they know it or not. It’s very unhealthy . . . you need more and more stimulation, and more frequent stimulation, and eventually it takes over your life, much in the way substance abuse does.
More: What did online sex do for you?
RJ: It relieved anxiety. If [your addiction] is undiscovered, you keep doing it because you don’t believe you’re hurting anyone. The anonymity made it easy and comfortable . . . you feel protected, and you can be whoever you want and discuss any topic, because none of the women I talked to knew who I was. Deep down I felt, if they really knew who I was, maybe they wouldn’t find me attractive.
More: You say people don’t understand sex addiction.
RJ: Right. It’s not about sex. It comes from low self-esteem. If you ask me personally, it goes back to when I was much younger and couldn’t get a girlfriend and my insecurities about that. The Internet allows me to express myself in that pathological way. [Online sex] makes you feel attractive and makes you feel like a virile kind of guy, and it’s an ego boost. You become insatiable for it.
More: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of sympathy out there for you and Congressman Weiner.
RJ: People say you’re a pervert, that your desire is abnormal, but it’s actually quite the opposite. I had a lot of performance anxiety and I was taking Cialis and Viagra. You feel inhibited. It’s the same human, just a different part.
More: How did you get caught?
RJ: My wife saw one of my deleted e-mails. I was stupid not to erase the e-mail or change my password. She assumed it was from a girlfriend, not a service. She wouldn’t even let me explain what actually happened. That it was part of an addictive pattern. It was not sex; it was validation.
More: What was your reaction to her finding the e-mail?
RJ: I was angry that she had invaded my privacy, that she interfered with my fantasy world. [The e-mails] were not appropriate, but it was for me to fix my shit. But I was screwed. The fact that she peeked into my e-mail didn’t look so bad compared to what I did. Today I don’t know what’s better, openness or privacy. In your mind, you are entitled to your fantasy world in your head, but it has to stop there.
More: What’s it like to be outed?
RJ: There’s a double pain there. You’re ashamed and embarrassed because you don’t like this about yourself and also because you’ve hurt someone else so deeply.
More: Have you tried to apologize to your wife?
RJ: There’s no amount of pleading that my wife will accept; she wrote me off immediately. What if I was an alcoholic or a drug user? I think she would have been more understanding. A woman wouldn’t get mad about a bottle of Scotch because it’s an inanimate object, but she is terribly hurt by the idea of any type of sexual interaction with another woman. Because it’s sexual behavior, that makes it impossible to forgive. She has to accept at some level that it’s about her, too.
More: Wait, you said it’s not about her.
RJ: This was a beautiful woman—other men were jealous of me—but behind closed doors she was inhibited sexually. I had my own issues with performance anxiety, which only made things worse.
More: Sounds like you both had your share of issues.
RJ: Her coping mechanism was to close herself off and withdraw, and I went the other way and found an outlet elsewhere.
More: Do you think you have anything in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer?
RJ: I would bet that they also never intended to hurt their wives. They would say they love their wives. Their wives would say that these men want their cake and want to eat it too, but that doesn't really describe what's going on. My real fantasy was to have a healthy sexual connection with my wife, but we were not compatible and we grew further apart in the bedroom.
More: Did you ever try to stop the addiction?
RJ: I confided in my family and they told me to get help, but I was in denial. At one point, I erased everything on my computer and canceled my porn-site subscriptions. I erased the numbers on my cell, but I never dealt with the underlying problem, and I started it again.
More: Are you getting help?
RJ: I see two different therapists. One is about controlling the behavior, and the other is about understanding the behavior. That one wants me to go to groups, which I haven’t done yet. I’m actually nervous about it. It’s hard to rehash this in front of people. It’s hard for me to tell you now. While I was married, I was seeing the therapist who’s helping me understand the behavior, and frankly, I never said anything about what I was doing at the time because I was too embarrassed.
More: What makes you classify your problem as a form of addiction?
RJ: I learned from receiving help that it meets all the criteria for an addiction: There are terrible consequences, but you’re unable to control the behavior, which fuels remorse and anxiety. It has a repetitive, compulsive nature. The underlying motivation is relieving stress and anxiety. But the intensity escalates because the initial rush becomes ineffective. And you have terrible angst.
More: Was there a pivotal moment when you realized you had a problem?
RJ: The worst moment in my life was when my wife pulled out the e-mail she’d found and read it aloud: “I really enjoyed jerking off to you and talking about your beautiful pussy.” I was horrified, embarrassed and ashamed. I felt so badly about upsetting her. I would have done anything to take that shame away from her. I’ve been a success in everything I’ve ever done, and I failed at this. I finally accepted that I hit rock bottom and I needed help. I went to a sex therapist and cried my eyes out. The therapist said I am not responsible for my addiction but I am responsible for getting better.
More: How is the therapy going?
RJ: I still engage in some of these behaviors now, which proves that it’s an addiction. It’s sad when I read the newspaper and people call Weiner a bum and a pervert. They are assuming that he wanted to be like that, and that can’t be the case. The more insecure a man is, the more he needs reinforcement [that he is] the best at everything at all times, especially when he's been successful.
More: I’ve heard a more conservative argument made: that men are doing this kind of thing because society has become so liberal.
RJ: Yes, a man can objectify a woman as a sex act and depersonalize sex because he sees it as a physiological need, and society condones that in the media—clothing ads and TV commercials where a woman’s tits are in the camera. Culturally, we are hypocritical. How dare you ogle a woman.
More: What do you want to get out of talking to us?
RJ: You know, there will be men reading this article, and they’ll say, “He has guts. This took a lot of courage.” I want men to read this and say, “Oh my God, I’m not the only one.” A woman reading this, I hope, can see the man's perspective and see that this is part of male frailty. I was ashamed to tell anyone I did this. Even among the people on the chat rooms, they say, “Don’t tell anyone I’m doing this.” You should and can get help for this.
Related: Diary of a Kept Woman
Don’t miss out on MORE great articles like this one. Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter!
Looking to meet someone special? Check out MORE Dating here.