On certain nights, if you throw a stone with enough enthusiasm from the Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting in the Sydney suburb of Newtown, you might just hit the ethical non-monogamy event at a community centre down the road. Aside from a few shopfronts and a dog park, the two gatherings are separated by their radically different answers to an age-old question: how much sex and/or love is too much for one person?
At the community centre, 30 or so people, mostly straight-scanning millennial couples, have removed their shoes. They’re sitting on cushions meticulously arranged in a circle around a decorative tangle of fairy lights. It’s billed as a night of conversation, and the crowd is a blend of suburban parents, hippie-coded locals, kink devotees and a lone bearded libertarian. The tone is surprisingly earnest, a little nerdy and, if you must know, relatively unhorny. The hummus is top shelf.
A round of introductions reveals there is a handful of newcomers merely curious about the concept of non-monogamy, but most are already practising some form of it. Their lifestyles range from occasional swinging right through to “kitchen-table polyamory”, involving multiple romantic and sexual partnerships with the full blessing of all concerned.
Everyone has a chance to tell their story. Most often, one half of a committed couple has suggested they “open things up”. There’s a general sense of gratitude at having found themselves here – as if they’ve been spared a far worse fate. The more experienced, many of whom seem to know one another, are fluent in the novel glossary that’s bloomed around non-monogamy since the ’90s; words such as “compersion” (sympathetic joy in the place of jealousy) and “metamore” (your partner’s partner).
Switch up the decor and it could be a mature-age uni tutorial, populated by the world’s most interested students.
Down the road at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, 20 or so adults of all ages, including at least one septuagenarian, are in a circle of their own. In the place of fairy lights, SLAA’s canonical texts such as the “12 Steps”, the “12 Characteristics” and the “12 Traditions” are taped to the floor. Under a fluorescent glare, members take turns declaring themselves addicts. Some are matter of fact or stoic when they say the words, and others mumble. One guy falls asleep.
The first of the “12 Steps” states “we are powerless over sex and love addiction”. The second holds that only God (as you understand God) can restore you to “sanity”, and Step 6, for those who reach it, involves being “ready to have God remove all these defects of character”. Volunteers from the group compete with an emphysemic air conditioner to read the words on the floor aloud. Finally, members have a maximum of five minutes to “share”.
The complimentary biscuits dwindle. A woman knits a white scarf. The sleeping guy has begun to drool. It’s giving school detention. The difference is, almost everyone here seems convinced it’ll work.
SLAA and the non-monogamy scene in Newtown may as well be on separate planets, but they share a purpose: to help people who’ve found themselves, happily or otherwise, operating beyond the limits of what’s generally considered an acceptable appetite for love and sex.
“David” is one of the few people who has dabbled in both worlds. He tells me about a period of his life in Los Angeles when he was sleeping with “multiple people a day”, adding that “it’s a miracle I don’t have children or an STD”. For a few months before the pandemic, he was often seeing upwards of seven people at a time. “I was bouncing from bed to bed to bed … I didn’t really have a lot of time to do anything else, you know?”
David reluctantly tells me yes, he probably was a sex addict back then, but he qualifies it immediately. “Was it sex? Or was it love? Or validation? The stuff I really chased was the person holding me, being there for me… feeling, like, safe I guess.”
He explains that even at his most sexually active, everything was above board. Non-monogamy was de rigueur in LA. Ultimately though, he felt like he was “letting everyone down” and sought professional help.
Four years on, I accompany him to his first SLAA meeting. David is one of several newcomers, and he tells me later that declaring himself an addict, in keeping with the custom, felt like “being shoved in an ill-fitting suit”.
As an Alcoholics Anonymous veteran, he’s wary of 12-step programs.
“It was my therapist who suggested I do [AA] to try and find community, and I couldn’t have been barking up a worse tree … I was immediately set upon.”
He believes part of the reason he didn’t fit into the program was because he wasn’t willing to be “at its mercy”.
“I’d rather be a loose unit dealing with a bad hangover than constantly enmeshed in my own lack of self-worth or shame or shittiness.”
At the end of his first SLAA meeting, David feels he has about as much use for it as AA. And he’s monogamous now, anyway.
“That said, it helps a lot of other people.”
The two organisations are separate, but they have a deeply entwined history. It was an AA member in Boston who started SLAA in 1976. The group’s 12 steps are a word-for-word copy of AA’s, first published by former Wall Street trader “Bill W” in 1939, except that “alcohol” is replaced by “love and sex”. As in AA, members are encouraged to make four phone calls a day: one to their sponsor, and three outreach calls to other members. The meeting protocols are virtually identical.
The question of sobriety is an important fork in the road. SLAA members define their own sober or “bottom line”, and thresholds vary wildly. Complicating matters further, SLAA’s definition of an addict includes people who avoid intimacy – behaviour referred to as intimacy anorexia. Unlike substance addiction, neither sex or love addiction are clinically recognised, nor listed in the latest edition of psychiatry’s diagnostic manual, known as the DSM-V. Nevertheless, SLAA’s catchment is broad. In fact, reading their self-diagnosis questionnaire, you might wonder if you’ve also been overdoing it.
Take, for example, question 12 (“Do you feel desperation or uneasiness when you are away from your lover or sexual partner?”), which has unwelcome tidings for ABBA, who desperately required a man after midnight.
Or question 25 (“Do you find yourself flirting or sexualizing with someone even if you do not mean to?”), bound to upset Jennifer Paige, who had a little crush.
Question 4 asks all of us, including Roxy Music, “Do you get ‘high’ from sex and/or romance? Do you crash?”, and if the answer is “I need to score” then it might be time to look for your nearest meeting. As of January this year, there were 71, Australia wide, each week.
There’s a world in which Chloe might have attended one, had she not had “a big fucking wake-up call” in the form of her now husband Adam. The couple are the first people to introduce themselves to me at the non-monogamy conversation night down the road.
Weeks later, in their living room, we’re reviewing the SLAA questionnaire. Some of it, such as Question 5 (“Have you had sex in inappropriate places?”) is a turn-on for them. “We fucked in a forest on Sunday!” Chloe says, laughing.
Neither of them has any hesitation telling me they’re sex addicts, although the admission feels playful and a little facetious.
“I’m so okay with that label,” says Chloe. “It’s a part of my life. We make time for our addiction. We prioritise it.”
Their apartment is filled with professional photos of BDSM scenes. They run kink workshops and photo shoots together, as a hobby and a business.
Speaking to Chloe now it’s hard to imagine her at SLAA, but her attitude has changed since leaving her job as a sex worker several years ago.
“When I retired, I dove into scrubbing my life. I ended friendships, I ended acquaintances, I deleted emails, accounts, like, everything.”
It was after that she started seeing Adam, the first partner she’d been open with about her sex work.
“I was able to have these comfortable conversations,” she says, “and it kind of reignited my love for all things that were sex. It broke my heart that I cut a lot of those things off … because me scrubbing myself, that was bringing shame to them, right?”
In SLAA forums online, members often talk about their “qualifier” – the person or relationship that convinced them they had a problem. By that reasoning, Adam might count as Chloe’s disqualifier.
“I think we’ve met our match in each other,” Chloe says.
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