Just Can’t Get Enough

Benoit Denizet-Lewis is known for his stories on gay America. With his debut book he comes out of his own closet -- with his addiction to sex.

BY Rachel Dowd

January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET

As he’s part of a culture that often prides itself on its heightened sexuality and liberation, it’s not surprising that it took Denizet-Lewis a while to accept that his sex life was out of control. After years of denying to himself that he is gay, he came out in the summer between his sophomore and junior year of college. At home in San Francisco, where he’d grown up the only child of parents who divorced when he was 6, he did what many gay men do after coming out: “I started dating guys, went out to bars and clubs. I was just having fun meeting people. [Sex] didn’t feel addictive to me at that point,” he says. But things changed quickly the following autumn when a classmate introduced him to AOL chat rooms where -- at least in 1996 -- “all the hot guys were.”

“People talk about the Internet as being the crack cocaine of sex addiction,” Denizet-Lewis says. “And it really was a quick and powerful addictive medium for me. It was this constant stream of validation and means of escape from the real world. In my addictive mind, it became more important what complete strangers thought of me than what people who knew me well did.”

That lesson would resonate profoundly when Denizet-Lewis was 25 and living with his boyfriend back in San Francisco. “Intimate sex with someone who loved me and who I genuinely cared about was much less exciting,” he says. “That would explain why one minute I could be lying in bed with a beautiful man who wanted to be close and intimate -- and the next minute I could be off in the stairwell having phone sex.” That’d also explain why, given the choice between having dinner with friends and scouring online for someone to hook up with, he more often chose the computer. And why he wouldn’t think anything of driving 100 miles to meet up with a perfect stranger. “It was starting to become clear to me that I had a dysfunctional relationship with sex,” he says.

While the concept of free love may be common in gay culture, Denizet-Lewis, who now lives in Boston, is quick to point out that copious and casual sex does not make one an addict. “Sex addiction isn’t about the sex. I don’t think I’m any more horny or sexual than someone who isn’t an addict,” he explains. “It became the best way for me to not feel -- to feel numb -- and get this validation I desperately needed and wanted.” Furthermore, he makes no judgment on whether having sex with multiple partners in a week or regular visits to the bathhouse are a problem. “But it’s not always easy to know what’s addiction and what’s garden-variety urban gay sexual excess,” he says. “I struggled with that a lot—the feeling that since I’m gay and in my 20s, I’m supposed to have sex all the time. But I can’t necessarily do what other gay men are able to do. An alcoholic can’t just have a drink with their friends.” For sex addiction, recovery isn’t as clear-cut as it is for, say, crystal meth -- because the goal isn’t abstinence. Like food addiction -- which is illuminated in America Anonymous through Ellen, a 51-year-old DJ -- sex involves an essential human drive, and recovery means learning how to wrangle it into a healthy relationship.

That’s something Denizet-Lewis deals with regularly through 12-step meetings, meditation, and his writing. Next up for him on the work front is a bound collection of his published stories, due out in January 2010, which in retrospect may reflect more than just the early accomplishments of an overachiever. “My goal is always to write honestly about what I see, and be honest about where I’m coming from at the same time,” Denizet-Lewis says. “And if I have the opportunity to educate, that’s great.”

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