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Female Sex Addicts: Using Sex for Power and Control

The second episode of the new thriller “Those Who Kill,” starring Chloë Sevigny as Catherine Jenson, peeled back a layer on the character behind this aggressive young homicide detective. We learned in the first episode that she is a woman who experienced abuse at the hands of her stepfather, a judge, and who is driven by a sense of righteous vengeance. “You have to be worse than them,” she tells a friend’s daughter as she tucks the girl back into bed after a nightmare, referring to the monsters who plague the child in her sleep. When Sevigny’s character becomes stressed and overwhelmed in episode two, she does something women who are sex addicts are all too familiar with: she finds a man she can seduce and control, in this case a married father, and tells him it will be a one-time event. When the man shows up nervous, bottle of wine in hand, the detective dismisses his pleasant gesture and attacks him. They have sex. Afterward, he asks Catherine’s name but she refuses to give one. Instead she tells the man he needs to leave.

“Acting Like a Man”

This seemingly small incident is instructive: people will tell us Sevigny’s character is “acting like a man.” She’s objectifying a submissive individual, making a sexual object of him in order to use him for her momentary purposes. She doesn’t care about his name and doesn’t want him to know hers. She doesn’t want to see him again, a fact about which the man seems hurt. She has sought out the experience as an ameliorative to chaos; if Jenson can control someone sexually for a few minutes, if she can get a fix, she’ll feel more in control. She has a history of abuse, and control is paramount. Jenson is doing something that is more often associated with male behavior; she is compartmentalizing and seeking power through the use of sex. In this case, the image is striking because she’s female, but the way Catherine Jenson acts out is similar to how many female sex addicts behave. Female sex addicts often wrestle with past abuse and need to feel a sense of power and control.

Seeking a “One-Down” Partner

In relationships of all kinds – whether long-term or a one night stand – power dynamics are often employed, sometimes with the awareness of their participants, and other times not. “Symmetrical” relationships are said to occur between peers, where issues are worked out with equal power and respect. Many relationships, however, can be considered “asymmetrical” or power-based. In these relationships, one person is said to take the “one-up” position and the other takes the “one-down.” According to Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D., many people believe women are motivated to sexually act out due to neediness. Smithstein says this belief is based on social stereotypes about women and that for “most female sex addicts, the primary motivation is power – to overcome or master trauma such as sexual or emotional abuse  – or loneliness – to attempt to combat the effects of emotional neglect.” By engaging in sexual encounters in asymmetrical relationships where the woman is in the one-up position, she temporarily utilizes the power of seduction in order to arrest feelings of anxiety. But these episodes are not self-maintaining and the feeling of control never lasts long. In fact, the degree of acting out behavior, in terms of prevalence and type, may be directly correlated with the degree of anxiety in the sex addict’s life. She acts out because she feels out of control; she acts out to bring about a sense of control. The more we understand about women’s motivations in sexual addiction and the more aware we become of the ways past trauma impacts addictive behavior, the more insight we will have into gender-specific sex addiction recovery. Recognizing the patterns of sexual addiction is important in diagnosing the problem, but understanding the root traumas from which these patterns spring is the key to unlocking the behaviors and setting the addict free.

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