Last week Lindsay Lohan baffled a media seemingly unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of 12-step program work by claiming that the handwritten list of everyone she’d had sex with was part of her AA fifth step, and that someone—when she was moving out of rehab—must’ve taken a photo of the list and shared it without her permission with the press. I can’t comment on how that list became public, but I can say that a sex inventory is a part of AA step work. I did my first sex inventory six years into recovery as part of a general street-sweeping when it came to sex, love and relationships. I had just come out of a long-term relationship and wanted to date, but didn’t know how to do so in a healthy way. A sex inventory became my guide.
At the risk of violating a tradition that asks individuals in 12-step programs to remain anonymous, I can talk about the program and what I personally learned from my experience doing step work, including a sex inventory. I can’t speak on behalf of a fellowship that’s been around for over 75 years and includes upwards of 1.2 members, but I can testify to the fact that I am an alcoholic and an addict, and that I know this because I’ve done the work. Irritable, restless and discontent, I know that—for me—being an addict means that I can use pretty much anything that feels good as a drug. To me, nothing feels better than sex (all the better when I’m drunk). Before I got sober, romantic intrigue—even more than alcohol—was my favorite pick-me-up. When I was feeling good, sex seemed an obvious cherry on top. Even in sobriety, I sometimes feel anxious when life’s lacking drama. Prior to recovery, the desire for drama often led to impulsivity, including sexual affairs.
Before sobriety, I told myself it didn’t count. Whatever went on in the club, I told myself, it wasn’t cheating; it was work. So what if I enjoyed it? I was allowed to enjoy my job.
The first time I cheated on my high school boyfriend, Rick was some weeks before I’d started working as a stripper. I was 19 years old, and living in Mexico as a student abroad; he was a local boy, 16 years old, with curly brown hair and contacts that turned his brown eyes blue. I’d met him at the grocery store where he worked, near where I lived. Like lots of guys I met in Mexico, he loved all things American—American clothes, American movies, American food—and so I was devastated when he came to me, the day after the first time we’d sex, and he told me it was over. He had a new girlfriend, he told me—“a Mexican girl.” He said it with such pride, it was almost as if he was trying to hurt me.
Before this, Rick had been the only guy I’d ever slept with. Now, I thought, something had been ruined. It’d been a mistake I vowed to never do again, but I broke that promise. Having done it once, it was as if I couldn’t stop. I cheated on Rick three times that semester, with three different guys. When it happened a fourth time—the following semester, back on campus—I stopped counting.
Completing a sex inventory means you have to start counting. Literally. It requires that you go through and write down the names and details of all the sexual encounters you can remember, however many in number. I can’t speak for Lindsay but for someone who has had literally hundreds of sexual experiences, most of them negative or neutral—someone who, like many addicts and alcoholics, has purposely blotted out many of my sexual experiences—this may seem impossible. But it wasn’t impossible, and it was worth the effort.
A sex inventory, like all 12-step work, is a reflexive process of integrating memories of our past experience with new meaning. In other words, you process your life in the context of dimensions that are important to you—the opposite of what many of us do when we drink. Under the influence, I convinced myself I could get away with anything. I told myself that my behaviors had no lasting effect. I told myself that I could do whatever I wanted—whatever felt good in the moment—and that no one would ever have to know. The problem was that I knew, and my knowing—no matter how hard I tried to deny it—would fundamentally change my view of myself.
It was in Mexico that I began to break my rules. I violated my moral principles, again and again. I cheated on my boyfriend of then-three years. I lied. I worked in the sex industry and I lied about that. I worked illegally in another country, putting myself at certain risks. I cheated my employer by trading “extras” in exchange for tips. The list goes on. Now, when it comes to sex, I’m not one for across-the-board rules (neither, really, is AA literature). I do, however, believe we all have our own moral code, and that if we’re attuned to ourselves—our bodies and our hearts—we know what feels good, and what doesn’t. In Mexico, I started doing things that didn’t feel good. I started doing things I said I wouldn’t. I began to see myself as the kind of person who did the kind of things I said they never would.
Sex work is a major part of my story. I write and talk about it all the time. And yet writing about it as part of a sex inventory was, strangely enough, a uniquely revealing experience. In completing a sex inventory, I was able to see how my becoming a sex worker related to my non-professional sexual experiences. I could recognize, for example, how much trouble I have receiving pleasure if I’m not playing the part of a passive, sexual object. In a commercial encounter, I got to play the part of a passive sexual object but felt, at the same time, in control of the interaction. The negotiation was preplanned according to my rules, and routinized. He was compliant; I felt in control.
Like many addicts, I risk becoming entirely undone by an incessant and unsatisfiable need for control. To this day, my intimate relationships risk being compromised by my intense feelings of need and fear. I question my intimate relationships constantly, mistrust and withdraw from people I feel closest to while simultaneously seeking them out desperately. At the core of me, like lots of people, I am lonely and desirous for connection. And yet, my fear of abandonment and rejection can lead me to avoid intimacy entirely—the very thing I want the most.
For years, sex with strangers or relative-strangers—whether they were paying me or not—protected me from having to be truly seen, and having to be vulnerable. A sex inventory put me into contact with this truth. Painful truths, sure—but no more painful than doing the same shit over and over again, expecting different results.
Sharing my story is taking an opposite action to what I did prior to recovery. Back when I was cheating on my partner, having sex for money, feeling miserable, wanting to die and not really knowing why, I kept it all to myself. When it’s out in the world, you can’t pretend it’s not true or that it doesn’t count. The truth is, my actions always counted. They always had an effect—on myself and my world.
I know that so-called civilians don’t think this way. But, very often, we addicts and alcoholics do. This is why we do step work. It’s not a “fuck list,” as Gawker called it, and it’s not for other people’s entertainment. It’s for our very survival.
Being a writer, and telling my story; learning to share my stories, as they happen, with my fellows and friends; getting honest, every day; and step work: this is my recipe for success. By telling and retelling the stories of our lives, we create new meaning and understanding. We begin to see ourselves in relationship to the problems or challenges in our lives rather than seeing themselves as defined by them. Step work—and a sex inventory, especially—reconnected me to my hopes, values and commitments, helping me to clarify for myself an alternate direction in life.
I can only hope it does the same for Lindsay.
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