Sex Addiction

“When Steve McQueen first heard of sex addiction as a phenomenon, the British director scoffed at the idea that sexaholics need sympathy, too,” writes Chris Lee of Newsweek. McQueen is now the director of film Shame that will be released on the 13th of January 2012 in the UK. In this film, Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class and Inglorious Basterds) stars as Brandon, a corporate in Manhattan and a sex addict.

“Sex addiction” remains a controversial topic. Today, there are thousands of sex therapists treating impulsive sexual behaviour. Yet sexologists cannot know for sure whether sex addiction is a real epidemic or just a copout for people who have marital indiscretions or are hypersexual (not in the sense of a disorder) as there is no tangible evidence to support the idea of sex addiction. According to statistics, between three to five per cent of the US population (more than nine million people) can be diagnosed as “suffering from sex addiction.” In the UK it is estimated that six per cent or more of the population experience it and that, often, addicts seek sex to make up for low self-esteem. Tiger Woods, Jessie James and Charlie Sheen among other well-known celebrities fit under this statistic of sex addicts (or claim to). Is the term “sex addiction” just a title given to the rashness of these high profile personalities?

Some experts believe that sexual addiction is literally an addiction, just like addictions of alcohol or drugs. Other experts believe that sexual addiction is actually a form of obsessive compulsive disorder and refer to it as sexual compulsivity. Still other experts entirely disregard the idea of sex addiction and claim it to be a myth, or a by-product of cultural and other influences. Previous generations had to risk public embarrassment at bookstores that sold erotica and X-rated movie theatres. Today, the web has made pornography freely accessible and anonymous. Additionally, in this day and age, it is less likely for one to be shunned upon purchasing a sexual magazine or DVD. Although watching porn isn’t the same as seeking out real live sex, Chris Lee of Newsweek reports that “what you do online leads to offline activities.” Of course, not everyone who looks at a nude image or watches pornography is going to become a sex addict. Sex is a biological necessity, something we are supposed to desire, yet be able to control. “But the constant exposure is going to trigger people who are susceptible,” says Dr. David Sack, chief executive of Los Angeles’ Promises Treatment centers.

Additionally, Robert Weiss, sex addiction expert and founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, cautions couples about smartphone applications such as Grindr and Ashley Madison (which connects people looking for sex outside their marriages; not necessarily those in an open marriage). These applications help individuals find sexual partners within a couple of minutes. Weiss warns that these applications are sometimes substantiated grounds for suspected infidelity for married couples.

Sexologists also believe that sex addiction can lead to a serious intimacy disorder – negatively impacting on the life of the addict. It may make people less able to emotionally relate to one another; limiting all interactions to aspects of sex. Moreover, they explore the idea that this sex is not really about sex at all. It is about masking pain and about creating a solution to life’s problems (without addicts realizing that this is in itself a problem). Many are likely to find that “sex addiction isn’t really about sex,” as Weiss puts it, but about “being wanted.”

In fact, Weiss suggests that the reason most spouses and partners refuse to believe in the idea of sex as an addiction is because it is much easier to think of their cheating partners as “thoughtless idiots”, than to believe they have a condition that almost demands sympathy. He says that it is hard for an individual to feel bad for someone who has had “all of these pleasurable experiences” with other people. Most treatment programs for this debatable subject are modelled on the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous (Sex Addicts Anonymous). They follow a 12-step procedure that does not encourage individuals to be abstinent but rather encourages them to restrain their sexual activity and promiscuity. This typically involves eliminating “unwanted sexual behaviour.”

Some of the debris of a sex addiction include the breakdown of meaningful relationships, sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Depression is commonplace among sex addicts (it may lead to the addiction or magnify the problem) and, statistically, as many as one in five sufferers may have contemplated suicide. Many people who are addicted to sex feel intense shame or embarrassment about their behaviour and hence cannot really talk about it to anyone. However, most experts believe that the problem can only be tackled through seeking professional help – as this process can look into why it has developed and explore how the offending behaviour can be suppressed. Addicts and therapists alike say they hope that a greater sense of awareness of the disease will eventually help addicts of all genders and ages come forward and seek treatment.