Is sex addiction real? Do golfer Tiger Woods and the soon-to-be-former husband of Academy Award-winning actress Sandra Bullock, among many others, really have no control over their bedroom antics?
In the 1930s, our country faced a similar question: Is alcoholism a disease? Many felt that those individuals who were drunks made a choice to drink, so how could that be an addiction? Thus began the self-help, 12-step group called Alcoholics Anonymous. The official medical community was the last to call alcoholism a disease. We are in a very similar place today. Numerous 12-step groups to help sex addicts have sprung up. These include Sexaholics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, and Sex Recovery Anonymous. The religious community also has sponsored faith-based sex addiction support groups. The clinical community has been treating sex addiction for more than 20 years at outpatient offices and inpatient treatment centers.
So, do we just shrug at the cheater and say, "You have a moral problem," or do we look a little deeper to see if the person actually is addicted to sex? Let me say, before we go any further, regardless of the influence of the addiction, each person totally is responsible for any choices he or she makes. However, addiction can be treated and future bad choices averted. Many of us are not aware of using sex as a drag. The "wow" feeling one enjoys actually is endogenous opiates called endorphins and enklephlins flooding the prefrontal cortex of the brain During that experience, whatever is in your field of vision you will home in on and begin to desire. This is classic conditioning--ring the bell and feed the dog. Addicts tend to glue to objects of fantasy or pornography--thousands of times over. This is where the addict and person with just a high libido are different. The addict is going for the fix, whereas a sexually healthy person is going for the connection with a partner and sexuality is a part of that connection.
There is a grid all psychologists and clinicians should use to establish if an individual has an addictive process in his or her life. Someone would need to display three or more of these patterns over the last year to be seen as having an addictive behavior. The first is withdrawal. When sex addicts attempt to halt their behavior, they feel a psychological or physiological pain. The behaviors of sex addiction are endless, so withdrawal would occur in the absence of engaging in those behaviors. Addicts use their fix (sex) to relieve the withdrawal pain, thus creating a cycle.
Second, tolerance occurs. This simply means what used to satisfy the addict does not anymore. The addict may solve this problem by increasing the frequency of the same behaviors or progress to different behaviors to scratch the "itch," so to speak.
Third is what I call, "more." This might be more of the same behaviors, more time and energy committed to prepare and engage in the behaviors, or more variety of behaviors--many of which they never thought they were capable of performing, but now engage in repeatedly.
Fourth, attempts to do less of or stop the behavior, but meeting with failure. Sex addicts say to themselves, "I'm never going to do that again"--hundreds of times. Yet, sometimes, only hours later, the act is repeated.
Fifth, addicts vow to stop the behavior, but fail to do so. Promises are made to their friends, boss, spouse, or current significant other that they definitely are going to cease. Regardless of how emotional these appeals are, failure to halt is the end result.
Sixth, consequences surface. Marriage is impacted, as are relationships with children. There might be a lost job, an arrest, or a suit for sexual harassment. Sometimes addicts and their families are forced to relocate.
Finally, there is the continued use even after substantial consequences. The addict gets caught, endures consequences that most of us would learn our lesson from, but continues to use. The man who could lose his wife and family due to his behavior and then finds himself weeks later full blown back into the same antics probably is a sex addict.
The American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy uses a Six Types of Sex Addicts model in order for addicts and clinicians to answer the question that I hear in my office every week, "How did I get this way?" The following is a brief review of the Six Types:
The biological addict is someone who has hijacked the pleasure neuropathway and attached it thousands of times to an "it." The "it" might be fantasy, pornography, or some form of object relationship sex. Object relationship sex is when an individual is connecting to the other world, not a person. All addicts know what I am talking about here.
The psychological addict is somebody who utilizes the fantasy world and sexual release to medicate psychological pain. Most addicts start their compulsive behaviors in their teens. The trauma of emotional and physical abuse or neglect and abandonment fades as the addict begins to leave the real world (during the fix) and discovers a place where he or she is wanted, cared for, celebrated, never corrected, and then totally pleasured. This fix helps the addict cope, at least temporarily, with life.
The spiritually-based sex addict is what some call "looking for God in a bottle." These sex addicts seek spiritual connectedness and unconditional love in a fantasy world or through those they act out with sexually.
Trauma-based sex addicts almost identically act out their own past sexual abuse encounter. They may play it out where they subject themselves to the same behavior or perpetrate a similar one on other consenting adults.
The intimacy anorexic sex addict "acts in" by withholding intimacy from his or her spouse and "acts out" with fantasy, porn, or other individuals. Characteristics of intimacy anorexia are: staying perpetually busy so as to avoid time with one's spouse; blaming a spouse for marital problems; withholding love, praise, spiritual connection, and/or sex (or staying disconnected during sex); using anger or silence to control a spouse; having ongoing or ungrounded criticism of the spouse; being unwilling or unable to communicate feelings with one's spouse; and controlling or shaming around money issues. Most spouses of anorexic sex addicts complain of feeling like roommates instead of lovers.
The final type of sex addict is one with a mood disorder. This person could have a cyclothymic or bipolar disorder, depression, or a chemical imbalance of some kind. He or she uses a sexual release to attempt to balance the brain, but creates a sex addiction in the process.
What are the options for sex addiction treatment? Try to locate a 12-step group in your area and become informed. There are several books and workbooks on sex addiction and most are very helpful. Seek counseling with a therapist who specializes or is certified to treat sex addiction. The last thing you want is bad advice if you are a sex addict or the spouse of one. There also are Three-Day Intensives to expedite the recovery process. If you are suicidal--or have good insurance or are well off financially--you may want an inpatient setting where you stay for 15 to 30 or more days. This process would include group therapy, education, 12-step support groups, and individual counseling.
The sex addict needs help. I have been treating sex addicts for more than 20 years. I have treated the rich, famous, and beautiful; they all require a team to get better. Addicts of all types suffer from what AA calls "self-will run riot." If addicts want to do it themselves, failure is around the comer for them and their loved ones. Remember, addictions of all types do not impact the addict solely. If you doubt sex addiction is real, try asking the spouse of a sex addict or his or her children.
In Partners: Healing from His Addiction, wives of sex addicts completed a research survey. Three significant findings surfaced: 82% of the female spouses became depressed; 75% suffered from lowered self-esteem; and 62% turned to food for solace. The hardest part of my job is heating the pain and devastation a sex addict has created for a spouse.
It often is quite helpful for the spouse (male or female) to get professional help. There are support (called "partners") groups such as COSA (Codependents of Sex Addicts) and S-ANON (Sexual Compulsives Anonymous).
They deal with the impact sex addiction has on the spouse. Due to the difficulty in finding local support groups, telephone groups are a popular option.
Spouses are not the only ones impacted by sex addiction. Beyond the Bedroom: Healing for Adult Children of Sexual Addicts addresses the issues that occur with offspring who grow up with a sex-addicted parent. Studies show that these kids find out about their parent's addiction, on average, at between six and 10 years of age. They also are aware of the type of behaviors the addicted parent was engaging in.
Is sex addiction real? When I asked that question on college campuses almost 20 years ago, about 20% thought so. Today, it is more like 80%. As a culture, especially in the media, I think that sex addiction is being seen for what it really is--an addiction. As a psychologist, I know sex addiction is real. More importantly, I know recovery from sex addiction is valid.
Douglas Weiss is executive director of the Heart to Heart Counseling Center, Colorado Springs, Colo., and author of The Final Freedom: Pioneering Sexual Addiction Recovery.
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|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||May 1, 2010|
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