Health

Is sex an addiction?

MARK NICHOLS February 9 1998
Health

Is sex an addiction?

MARK NICHOLS February 9 1998

Is sex an addiction?

Health

Thousands flock to AA-like treatment sessions

Five years ago, David was a senior executive with a major North American manufacturer. A workaholic, David (not his real name) dedicated long hours to his job—but he managed to find time for a nearly constant round of risky extramarital encounters with prostitutes and other women. Finally, a liaison with a fellow employee ended David’s career after the woman complained to company officials about sexual harassment. Fired, David wound up being treated at a centre that specializes in helping people who are addicted to sex. “I’d never heard of sex addiction,” says David, now in his late 50s and doing part-time work as a consultant. “I had realized that the way I was carrying on was dumb—and dangerous for me. But I had no idea that it was because of an addiction.” Sexual addiction, he adds, “is about power, it’s about controlling people through sex—and sex addicts need the thrill of illicit acts. When I see what may be going on in the White House, I feel deep gratitude that I got the help I needed.”

As President Bill Clinton battled last week against allegations of multiple sexual transgressions, there was some speculation that the U.S. chief executive might be the driven and increasingly desperate victim of sex addiction. The idea flows from the increasingly popular, but controversial, notion that obsessive sex can lead to dependency in the same way that alcohol and narcotics do. Therapists who work in the field say if the

allegations about him are true, Clinton’s alleged affairs—and his increasingly vehement denials—could be typical symptoms of the disease. “This is a big issue for our country right now,” says Linda Hudson, chairwoman of the Marietta, Ga.-based National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, whose 400 members include therapists and other professionals working in the field. “And it’s a very scary thing.”

Of course, the allegations against the president may prove groundless, and even if they are true, that does not necessarily make him a sex addict. And in any case, is there really such a thing? Or is sex addiction just another example of creating medical terms to excuse plain old bad behavior— a questionable concept seized upon by a victim-obsessed society?

Mainstream psychiatrists tend to dismiss the theory of sex addiction as a hodgepodge of half-baked ideas; neither the American Medical Association nor its Canadian counterpart recognize it as a valid concept. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Nady el-Guebaly, a University of Calgary psychiatry professor, “there is no clearly defined syndrome called sex addiction—it’s just a theory.” Yet since a handful of Alcoholics Anonymous members began meeting to discuss sex and love addiction in the 1970s, the movement has gained thousands of adherents, with self-help organizations modelled on AA holding daily meetings in cities in North America and Europe,

and about 10 institutions in the United States and Canada offering treatment programs.

Therapists and other experts in sex addiction say the problem usually has its origins in childhood—they estimate that at least 70 per cent of sex addicts were sexually abused as youngsters, and that most grew up in homes plagued by addiction problems, violence or other kinds of stress. Once it takes root, the condition manifests itself in a spectrum of behaviors that can escalate in gravity. In the early stages, sex addicts may engage in excessive masturbation, serial love affairs or compulsive visits to strip clubs. The next stage can involve riskier behavior—exhibitionism, voyeurism, sex with prostitutes and obsessive surfing for smut on the Internet, an increasingly hazardous activity for some sex addicts as law enforcement agencies crack down on child pornography and other illegal forms of cyber-sex. In extreme cases, the addiction can lead to even more serious offences such as incest, I child molestation and rape, s When the condition is full-blown, experts say, the addict’s mind is taken over by obsessional thinking, a psychological dependency that overrides everything else in life—and by a desperate desire to convert obsessional thoughts into action. At that point, says Mona Sumner, clinical director of the Rimrock Foundation, a Billings, Mont., centre that treats sex addicts, “the compulsion is so powerful that the addict’s life is out of control. It’s like losing your soul.”

If all of the allegations against him are true, would that make Bill Clinton a sex addict? “This kind of behavior,” says Hudson, “is usually an indication of sex addiction, and from the beginning the addict will do anything to protect his secret.” While the addict grapples with a growing risk of exposure, says Hudson, his spouse or partner is “usually someone in deep denial who reacts with desperate efforts at damage control.” More cautiously, Sumner suggests that while the president’s alleged behavior would involve actions that “could result from sex addiction, we have no way of knowing what is in his mind—whether he has the psychological dependence that is part of the disease.” Sexual escapades can have other explanations, she adds. “A man in a position of power, surrounded by doting young women,” says Sumner, “can succumb to temptation.” Precisely, skeptics say—character weakness, not disease. But don’t tell that to the 12,000 members of Bos-based Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which argues that while sex addicts cannot be cured, they can be freed from their obsession. The tragedy of the condition, people in treatment say, is that too often its victims must experience exposure, humiliation and the loss of their jobs before getting help—a process that in the case of the U.S. presidency could prove unbearably wrenching.

MARK NICHOLS