BEHAVIOR

Obsessed with sex

Self-help groups treat sexual addiction

D’ARCY JENISH January 21 1991
BEHAVIOR

Obsessed with sex

Self-help groups treat sexual addiction

D’ARCY JENISH January 21 1991

Obsessed with sex

BEHAVIOR

Self-help groups treat sexual addiction

The slender, intense young man, with wire-rimmed glasses and impeccably groomed hair, says that he has a solid marriage, two happy children and a rewarding job. But, for three years, the Toronto computer technician found that he increasingly wanted to have sex with prostitutes. After finishing his night shift at a downtown office, he said, he would drive along streets that he knew prostitutes favored. He said that he watched them, regularly talked to them and occasionally paid for their services. But, he said, by early last year he had become convinced that his obsession was out of control, and he began seeing a psychotherapist. While he chose to turn to a professional for help, thousands of other North American men and women have chosen a different way of dealing with similar obsessions. They have joined selfhelp groups, modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), to overcome what they regard as a damaging and potentially dangerous problem: so-called sexual addiction.

The self-help approach to sexual problems began to flourish during the late 1970s and, since then, three major organizations have emerged: Boston-based Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), Minneapolis-based Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) and California-based Sexaholics Anonymous (SA). All of them have members in Canada, although they are reluctant to disclose details about their activities. One of the leading proponents of the theory that sexual activity can be addictive is Patrick Carnes, a Minneapolis-based family therapist. He operates an in-patient clinic that treats people he describes as sexually addicted individuals. “Sex addicts do things even though it may cost them their marriage, their job and lots of money,” Carnes told Maclean’s. “They use sex as a way to deal with pain.”

Indeed, individuals who claim to be sexually addicted frequently admit that their sexual behavior is partly due to other personal problems. A 31-year-old Minneapolis man named Bob, who has been a member of SAA for two years, said that he was a victim of incest as a child and later developed alcohol and drug problems. The man said that he is bisexual and, before joining SAA, sometimes had daily sexual encounters. He admitted that he visited homosexual bathhouses and massage parlors for anonymous sex, and occasionally purchased sex from prostitutes of both sexes. Now, said Bob, “I don’t go to bathhouses, massage parlors, bars or any place that might tempt me.” But many mental health professionals dispute the notion that sex can be addictive and warn that treatment based on the AA model

should be accompanied by professional therapy. Sidney Folb, a Toronto psychologist who has treated people with addictions and sexual problems for 20 years, said that excessive sexual activity is frequently connected to drug or alcohol abuse. He added that he has rarely encountered anyone whose only problem is compulsive sexual behavior. Howard Ruppel, a former sex therapist who is now executive director of the Iowa-based Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, also expressed skepticism about sexual addiction. Said Ruppel:

“It incredibly oversimplifies the issues. I see this as a catchy, marketable tool that

some people are using to encourage negative attitudes about sex.”

But those who are involved with self-help groups dismiss the criticism of therapists and psychologists. The manager of SAA’s national office in Minneapolis, a 29-year-old man who identified himself only as Douglas, said that he joined the organization four years ago. Before that, he said, he was obsessed by pornography and was constantly cheating on girlfriends by looking for other sexual partners. He added: “I felt compelled to do what I was doing. Sex addicts experience powerlessness over their sexual behavior. Other people don’t.” Douglas said that since joining SAA, he has dated eight women but became sexually involved with only one.

The self-help groups rely on the 12-step program first developed by AA to deal with alcoholism. The same principles have been applied to a number of other problems, including drug addiction, compulsive gambling and overeating. Among other things, the AA program urges participants to admit that they are powerless to control their problem. They are advised to make an inventory of the wrongs that they have committed and the people whom they have hurt. As well, participants are urged to accept the existence of a god, or some form of “higher power,” and to try to rely on that power to help overcome their problems.

The major difference among the three main groups g that deal with people who are c. excessively sexually active is 1 in their definitions of “sexual sobriety.” Two of the groups, SAA and SLAA, attract a few homosexuals, while SA’s rigid approach tends to discourage gay participation. The most conservative, and secretive, group is SA, which was founded in 1979 and is based in Simi Valley, Calif., about 60 km north of Los Angeles. A woman called Nan, who described herself as an executive secretary, said during a telephone interview that SA members must refrain from any type of sexual activity outside “a traditional, legal, heterosexual marriage.” She said that there are SA groups across the United States and in Canada, Europe and South ^ America. But she declined to | disclose the number of Ï groups or total membership. Ï A woman employee at

SLAA’s national office in Boston said that the organization has 850 groups, mostly in the United States and Canada. She said that SLAA allows its members to create their own definition of sexual sobriety. “Everybody comes into a group with different behavior that is making their life unmanageable,” said the woman, who declined to give her name, “so you create your own bottom line.” A Toronto spokesman named Peter said that there are several SLAA groups in the city.

SAA, which has groups in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa, also allows its members to define sexual sobriety in consultation with other members. Douglas, the manager of the national office in Minneapolis, said that SAA has 350 groups across the United States. He added that about 80 per cent of the participants are male. “When people get into recovery, they’re generally not in great shape,” said Douglas. “They’ve usually suffered major consequences, such as divorce, job loss or arrest.”

During the past six years, about 1,700 patients have checked into the 50-bed Sexual Dependency Unit at the Golden Valley Health Center near Minneapolis. Family therapist Carnes, who is founder of the unit, said that the 35-day program that he supervises involves group discussions about excessive sexual behavior and instruction by physicians and psychotherapists on such subjects as healthy sexuality and the causes of addictive behavior. Carnes said that full recovery from sexual addiction can take up to five years.

According to Carnes, self-described sex addicts often share common backgrounds and personality traits. A book by Carnes, entitled Don’t Call It Love, which will be published in March, is based on a survey of 1,000 recovering sex addicts. Carnes said that 83 per cent of the people he surveyed had a second addiction, usually alcohol or drugs, and a similar percentage said that they had experienced sexual abuse as children. He also found that 27 per cent of the sex addicts he talked to had been dismissed from jobs, demoted or arrested as a result of their sexual behavior. Added Carnes: “The professionals who make disparaging comments about the problem have probably never talked to a sex addict, never been to a clinic and never seen the shambles of an addict’s family.”

Despite the growing membership of organizations dedicated to treating sex addiction, many psychotherapists and psychologists continue to dismiss the possibility of sex addiction or contend that it is, at worst, a rare phenomenon. Ottawa clinical psychologist Iris Jackson-Whaley said that she has sent only two clients to selfhelp groups for the sexually addicted during the past five years. She and other therapists also maintain that excessive sexual activity is usually a symptom of a troubled childhood or a result of drug or alcohol abuse. But psychologists and members of self-help groups tend to agree on one point: both say that those who claim to suffer from the addiction are deeply troubled individuals desperately in need of help.

D’ARCY JENISH