The news media abound with stories about sexual addiction – from celebrities to everyday men to soccer moms. Many may remember the June 2011 flurry of news stories about democratic representative from New York, Anthony Weiner, who sought therapy for sexual addiction after becoming embroiled in a very public scandal. Sexual addiction might appear to be media hype, but approximately 9 million Americans claim to suffer from this growing problem.
Is it real or an excuse?
Many people want to know whether sexual addiction, also called hypersexuality, is a real psychological disorder, or just an excuse used by those who have a problem with self-control. People frequently have trouble recognizing the blurred line between failed morality and true addiction. But those who work with sex addicts in a clinical setting claim the condition is real and on the rise.
“Sexual addiction begins with a person who has an abnormal response to sexual stimuli. Sex addicts get a different type of high from the sexual experience that they want to experience again and again,” says licensed addiction counselor Ray Isackila from University Hospitals Case Medical Center’s addiction program in Cleveland. “Numerous studies show that something happens in the brain chemistry of the sex addict when participating in his or her compulsion. They get a different high, or pleasure, than the population at large,” he explains.
Signs of Sexual Addiction
People with sex addiction consistently engage in compulsive, often risky, sexual behavior that adversely and severely impacts their lives. The behavior escalates risky behavior – sometimes moving into illegal activities such as public exposure of genitalia, or sexual molestation. But according to Dean Fazekas, MSSA, LISW, therapist at the Summa Health System Center for Sexual Health, sexual addiction rarely leads a person to actually becoming a sexual offender. “Some become addicted to child pornography when their addiction escalates past the scope of legally available pornography they watched in the beginning,” he says. “Some report using child pornography, an illegal activity itself, to keep from acting out.”
Although sexual addiction is not officially recognized as a mental disorder in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR), Fazekas uses 10 criteria to diagnose the condition:
“The addict breaks his own moral value system by doing things he doesn’t really approve of,” Isackila says. “He promises himself and others that he won’t do it again, but does anyway because he wants to re-experience the high. Sex addicts enter into a dark, guilty, shameful world that eventually destroys all their relationships, disconnecting them from a normal life.”
Profile of the sexual addict
Experts don’t know exactly what causes hypersexual behavior, or sexual addiction. Some theorize that possible causes include an imbalance of certain brain chemicals, high levels of sex hormones, or changes in the neural circuitry of the brain. But these represent theories not strongly supported by empirical evidence at this time.
Despite unclear causes, most sex addicts have family-of-origin issues involving familial abuse or addiction, according to Isackila. Fazekas agrees and reports, “Many come from a history of abuse and trauma: 97 percent were emotionally abused, 81 percent were sexually abused, 72 percent were physically abused, 32 percent are chemically dependant, 38 percent have an eating disorder and 28 percent have other compulsive behaviors.”
Men comprise the majority of those seeking help for sexual addiction, making up 75 percent to 80 percent of those in treatment programs. But clinicians report a rising number of women coming forward to seek help for hypersexuality.
Why is it on the rise?
Most experts agree that the Internet and abuse of online pornography is responsible for the recent spike in sexual addiction. “We talk about the 3 A’s of the Internet – affordable, accessible, anonymous — which make it a huge contributor to this problem,” Fazekas says. One study reports that some men masturbate while using Internet pornography for as many as 20 hours in a single day. The research indicates that these people experience something similar to a hangover when stopping due to a rapid drop in dopamine, a brain pleasure chemical.
Isackila explains, “The Internet and pay cable television make pornography readily available at minimal cost. People no longer have to go to seedy adult sex shops. They can get it at home, work, or hotel rooms. No one saw this coming, so it has escalated into a huge problem and we don’t even have a handle on it. My experience is that pornography is very damaging to everyone.”
Treatment involves addressing the family-of-origin issues of trauma and abuse. Most treatment programs require the patient to attend both individual and group therapy sessions. Isackila says he strongly encourages patients to attend one of the 12-step groups for sex addiction in addition to attending both individual and couples therapy sessions at the clinic.
“Treatment modalities at Summa Center for Sexual Health include a structure-based treatment where the therapist gives the person 30 tasks to accomplish with the goal of restoring a healthy sexuality,” Fazekas says. “The treatment program has a high success rate for those strongly committed to overcoming this disorder. The entire process takes about one and a half to two years, but the person can begin to notice a return to healthy sexuality within 6 months.”
Resources and support
Online sexual addiction tests:
Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA)
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
Recovering Couples Anonymous (RCA)
Books (available at www.GentlePath.com):
For the addict –
Out of the Shadows, by Patrick Carnes
Ready to Heal – Women Facing Love, Sex, and Relationship Addiction, by Kelly McDaniel
Disclosing Secrets – When, to Whom, & How Much to Reveal, by M. Deborah Corley, Jennifer P. Schneider
For the Partner –
Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, by Ed Stefanie Carnes
A House Interrupted: A Wife’s Story of Recovering from Her Husband’s Sex Addiction, by Maurita Corcoran
Hope and Freedom for Sexual Addicts and Their Partners, by Milton S. Magness
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