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Is sex addiction real?

15:00 Fri Jan 13 2012
Daniel Bettridge
Is sex addiction real?
Sex addiction has been at the centre of a string of tabloid stories as stars such as Michael Douglas, Tiger Woods and Russell Brand have admitted to suffering from the disorder and checked themselves into rehab for treatment.

But while high-profile sufferers have helped to publicise the condition, the media coverage has also had a negative impact; leading people in some quarters to question whether it's a genuine disorder or merely a handy excuse for errant individuals. We talked to the experts to find out.

So what is sex addiction?
The relationship counselling service, Relate, describes sex addiction as "...the term used to describe any sexual activity that feels 'out of control'. That might be sex with a partner, viewing pornography, masturbation, visiting prostitutes, or any number of other sexual activities."

While the compulsion might involve an action, sex becomes addictive for people in much the same way as drugs or alcohol. During sex, our bodies release a powerful cocktail of chemicals including dopamines. Sex addicts get hooked on this chemical high, but like all addicts their bodies become used to these chemicals as relationship expert Marisa Peer explains:

"Sex addiction is known as a 'process addiction' like gambling, the biochemical element is the release of dopamine in the brain that, in itself, becomes highly addictive and all dopamine addicts need more and more, so a sex addict will need more sex or more partners to get the same dopamine high."

Is sex addiction real then?
Even though it has become increasingly prevalent in popular culture, recognition of sex addiction as a genuine clinical condition is still a bone of contention. There are detractors who have expressed doubts over the legitimacy of the condition, arguing that it is in fact a way of projecting social stigma onto patients, or a symptom of another disorder.

The fact that sexual deviance is still a social taboo and people's sexual patterns are uniquely subjective has also caused contention in the clinical world. All of which means that at the present time there are no recognised clinical criteria through which sexual addiction can be diagnosed.

However, that looks set to change since at home and across the pond in America where sex addiction is widely acknowledged, medical institutions are moving to recognise the condition as a genuine clinical complaint.

What's it like to be a sex addict?
Through Sex Addicts Anonymous, an intergroup designed to help people who suffer from the condition in the UK, I was introduced to Craig (name changed to protect identity), a recovering sex addict.

Craig sought help in 1996 before he was even aware what sex addiction was. He says: "I didn't need a special term to know that I had a problem — the chaos in my life told me that I had a problem."

Craig realised he had a problem when he felt he was no longer in control of his actions: "In common with many sex addicts it took me a long time to admit even to myself that my behaviour was doing any harm, but even when I tried to stop I found I couldn't. That forced me to admit that I had a serious problem that was bigger than I could handle alone."

Craig has been on the straight and narrow for a decade now but his addiction took its toll on his private life, leading to the breakdown of his marriage and the loss of a highly paid career, through stress.

He's not alone either. As Marisa Peer says, sex addiction can take many forms but can invariably have disastrous effects on the sufferer's private life:

"Sex addiction ranges from watching internet porn to visiting prostitutes at every opportunity or picking up any type of partner to have sex... Many people find that once they engage in this kind of activity they can't stop and normal sex no longer has any appeal for them. As a result people can lose money, status and the people they love, they also have to endure a huge amount of shame. I have worked with sex addicts who have been arrested for kerb crawling or cottaging with catastrophic results for them and their families."

Do you have a problem?
Being promiscuous is one thing, but being an addict is entirely different, so how can you tell if you have a problem?

"Most sex addicts don't actually enjoy sex," Marisa tells me. "You can tell if you are an addict if you have a compulsive need to seek out and follow a certain type of sexual behaviour, that you feel unable to stop, that gives you less pleasure than you expected, where the thought of the act gives you more pleasure than the act itself. It feels as if it's totally out of control and you continue with it in spite of the consequences."

Relate lists 10 possible warning signs of sexual addiction such as "persistently pursuing destructive and/or high risk activities", "using sexual fantasies as a way of coping with difficult feelings or situations" and "suffering from intense mood swings around sexual activity".

But the biggest problem facing addicts is admitting that they have a problem that is beyond their control. The majority of addicts will not be able to curtail their behaviour alone as they are caught in a cycle that can be extremely hard to break. Instead it is vital that anyone who thinks that they might have a problem seeks help.

While the debate over the clinical definition of the condition has yet to be decided; one thing that's abundantly clear is that sex addiction is all too real for those who are unfortunate enough to suffer from it.

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