The Unglamorous Costs of Sex Addiction
Headlines of cocaine-induced rehab stints are old news in the celebrity world and the days of checking into rehab for “exhaustion” seem to be over.
The cases of Russell Brand, Jesse James and Tiger Woods indicate that narcotics are passé.
Today’s drug of choice? Sex.
Celebrities are People, Too
The term “sex addiction” has dominated the tabloids in recent years. This phrase has created a divide in the mental health world in terms of its legitimacy.
On the supportive side is Montreal-based psychotherapist Jason Phelps, who opts for the term “sexual dependency” as opposed to the more colloquial term of sex addiction. According to Phelps, celebrities are not the only ones who are affected by sexual dependency.
“It’s just not sort of crazy people that have it, it could be your dentist, your doctor, your friend, your neighbour, your father,” he says. “It affects all levels of the population. People rarely know people have this problem.”
The problem became clear to Phelps about three years ago as he was getting increasing amounts of patients coming in with sexual dependency issues. Since then, he says that one third of his patients are afflicted with such compulsions. In a broad sense, Phelps says that “it’s usually about feeling the need to have sex or engage in seductive activity.” He says the most common form of sex addiction is the desire to achieve orgasm on a regular basis, leading to addictions to pornography and masturbation.
While Phelps is comfortable treating these issues, some mental health professionals are not convinced that sex can be a legitimate addiction.
One of these professionals is Dr. Marty Klein, a certified sex therapist in the United States, who raises many objections to the concept and treatment of what he calls the “sex addiction movement.” Klein says the movement has led to the distortion of what constitutes a sexual disorder counsellor.
In addition to people self-diagnosing, he says that “non-sexologist professionals such as ministers and doctors are diagnosing some of their clientele as sex addicts, too. As a result of these trends, many people who should be seeing therapists or sexologists are not. And many who don’t need ‘treatment’ are getting it.”
Klein poses an important concern: whether or not the 12 step model of AA is a suitable one for treating sex addictions.
Joshua’s answer is “yes.”
Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Joshua, who wishes to remain anonymous, came to terms with his sex dependency in 1995 when he tackled the yellow pages, searching for a counsellor.
“When I told the counsellor that I was a sex addict, she asked me how I knew that. I simply told her that I’m doing sexual things, cruising for sex, and cannot stop.”
While admitting it was the first step, he couldn’t seem to make any progress as he simply lied to his counsellor when he relapsed.
Now 41, he looks back and says he has no idea how he knew that he was a “sex addict,” a term that was not widely used at the time. From the time he made that first call, he could not seem to get the term out of his head.
“It’s not the actual sex act that’s the high,” he says. “It’s always the preparation, the things leading up to that. Once you peak or orgasm, that’s actually the down part […] Reality starts sinking in again, so you have to do it all over again. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
A year after meeting his counselor, he joined the Sex Addictions Anonymous fellowship. He saw it as his last chance.
“I realized that I’m in this program to save my ass, basically, because if I didn’t, I was going to die from an STD, homicide or suicide,” Joshua recounts. He adds that he risked his life on a regular basis, frequenting parks and public restrooms for sexual relief with strangers.
However, he could not imagine expressing his story to a room full of unfamiliar people. Laughing, Joshua admits, “My first impression was, how the hell do sex addicts get sober?”
The image he mustered was of a circle of old men in dark trench coats who would all become monks when they became sober. His expectations were far from the reality of the actual meetings.
“In the beginning I just wanted to find the cure for my sexual addiction so I could just go and not come back, which everyone wants. But what I found is that I did get to stop my sex addiction, it is possible and I did get to live a new life,” he says with a smile. For Joshua, a large part of this new life is being able to lead a healthy sex life with his partner, and enjoy other activities such as cooking and exercise.
“In my head, it never occurred to me to actually do those things because in active addiction, those things get put aside because you spend most of your time [doing] what we called ‘acting out,’” he says.
Helping others help
Joshua now dedicates his spare time to making sure others have the opportunity to start fresh. When he is not doing maintenance work at Alexis Nihon, he is organizing SAA meetings.
After immigrating to Montreal in 2008 to start a reformed life with his partner, he founded the SAA chapter of Montreal in May 2009. The biggest challenge Joshua has faced in its creation is the considerable cost of renting a space, as the individual members who set up the meetings are responsible for funding them.
The fellowship, which was created in the 1970s, has flourished in the U.S., but has yet to generate much visibility in Canada, a reality Joshua is determined to change.
While the popularity of the fellowship is uneven throughout North America, the philosophy behind the SAA is universal. The recovery route is mapped throughout 12 stages, a common technique amongst addiction counseling groups.“What we like to say is: ‘The 12 steps just keep us from killing ourselves, the 12 traditions keep us from killing one another,’” says Joshua.
The 12 traditions are guidelines to protect the recovery of each individual member. For the SAA, the first step embodies what desires you are powerless against, whereas the remaining ones are focused on a positive solution, a forward-looking approach which sets the fellowship apart from other Sex Therapy groups.
Klein is critical of the philosophy of such groups.
“By encouraging people to ‘admit’ that they are powerless, the concept of sexual addiction prevents people from examining how they come to feel powerless—and what they can do about that feeling,” he says.
Joshua explains that after admitting to the surface problem, the rest of the steps help examine the underlying issues and find a way to lead a healthier lifestyle.
All of God’s children
Phelps says the three most common forms of sex addiction are pornography, masturbation and sex dependency where people desperately seek sexual partners in places such as escort services.
As in Joshua’s case, the most common form is that of pornography addiction. Both Joshua and Phelps view the Internet as a driving force for this obsession.
“A lot of people say that [Internet] porno is the crack cocaine of sex addiction,” Joshua says.
Ultimately, the addiction is supposedly conquered by a higher power. Joshua says a lot of people have concerns about embracing religion.
“And that’s fine, I don’t trust God either,” he says jokingly. “Over time and over a lot of experiences, we get to see how that particular higher power is working for us, rather than against us.”
The principle of equality is mirrored in the reflective meetings, where there is no official leader, but rather someone who does the “formatting” as a service to the group. Joshua says that he has met most of his friends at the Montreal meetings at Partager Notre Solution, as well as in the Eugene SAA program where he became sober.
For certain people, there can be a coexistence of two addictions. While Joshua has seldom been confronted with this issue, he says that many of the people have cross addictions, most of which involve overeating.
In the group, there are six men who attend the meetings on a regular basis. While the male dominance is a pattern across the SAA, Phelps says that women also suffer from sex addiction, mostly in regards to codependence or love addiction, or the desire to feel desired.
“Some people say, ‘Oh that’s a good addiction to have’ and I roll my eyes and say ‘Yeah, whatever.’ They don’t realize the impact the actual sex addiction has,” Joshua says, shaking his head.
In addition to controlling peoples’ lives, it can take away their lives.
“It can be dangerous with the extreme of people being put in prison for their actions, in terms of child sexual abuse, homicide, suicide and contracting an STD.”
The most tragic consequence that Joshua has heard at the SAA conventions was when someone asphyxiated himself to death. A father and son both had sexual dependency issues; the son’s manifested itself in experimentation with erotic asphyxiation, while the father had an obsession with strip clubs and prostitutes. The son did not make it, Joshua says in a hushed voice. “He died from asphyxiation and his father was in the program and he had to go through that and tell the fellowship [at the convention].”
While Joshua has witnessed the darkness of sex addiction, he remains positive that the program can transform people’s lives.
“I think one of the greatest things [about being] in the program for a long time is to watch those people come in and see them change over time. The thing that the Eugene SAA offered to the people was hope that you can get through this,” Josh said. “There is a life after sex addiction.”
He recognizes the difficulties as he himself had a hiccup of “acting out” after nine years of sobriety.
“My experience has been that sex addiction can stop, but you have to do certain things. It’s kind of like being a diabetic—you can control it in a sense that if you take care of yourself, eat right, check your blood sugar, all those things, you can take care of it.”
Nearing five years of sobriety, Joshua remains positive that the support of the group will help him support a healthy lifestyle.
Joshua’s experience exposes the bitter reality of sex addiction behind the glamorous celebrity gossip.
Beyond the sensationalist headlines are stories of ordinary people filled with pain and frustration, but also strength. Celebrity or otherwise, it’s a battle that is slowly starting to get recognition for its casualties.
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 11, published October 26, 2010.