|A Tomcat Enjoying the Internet|
“Sex addiction” remains a controversial designation—often dismissed as a myth or providing talk-show punchlines thanks to high-profile lotharios such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Tiger Woods. But compulsive sexual behavior, also called hypersexual disorder, can systematically destroy a person’s life much as addictions to alcohol or drugs can. And it’s affecting an increasing number of Americans, say psychiatrists and addiction experts. “It’s a national epidemic,” says Steven Luff, coauthor of Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity and leader of the X3LA sexual-addiction recovery groups in Hollywood.
Reliable figures for the number of diagnosed sex addicts are difficult to come by, but the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, an education and sex-addiction treatment organization, estimates that between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population—or more than 9 million people—could meet the criteria for addiction. Some 1,500 sex therapists treating compulsive behavior are practicing today, up from fewer than 100 a decade ago, say several researchers and clinicians, while dozens of rehabilitation centers now advertise treatment programs, up from just five or six in the same period. The demographics are changing, too. “Where it used to be 40- to 50-year-old men seeking treatment, now there are more females, adolescents, and senior citizens,” says Tami VerHelst, vice president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals. “Grandfathers getting caught with porn on their computers by grandkids, and grandkids sexting at 12.”
In fact, some of the growth has been fueled by the digital revolution, which has revved up America’s carnal metabolism. Where previous generations had to risk public embarrassment at dirty bookstores and X-rated movie theaters, the Web has made pornography accessible, free, and anonymous. An estimated 40 million people a day in the U.S. log on to some 4.2 million pornographic websites, according to the Internet Filter Software Review. And though watching porn isn’t the same as seeking out real live sex, experts say the former can be a kind of gateway drug to the latter.
Take it from Tony, a 36-year-old from the affluent Westside of Los Angeles, who found his life thrown into turmoil by compulsive sexual behavior. “I was crippled by it,” he says. “I would go into trancelike states, lose track of what I was doing socially, professionally, spiritually. I couldn’t stop.”
He was ashamed of his tireless efforts to find women. “I was meeting girls on the basketball court, in the club, pulling my car over to meet them on the street,” Tony recalls. It took joining a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous 12-step program for him to realize that he wasn’t alone.
He also learned that his fixation on sex was a way of avoiding his insecurities and tackling the emotional issues that first led to his addictive behavior. “The addiction will take you to a place where you’re walking the streets at night, so keyed up, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just see if there’s anybody out there,’” he says. “Like looking for prey, kind of. You’re totally jacked up, adrenalized. One hundred percent focused on this one purpose. But my self-esteem was shot.”
Most treatment programs are modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, but rather than pushing cold-turkey abstinence, they advocate something called “sexual sobriety.” This can take different forms, but typically involves eradicating “unwanted sexual behavior,” whether that’s obsessive masturbation or sex with hookers. “We treat it very much like sobriety for an eating disorder,” says Robert Weiss, founder of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. “They have to define for themselves based on their own goals and belief systems: ‘What is healthy eating for me? Can I go to a buffet? Can I eat by myself?’ We look at your goals and figure in your sexual behaviors and validate what’s going to lead you back to the behavior you don’t want to do.”
Sex addicts are compelled by the same heightened emotional arousal that can drive alcoholics or drug addicts to act so recklessly, say addiction experts. Research shows that substance abusers and sex addicts alike form a dependency on the brain’s pleasure-center neurotransmitter, dopamine. “It’s all about chasing that emotional high: losing yourself in image after image, prostitute after prostitute, affair after affair,” says the Sexual Recovery Institute’s Weiss. “They end up losing relationships, getting diseases, and losing jobs.”
The potential for abuse of online porn is well documented, with research showing that chronic masturbators who engage with online porn for up to 20 hours a day can suffer a “hangover” as a result of the dopamine drop-off. But there are other collateral costs. “What you look at online is going to take you offline,” says Craig Gross, a.k.a. the “Porn Pastor,” who heads XXXChurch.com, a Christian website that warns against the perils of online pornography. “You’re going to do so many things you never thought you’d do.”
Exhibit A: “We see a lot of heterosexual men who are addicted to sex and, because culturally and biologically women aren’t as readily available to have sex at all times of the day, these men will turn to gay men for gratification,” says sex therapist Donaghue. “Imagine what that does to their psychology. ‘Now am I gay? What do I tell my wife?’ ”
That wasn’t the issue for Max Dubinsky, an Ohio native and writer who went through a torturous 14-month period of online-pornography dependence. He says a big problem with his addiction was actually what it prevented him from doing. “I couldn’t hold down a healthy relationship. I couldn’t be aroused without pornography, and I was expecting way too much from the women in my life,” recalls Dubinsky, 25, who sought treatment at the X3LA recovery group and is now married.
If discussion of sex addiction can seem like an exclusive domain of men, that’s because, according to sex therapists, the overwhelming majority of self-identifying addicts—about 90 percent—are male. Women are more often categorized as “love addicts,” with a compulsive tendency to fall into dependent relationships and form unrealistic bonds with partners.
Addicts and therapists alike say they hope a greater awareness of the disease will eventually help addicts of all genders and ages come forward and seek treatment.