Taking sex addiction seriously
January 23, 2010 04:01:00
Living Reporter , Toronto Star
First, David Duchovny checked himself in. Then the Hollywood crew from Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew bared their souls on VH1.
Now, with reports that Tiger Woods may be enrolled in a six-week sex rehab program at a Mississippi facility, it seems almost certain that the phrase “sex addiction” has entered the public lexicon.
Statistics claim that from three to 10 per cent of Americans have a sex addiction, but the condition is not listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and not all experts agree that problematic sexual behaviour should be called an addiction at all.
There are no obvious indicators that someone might be a sex addict. “Not all men who cheat on their wives are sex addicts and not all men who look at porn are sex addicts,” says Jill Vermeire, the marriage and family therapist from Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew.
Vermeire describes sex addicts as people struggling with sexual compulsions they cannot stop, despite negative consequences.
The addiction is not limited to the rich and famous. In Toronto, there are therapists who specialize in sexual addiction and support groups like Sex Addicts Anonymous. Bellwood Health Services has a 12-week, $12,000 residential program and outpatient counselling.
Margaret Hicks, a Toronto psychotherapist and social worker, says the addiction is often about shame and low self-esteem. Sufferers are trying to fill a void in their lives, she says: “You can fill the hole with alcohol, you can fill it with drugs, you can fill it with sex.”
Hicks says Internet porn is increasingly driving the addiction, and exposure to certain types of porn can change a person’s sexual template in destructive ways.
Penny Lawson has been working with sex addicts since 2001, when she and two other Bellwood employees were trained as certified sexual addiction therapists by Dr. Patrick Carnes, executive director of the Mississippi clinic at which Tiger Woods was allegedly spotted.
“Treatment for sexual addiction involves abandoning the unhealthy sexual behaviours and, after a period of abstinence, developing healthy sexual functioning with a primary partner – which often requires learning how to function in a healthy emotional way,” says Lawson, manager of family services and special programs at Bellwood.
Giving up sex is not the goal.
Robin Milhausen, a sex researcher at the University of Guelph and former host of the talk show Sex, Toys & Chocolate, questions whether sexual behaviour could fit into the addiction criteria. “One of the criteria that’s often raised is it requires a physiological dependence on a chemical substance that arises from habitual use,” Milhausen says. “And sex is not a substance.”
But Vermeire says sex addicts get hooked on the chemical release that comes with “acting out” sexually. “They get addicted to that feeling, that high,” she says.
Milhausen takes issue with the sex addiction label. She says it is “moralistic and pathologizing and stigmatizing” and should be called sexual compulsivity or “out of control sexual behaviour,” as suggested by Dr. John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute.
“We can be treating the same behaviours,” Milhausen says. “Certainly, there are problematic sexual behaviours. There are behaviours that get in the way of your life and relationships and make it harder for you to do your job.”
Jennie Ketcham, formerly known as porn star Penny Flame, doesn’t really care for the term sex addiction, either. Perhaps surprising, considering she was a patient on Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew and continues to attend therapy nine months after filming.
The 26-year-old figures she has had sex with roughly 1,000 people. She says sex addiction is better described as an intimacy disorder.
“I’ve always known I’ve had problems with intimacy. And I knew I masturbated more than the average person, and that I didn’t care about anybody that I’d slept with – and that I couldn’t sleep with anybody that I cared about,” she says.
The eight patients on the show admitted themselves to the Pasadena Recovery Centre, took a (temporary) vow of celibacy and attended group and individual therapy sessions, discovering that many of their problems stemmed from childhood trauma or abuse.
With therapy and without sex, the patients started to work through their emotional baggage.
Since leaving the show in April, Ketcham has abandoned her porn star name along with drugs and alcohol, her three-bedroom house and her Mercedes Benz. She now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Hollywood blogging, painting and writing for the Huffington Post.
And, she’s in love.
“I’ve gone from sucking d— for money on Tuesday afternoons to painting in my kitchen and being able to pay my rent and doing things that I really, truly love and meeting somebody that’s very special to me and important, and developing actual friendships instead of just sexual encounters,” Ketcham says.
Vermeire thinks the condition is slowly starting to be recognized as an addiction and hopes it will make it into medical manuals.
“With sex addictions we are sort of where the people supporting the idea of alcoholism were 50 years ago,” she says.
“When they started talking about alcohol addiction and being an alcoholic back then, there was the same reaction, ‘No way, there’s no such thing, what are you talking about?’ So, it takes time.”