The truth about sex addiction
Valerie realized that sex was wrecking her life right around the time her second marriage disintegrated. At 30, and employed as a human-resources administrator in Phoenix, she had serially cheated on both her husbands—often with their subordinates and co-workers—logging anonymous hookups in fast-food-restaurant bathrooms, affairs with married men, and one-night stands too numerous to count. But Valerie couldn’t stop. Not even after one man’s wife aimed a shotgun at her head while catching them in flagrante delicto. Valerie called phone-sex chat lines and pored over online pornography, masturbating so compulsively that it wasn’t uncommon for her to choose her vibrator over going to work. She craved public exhibitionism, too, particularly at strip clubs, and even accepted money in exchange for sex—not out of financial necessity but for the illicit rush such acts gave her.
For Valerie, sex was a form of self-medication: to obliterate the anxiety, despair, and crippling fear of emotional intimacy that had haunted her since being abandoned as a child. “In order to soothe the loneliness and the fear of being unwanted, I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” she recalls.
After a decade of carrying on this way, Valerie hit rock bottom. Facing her second divorce as well as the end of an affair, she grew despondent and attempted to take her life by overdosing on prescription medication. Awakening in the ICU, she at last understood what she had become: a sex addict. “Through sexually acting out, I lost two marriages and a job. I ended up homeless and on food stamps,” says Valerie, who, like most sex addicts interviewed for this story, declined to provide her real name. “I was totally out of control.”
“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.” Read More