Journalist Gail Johnson interviewed Marnia and several men from the "Reuniting" forum for this article, which looks at sex addiction in terms of brain chemistry.
When David Duchovny entered rehab for sex addiction, he drew attention to a condition with devastating effects
During his second marriage, a man we’ll call Walter Logan had three or four affairs a year, every year, throughout the entire decade he and his wife were together. When the Vancouver lawyer wasn’t screwing around or indulging in pornography, he masturbated several times a day
: at the office, on his lunch hour, or in the washrooms of his friends’ homes when he was out for dinner.
Looking back now, the 43-year-old says it didn’t even occur to him that he could be addicted to sex. He wasn’t hiring prostitutes or stopping in at massage parlours—behaviours that, in his mind, signalled a problem. Seeking out women to fuck behind his wife’s back, on the other hand, was more the pursuit of a “sensual vacation”.
Every time he slept with someone, though, Logan would end up consumed by shame. He says he hated himself but he couldn’t stop himself.
Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith discusses why the Straight ran a cover story on sex addiction.
“I’d usually sleep with a person once, then would be so disgusted with myself that I would immediately cease all contact,” Logan, who doesn’t want his real name used, for obvious reasons, says on his cellphone. “I’d drop them and vow never to do it again and would go back to my wife and try to be a better husband.”
But the cycle continued: over and over, he’d scour the classifieds in the Georgia Straight or pay for telepersonals to find a new, willing lover.
Finally, after his wife found a link on his computer to a site aimed at married men wanting affairs, Logan’s double life started crumbling. She left; only when they were talking on the phone a few days later did he confess everything. Not only had he cheated on her, but he was also unfaithful in his first marriage. His second wife said to him: “It sounds like you have an addiction.” With those words, everything clicked.
“The moment she said that, the light went off in my head,” Logan says.
Logan’s sex addiction nearly ruined him. Although he and his second wife tried counselling, their marriage ended earlier this year. His relationships with many friends and family members ceased or suffered. He is financially ruined. At his lowest point, he was suicidal.
“I was standing on top of a cliff, wondering if I should jump,” Logan says. “And I almost did. I had hurt my family so much, and I didn’t understand why. I hurt my parents; I hurt my siblings…I felt as if I’d lost everything.”
Two days later, Logan went to his first Greater Vancouver Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. “Out of that despair I walked into that room and found hope,” he says of the 12-step program. “Unconditional love and support is what you get in those rooms.”
Logan now describes himself as in his third year of recovery from sex addiction. He stresses that he’s not speaking on behalf of Sex Addicts Anonymous but, rather, wants to tell his story so that people in similar situations know that they can get help.
Sex addiction has been in the media spotlight lately, thanks largely to David Duchovny, the actor who happens to play a sex-obsessed writer on TV’s Californication and who went into rehab for the condition in August. In the movie Choke, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Sam Rockwell plays a medical-school dropout who goes to sex-addict recovery groups, looking to hook up. New York author Susan Cheever has just released Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction (Simon & Schuster), a book about her own relentless need for love and sex. And the theme of sexual addiction shows up in Quebec filmmaker Lyne Charlebois’s Borderline.
Sex addiction is also the object of plenty of mockery. Even Logan says he used to joke that if you had to have an addiction, sex would be the best. “It’s the worst,” he says now. “It eats away at your soul. You live with shame. You live a double life. I could not stop it. I knew that one day I would get found out. It’s a soul-killing disease.”
Hattiesburg, Mississippi–based counsellor-psychologist Patrick Carnes introduced sex addiction to the public when he wrote Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction in 1985. In 1992, he released Don’t Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction, a book that features results from a study he conducted of 1,000 addicts and their families.
According to Carnes, three to six percent of the U.S. population is addicted to sex. He’s not talking about those who merely have a strong sex drive. “It is a compulsive behavior that completely dominates the addict’s life,” Carnes explains on his Web site. “Sexual addicts make sex a priority more important than family, friends, and work. Sex becomes the organizing principle of addicts’ lives. They are willing to sacrifice what they cherish most in order to preserve and continue their unhealthy behavior.”
Sex addiction isn’t marked by a single type of behaviour, but can include compulsive masturbation, compulsive use of pornography and prostitution, compulsive heterosexual and homosexual relationships, exhibitionism, voyeurism, indecent phone calls, child molestation, violence, rape, and incest.
“Even the healthiest forms of human sexual expression can turn into self-defeating behaviors,” Carnes says.
In Don’t Call It Love, Carnes reveals the results of questionnaires filled out by 752 male and 180 female sex addicts, most of whom had been admitted for treatment to a Minnesota hospital. The others had spent at least three years participating in a 12-step program for sexual addiction. Of the people included in Carnes’s research, 63 percent were heterosexual, 18 percent were homosexual, 11 percent were bisexual, and eight percent were unsure of their sexual preference.
Ninety-seven percent of addicts reported that their sexual activity resulted in the loss of self-esteem, while 96 percent reported feeling guilt or shame, 91 percent said they had feelings of hopelessness, and 90 percent said they were acting in ways that collided with their values.
Carnes found that 42 percent of sex addicts were also dependent on alcohol or drugs, and 38 percent had eating disorders.
Eighty-one percent of sex addicts reported a history of sexual abuse.
Logan has the same story. When he was 10, he and a friend were both molested by a stranger while they were playing in the woods. (“He used the whole ‘I’m looking for my puppy’ kind of stuff,” Logan says of the man.) After he was sexually assaulted, things changed. His grades dropped and he started getting into trouble. Then he started to masturbate.
“Before I even reached puberty, I was very compulsive, to the point where I would masturbate until I injured myself—four, five, six times a night.…I started using masturbation at a very early age to try and escape my feelings.…With addiction, you’re trying to run away from yourself, your fears, anxieties, sadness: whatever emotions you don’t want to feel.”
By the time he reached his 30s and was arranging to meet women in hotel rooms, affairs gave Logan an emotional, if temporary, high.
“I felt so unworthy as a person…that I needed the person to want me,” he explains.
Caveh Zahedi also used sex as a means to dull negative feelings. In 2005, the San Francisco–based filmmaker released I Am a Sex Addict, a movie for which he still gets both fan mail and hate mail. The twice-divorced 48-year-old, who’s now remarried and has a new baby, went to his first Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting in 1991 after years of paying prostitutes for oral sex.
“When I heard other people speak [at the meetings], I recognized my own pattern,” Zahedi says in a phone interview. “The more they did it, the more they felt compelled to do it. I wanted to stop but never could. It was a lonely, isolating thing for me…I realized that for me it almost always happened when I was upset about something, when I was sad or angry.…Sex addicts sexualize their anger. It’s how you deal with your pain.”
Zahedi, who went to SAA meetings for several years but now relies on yoga and meditation to counter troubling emotions, says making the film was part of his healing process.
“People think sex addicts are people in raincoats, really sleazy, when they’re just normal people, people you see every day. I wanted to fight the stereotype.”
Sex addiction crosses all socioeconomic, educational, racial, and sexual-orientation lines, but one thing that is common among addicts is a sense of shame, says Doris Vincent, a certified sex-addiction therapist and registered psychologist who, in addition to treating people at her Recovery Path office in Edmonton, counsels people throughout Alberta, B.C., and the Northwest Territories by phone.
“They feel very, very sad about their behaviour,” Vincent tells the Straight. “They want to stop. They don’t want to continue. They love their families and don’t want to lose them. But they cannot stop the behaviour despite repeated attempts, and it’s a constant disruption in their life.”
Sex addiction can also be seen as a chemical addiction, according to Carnes, because dopamine, the brain’s pleasure-creating neurochemical, is released during orgasm. Dutch neuroscientist Gert Holstege revealed in a 2003 Journal of Neuroscience study that brain scans taken during orgasm resemble those taken during a heroin rush. Marnia Robinson, a former lawyer turned “sacred sex” researcher, explains the neurochemical phenomenon of addiction on her Web site, Reuniting.
“Passionate encounters leading to sexual satiation over-stimulate the pleasure/reward center in the primitive brain, triggering temporary ‘hangovers’,” Robinson writes.
“Let’s look at what goes on in the brain during sex and orgasm. Although you think everything happens between your legs, the sensation of orgasm actually originates between your ears, in the form of chemical messengers and the receptors they bind to. These neurochemical changes take place in the limbic system, or ‘mammalian brain’. The mammalian brain…is the seat of emotions, desires, drives and impulses.
“However, addiction is not just about the highs. Over time, an addiction creates a chronic lowering of dopamine levels.…This sense that ‘something is missing’ is the basis of addictive cravings. At the same time, the addict experiences a much higher than average response to triggers related to his particular learned behavior.…In other words, his overall state seems to be flattened…while his reaction to triggers related to his addiction is more pronounced. This may be because such triggers signal an opportunity for relief from the misery of low dopamine.”
Robinson stresses that Reuniting isn’t aimed at addicts, but she says she was surprised to discover that many were visiting the site.
“I thought, ‘Come on, guys, this site is about sacred sex. We don’t want to talk about porn,’ ” Robinson says on the line from Ashland, Oregon. “But I could see that these really wonderful men were asking, ‘How did this happen? I’m not a pervert. I don’t understand why I can’t turn it off.’ ”
Some believe sex addiction is linked to low dopamine levels in the brain’s limbic system, which is the seat of emotions. Photo by Vasiliy Yakobchuk.
Vincent also believes the brain—and not weak moral character—plays a role in sex addiction.
“If it is an addiction, there’s no choice,” Vincent explains. “The limbic system is driving it.…The brain focuses on the things the neurochemical system needs. The primitive part of our brain takes over.”
According to Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté, the distinguishing features of addiction are compulsion, preoccupation, impaired control, persistence, relapse, and craving. In his latest book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction, Maté explains that the roots of sex addiction can be traced to childhood, and whether someone was sexually abused or lacked love and nurturing.
“In a person with addictive behaviors, the orbitofrontal cortex and its associated neurological systems have been tricked from childhood onward into valuing false wants above real needs.…Hence, the desperation of the behavioural addict, the urgency to have that want answered immediately, as if it really were an essential requirement,” Maté writes.
“The so-called nymphomaniac, the female sex addict, is not addicted to sex at all, but to the dopamine and endorphin rewards that flow from the feeling of being desired and desirable.”
Sex addiction falls into a grey area when it comes to diagnosis. It doesn’t show up in the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the most trusted guide to psychiatric disorders, but it is being considered by a work group on non-substance-related addictions for inclusion in the next edition, which comes out in 2012. Sex addiction isn’t defined on the Canadian Society of Addiction Medicine’s Web site, nor was a representative from the society willing to be interviewed. However, the society did invite Vincent to speak on the role of sexual-abuse-survivors’ groups in the treatment of sex addiction at its most recent conference, which took place in Vancouver on October 31 and November 1.
A study in the August 2004 issue of the Philadelphia-based Journal of Sex Research questioned the validity of sex addiction. Authored by John Bancroft—then director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction—and researcher Zoran Vukadinovic, the report described “compulsive sexual behaviour” and “sexual addiction” as “currently fashionable concepts”.
“At this time, both concepts are of uncertain scientific value,” Bancroft and Vukadinovic wrote, noting that nymphomania (excessive sexual desire in women) and satyriasis (the same in men) used to be popular labels.
In their study—titled “Sexual Addiction, Sexual Compulsivity, Sexual Impulsivity, or What? Toward a Theoretical Model”—Bancroft and Vukadinovic interviewed 31 self-described sex addicts (29 men and two women).
“Subjects were asked whether they found themselves trying to resist the urge to act out or whether at the time it was something they genuinely wanted to do,” they wrote. “Eleven men and one of the women indicated that they tried to resist, but most of them did not give a convincing description of resistance.”
However, the authors did find a relationship between negative mood and sexual interest.
“All but 4 of the 29 men and both women reported an increased likelihood of acting out in states of either depression or anxiety or both,” they noted.
Plus, forty-five percent of the addicts reported a state of mind while carrying out sexual acts that Bancroft and Vukadinovic say could be regarded as a form of dissociation from reality. Addicts noted these sensations: “not conscious of reality”, “zoning out”, and “numb”, and sex feeling “like euphoria—like cocaine”.
Despite the Kinsey research, many health professionals maintain that sex addiction is as real as it is devastating.
Paulette Tomasson, a West Vancouver–based nurse, clinical counsellor, and certified sex-addiction therapist, says that the condition is rife with misinformation.
“When people hear ‘sex addict’, they think ‘pedophile’,” Tomasson tells the Straight. “That’s a completely different thing.
“I just had two new clients yesterday,” she continues. “Both were men. Both had been to many other therapists. The older client was in tears because he’s been trying to work on this for about 15 years now, and everyone wants to normalize it. They say, ‘It’s just what men do. All men go to prostitutes.’ Excuse me? That is not true. ”
Tomasson, who gives educational seminars for counsellors interested in becoming certified sex-addiction therapists, says a half-dozen people might show up.
“It’s really quite sad,” she says of the dearth of services available. “Therapists will say, ‘Oh, I don’t have any of that in my practice.’ Well, if you’ve seen 100 people, you have at least three to five who have sex addiction.”
She also stresses that with the proliferation of porn on the Internet, the prevalence of sex addiction will only increase.
Tomasson, who treats men and women, says that looking at suggestive images on-line changes the wiring in people’s brains. People’s eyes are not used to looking at light directly for long periods of time. By staring at a steady stream of light, people become “like deer in headlights” and go into a state of “startle”.
“When you’re on the Internet and in startle, then up comes an image and it makes you aroused, those images get burned into your brain,” Tomasson explains. “There might be a pop-up of something like an adolescent who’s compromised. I’ve had people say, ‘I’ve never been attracted to adolescents in my life. But after being on the Internet, I can’t get it out of my mind.’
“So the Internet shifts the arousal template, and it becomes very difficult to then find the same arousal with a real human being. All of a sudden, people become aroused by something illegal or immoral.…The Internet is known as the crack cocaine of sex addiction.
“I used to think Craigslist was for used furniture,” she adds. “Now I know it’s the most popular place for people to pick up prostitutes. When I walk down the streets, I see a whole different city now.”
Like Tomasson, Vincent sees the Internet as the greatest catalyst for sex addiction. “Besides the anonymity, accessibility, and affordability, one of the dangers of the Internet is that we see images our brain is not prepared to handle.…They stay in your brain. I have clients come to me trying to get rid of them.”
Although the Internet is a potential menace to people who can’t control their desire, it’s also a place where addicts as well as their spouses and family members can find support. Web sites like No-Porn.com and RecoveryNation.com have helped people understand the affliction.
Recovery is possible. Tomasson, who heads Addiction Counselling and Resources Limited, recommends one-on-one therapy in conjunction with 12-step programs. (Information about Greater Vancouver Sex Addicts Anonymous is at www.saavancouver.org/.) There are some places in Canada that take in-patients, including Toronto’s Bellwood Health Services.
Sometimes Tomasson will request a client abstain from sex and masturbation for three months.
“They look at me like they’re going to die,” Tomasson says. “They go through a physical withdrawal process, just like with caffeine. But they find what their natural rhythm is with sexuality.…Most have been compulsive and have used sex as a reward to self-medicate, to fend off emotions that they don’t like or that make them uncomfortable.”
Clearly, unlike with alcohol addiction, abstinence isn’t realistic when it comes to sex. Vincent agrees that the first step to recovery is “sobriety”, and that it takes a minimum of 30 days to come out of an addictive state. She says that one of the goals is for addicts to abstain entirely from sex in the short term, then from compulsive behaviours over the long term. From there, people can move into healing and look at underlying personal issues, including trauma they may have experienced as a child or adult. Addicts must also learn what it means to have a healthy sex life—including aspects like boundaries, trust, intimacy, openness, honesty, and communication.
Prevention is possible too, starting early in life.
“Children need good information about sex in an age-appropriate way,” Tomasson says. “Children are exposed to porn on the Net today by the age of seven. They are sexualized earlier and earlier in our society by…fashion and are exposed to sexualized images on TV, music videos, and all forms of media. So, basically, it is about helping children process their feelings, have safe coping methods for stress, and, of course, loads of love and support.”
Logan still goes to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings regularly and sees a counsellor. He says he’s hit rock bottom and is starting his life from scratch.
“But I don’t think I’ve ever been happier,” Logan says. “Life now is a lot more precious. I’m learning how to be a much better person, to live a life of honesty, to be accountable to my friends and family.”
He’s not in a relationship and is hesitant about dating. “I have to be prepared to tell them my story, and it’s not an easy thing to hear.”