My introduction to the sex addiction issue was recent and rather brutish. I came across an article in the Daily Telegraph's blog with this provocative title: "Sex addicts should drop the psychobabble and admit that they're just promiscuous losers". Brendan O'Neil, the author of the piece, says "there is no such thing as sex addiction. It's a myth. It's a fancy, psychobabbling term for what we used to call 'promiscuity'."
Brendan O'Neill is the editor of Spiked, a web magazine which he claims is "dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism". This didn't add up as far as I was concerned and so I added a comment under his article to say: "Brendan claims he is 'waging a culture war of words against... prejudice' and yet what he does in this article is create prejudice against people with addictions."
A friend then showed me an article in Newsweek which gives a useful overview.
The author says sex addiction "wrecks marriages, destroys careers, and saps self-worth. Yet Americans are being diagnosed as sex addicts in record numbers." The article includes this description of a sex addict that sounded familiar: "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."
This is similar to what I hear at the addiction rehab clinic where I work: people often start on the road to addiction by using alcohol or drugs or certain behaviours such as sex, gambling or eating to dull the pain felt by unresolved psychological problems such as childhood abuse, trauma or even chronic shyness (a common cause of alcoholism is the feeling of confidence that alcohol gives to people who can't otherwise engage socially). This implies that sexual compulsivity can be similar to the other addictions, which in turn implies that addiction therapists can help them.
This would have been the end the story, but I mentioned the Newsweek article on Twitter and then received an email from a 69 year old man called Stan. He wrote "I am a sex addict, and have been since I was a teenager". For seven pages Stan described his addiction, his Catholic faith, his divorce, his trauma treatment and his time with Sex Addicts Anonymous. For me this was the personal insight that I felt was missing from the various articles that I had read thus far.
Stan summarised his life as follows: "for 50 years I lived a double life, as a married man, father and practising Catholic who was betraying his wife, his family, his religious beliefs and his ethics by visiting prostitutes and massage parlours. This secret life began at 19 with my first visit to a prostitute, and continued until I was 69 when my second wife found me out and threw me out."
He talks about sex addiction as "a scourge of our times" and says that internet porn has accelerated the problem greatly. For him, sex addiction is a compulsive and progressively desperate use of ever more mechanical, degrading and dangerous sex as a form of relief from hidden psychological pain.
He says sex was his drug of choice; he became isolated in his obsession and incapable of intimate relationships, powerless to stop his unhealthy behaviour despite the harm he was doing to himself and those closest to him. Like most sex addicts, Stan could not even begin to admit he was addicted and start seeking a solution to his malady until he hit rock bottom, with his marriage wrecked and his life in tatters.
Only when he ended up miserable and alone could he admit he was powerless to control his sexual behaviour. So after 50 years of addiction he joined Sex Addicts Anonymous and worked the 12 Steps recovery programme.
The result, he says, is that "I have been freed of a lifelong burden that caused me to wreck two marriages and harm my wives, families and many other people. For the first time in my life I am at peace, and am at last learning to live the spiritual life I have always wanted, and I feel I am becoming the man I was meant to be."