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Is Sex Addiction Really A Disorder?

Kelsey Borresen |
December 17, 2010 | 2:25 a.m. PST


Tiger Woods has become the posterchild for sex addiction, but there's still disagreement as to whether an insatiable desire for sex is really a problem. (Creative Commons)
Tiger Woods has become the posterchild for sex addiction, but there's still disagreement as to whether an insatiable desire for sex is really a problem. (Creative Commons)

Less than two months after the tales of Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs became regular tabloid fodder, the once-revered pro golfer was photographed outside of Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Woods may be the most recent and famous celebrity face of sex addiction, but he certainly isn’t the first. 

In 2005, British comedian and self-professed sex addict Russell Brand spent time in a treatment center outside of Philadelphia. Similarly, the star of Showtime’s Californication, David Duchovny, voluntarily checked himself into sex rehab in 2008.

Last spring, Sandra Bullock’s ex-husband Jesse James sought treatment in Tucson, Ariz. for the addiction that ended his marriage.  

Yet another testament to the now booming sex rehab industry came last month when the Los Angeles Times reported Elements Behavioral Health’s acquisition of the , a Westside treatment center.  Elements also owns the upscale Malibu drug rehabilitation center Promises, famous for its celebrity clientele including Britney Spears, Matthew Perry and Lindsay Lohan.

The institute’s founding director, Robert Weiss, wrote on his blog, “This opportunity couldn’t have come at a better time.  We are seeing more and more issues around problem sexual behavior, particularly as advancing technology – think smart phones and social networks – provides an easily accessible and anonymous ‘playing field’ for these types of behaviors.  People are seeking treatment for sex addiction, and through this expansion, our resources and recovery reach will increase exponentially.”

But in spite of all of the publicity sex addiction has earned due to its celebrity poster children, the disorder has yet to be officially recognized in the DSM―the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.


And although the National Association of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity estimates that as many as 3 to 6 percent of Americans (most of whom are men) suffer from some form of the addiction, still many medical and psychiatric professionals are unconvinced.        

Based on the current DSM definition of dependence (the term “addiction” is not used), at least three of a possible seven symptoms must be met in order to qualify for the disorder.  Among the seven are tolerance, withdrawal, neglecting once important activities because of substance use, as well as spending a great deal of time trying to obtain, use or recover from the substance. 

Other symptoms include taking a substance in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than was intended, persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control substance use and also continued use in spite of a persistent physical or psychological problem caused by the substance.


The Professor: Not Sure If Sex Is Truly An Addiction

John Monterosso, assistant professor of psychology at USC, says he isn’t sure if sex should be classified as a true addiction, but acknowledges that it’s clearly a behavior that people have a lot of trouble resisting.

“It’s absolutely true that you could meet three of the criteria with sex behavior, but you could also meet three of them with running behavior if you’re exercising a lot…I think any domain where people would say they have some kind of self-control problem, you could make a
reasonable case.  Just Google the DSM criteria for substance dependence and think to yourself about whether it could reasonably true of somebody’s shopping behavior or Facebook behavior,” he argued.  


The Entrepreneur: Sex Is Only A Problem When It Damages Your Life

For some, another troubling aspect of the concept of sex addiction is that, unlike illicit drug use, sex is a normal, acceptable and even necessary human behavior―not one that is marginalized by society. Having a hearty appetite for sex or having what some might deem to be unusual sexual preferences or fetishes does not make someone a sex addict. Only when the behavior spins out of control and begins to impact other areas of his/her life (ie: family, relationships, work or health) that it truly becomes a problem.  

“More than anything, it's the living of a double life and the keeping of secrets, “ Weiss wrote in an e-mail.  “Someone who can say to their spouse, and have their spouse be OK with it, ‘Oh I'll be dropping by an escort service on the way home to get off, but will be home for dinner by 8 p.m.’ is not what we see as someone with a sexual addiction.  That is a lifestyle choice condoned by both parties.  But if a husband is staying up late at night surfing porn, or trolling for online relationships behind his wife's back, that a problem.”


The Therapist: Sex Is Different Type Of Addiction

New York-based sex therapist Mavis Humes Baird has been counseling sex addicts for more than 20 years.  She separates alcoholism and drug addictions from process addictions such as sex, food and gambling where the behaviors (not the substance itself) play with your brain chemistry. 

Process addictions involve repeatedly engaging in a particular activity, as opposed to a particular substance, despite experiencing progressively negative consequences.  

“If you get a stomachache every time you eat steak, you would be like, ‘You know what, it’s really good, but I just can’t have any,’” she said.  “You would learn from the pain and you would stop doing it.  What shows addiction is that you can’t stop or you don’t stop or you don’t want to stop― no matter what prices you’re paying.”


Baird and her colleagues look at the recent string of celebrity sex addict stories as an opportunity to provide public health education on the issue by making appearances and granting interviews with major media outlets. She said she believes that since the advent of the Internet and the acceleration of the media bubble around celebrities, the fastest and easiest way of delivering a new concept is by “hitching onto their ride.”  
At the same time, she acknowledges that some people might think that these celebrities are blaming their infidelity on addiction as a way of excusing or justifying their behavior.  

“I see that a lot and I see that as a stage in the learning curve,” she said.  “Certainly that would be a major concern if [the addiction label] is just a cover up to give them something more acceptable than being a cheater. But what I would say is that the label ‘sex addiction’ doesn’t remove any label about what you did―it adds to it. It’s like OK so he’s a cheater and he’s a liar and a sex addict.  All of those things are still true. And on top of that, he has a mental disorder. “

SRI founder Weiss opened the business in 1995 no staff and just one office.  Today, he has a staff of more than fifteen and eight offices.  He agreed that celebrities have raised the visibility around sex addiction, but pointed out that they are not the only factor in the growth of the industry.

“Our business has been stable over time,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Yes, we did get a few more phone calls when the Tiger Woods scandal happened, and our facility was in the news because I was interviewed by almost every major news outlet.

"So in one sense, it did fuel a media maelstrom. But those things fade over time…You don't need a celebrity to act out in order for sex addiction treatment to be relevant. But it does certainly make people more aware and less afraid to discuss the issues.”

Reach contributor Kelsey Borresen here.



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