June 20, 2018
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Sex addiction: On the verge of clinical acceptance, but plagued by misunderstanding

Michelle Pelletier | BDN
Michelle Pelletier | BDN
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

They may spend hours pawing through pornographic magazines, searching the Internet for sexual images, or calling phone sex lines, losing sleep and jeopardizing relationships or jobs in the process. They may even seek extramarital affairs or pay for sex with a prostitute.

They are battling a condition called hypersexual disorder — and although “sex addiction” has long been familiar in the public lexicon thanks to celebrities like Tiger Woods and David Duchovny seeking treatment — the ailment remains just outside the clinical mainstream.

That may change in May, when the first new edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 13 years is released. Proposed for inclusion in what’s been called the “psychiatric bible” is hypersexuality, a long-overdue move that comes decades after Americans began seeking help for compulsive pursuit of sex or sex fantasies, said Robert Weiss, one of the nation’s top authorities on the subject.

The looming milestone of acceptance by the clinical community has thrust the term “sex addiction” back into headlines, Weiss said. But perhaps elevating the profile of the disorder more are media sensations like the ongoing Kennebunk prostitution case, he said, in which “sex addiction” is a comment-board punchline, and misunderstandings about the ailment get fueled.

It’s wrong to assume that the men implicated as johns in the case are suffering from the condition — and if they are, it doesn’t excuse the illegal behavior, Weiss and other professionals told the Bangor Daily News.

With approximately 150 men allegedly on a client list kept by 29-year-old Kennebunk fitness instructor Alexis Wright — who has been accused by police of running a prostitution business out of her Zumba studio alongside alleged business partner Mark Strong, 57, of Thomaston — Weiss said he’s not surprised that sex addiction has become a popular conversation topic in southern Maine.

But the author, columnist and founder of The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles said it’s important for those watching the case to understand what sex addiction really is, as well as what it isn’t. Weiss said many people who are truly addicted to sex may compulsively watch pornography on the Internet and never pay for sex or cheat on a spouse.

“If 150 men in that town went to see her twice a year, that’s not sex addiction,” he told the BDN. “If they’d been seeing her three times a week, having sex with other anonymous women and spending hours each day looking at pornography, that’s more like the type of person I work with.”

Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker who has written or co-written three books about sex issues and addiction, has addressed the Kennebunk case in columns that have appeared on the Huffington Post and other websites.

Without knowing the specific tendencies of the men implicated in the case, Weiss said he can’t say whether the alleged johns are suffering from what therapists call hypersexuality. But he said a group of 150 men who hire a prostitute might statistically include between 10 and 15 actual sex addicts.

On a national scene, sex addiction as an affliction took center stage when professional golfer Tiger Woods checked in to a sex addiction treatment clinic in the aftermath of his heavily covered split with then-wife Elin Nordegren more than two years ago, and earlier in 2008 when former “The X-Files” star David Duchovny announced he was seeking treatment for the ailment.

But, as with the celebrities, the alleged Kennebunk clients who might be considered by therapists to be addicted to sex should not use the condition as an excuse, Weiss said.

Similarly, he said, people who injure or kill others while driving drunk should not use alcoholism as an excuse for their crimes. If anything, Weiss said, those who know they have an addiction are obligated to take extra steps to avoid destructive behaviors.

“The wives I work with, they don’t care what he has. They just know their husband had sex with all of these women and looked at all this porn, and that he’s responsible for his behavior,” he said.

“[People battling sex addiction are] still responsible for what they did,” Weiss said. “The people we work with, they’re still responsible for their broken marriages, diseases or charges, depending on the case.”

Weiss said a common misconception about sex addiction is that it necessarily involves physical sex. He said a diagnosis for “hypersexual disorder” is focused as much or more on fantasies, urges and ritualistic behavior as actual intercourse.

“I’ll work with a man who compulsively masturbates to porn three hours a day,” Weiss said. “It takes three hours out of his life every day. … That guy may never go see a prostitute. He may never go have an affair.”

In fact, experts say part of the danger of a high-profile case like the alleged Kennebunk prostitution business — which has attracted media attention from all over the country — is that people who may legitimately exhibit sex addiction through compulsive pornography viewing, for instance, may justify their obsessions as being “not as bad” as the actions of the men charged in the case.

“[I’ll have clients who will] go to a meeting and inevitably come back and say, ‘I don’t belong there,’” Weiss said. “I’ll say, ‘What do you mean?’ and he’ll say, ‘Well, there was a guy there who got arrested for engaging a prostitute or who went to an adult bookstore. I’m not like those sleazy guys.’”

Dr. Kevin Fleming, owner and founder of Grey Matters International, a consulting firm that helps high-end executives to overcome addiction through neuroscience-based technologies, said such delusions can exacerbate an addiction.

“These extreme cases actually increase the prevalence indirectly of extreme deviant behavior, giving others reasons to say, ‘Well, I am not that … I would never do that,’ while the brain enjoys that delusion enticing that person to continue their ‘lesser evil’ in quiet, thereby growing the addiction more quietly and strongly,” Fleming told the BDN.

Both Fleming and Weiss said the emergence of the Internet, social networking and portable technology has fed a boom in potential sex addiction cases by making pornography and anonymous sexual encounters more accessible, affordable and convenient.

“It is not readily understood well in my opinion,” Fleming said. “The onslaught of virtual sex options on the brain has created a powerful neural network hardwiring that can be wonderfully private and incredibly detrimental to decision making. This perfect storm of sorts is elusive to change and has profound effects on the person’s drive, desires, and outcomes in life [and] work.”

Weiss said the lives of people suffering from hypersexual disorder are dominated by the almost involuntary search for sexual stimulation, in much the same way drug addicts or gambling addicts cannot control their impulses.

An October article published in The Atlantic describes hypersexuality as a condition which “would be uncontrollable and distressing, interfering with their normal life and leading to the possibility of self-harm.”

Weiss said he sometimes encounters people who make light of the disorder or jokingly say they’d like to become sex addicts. But sex and pornography are different for a sex addict than they are for most people, he said.

“The occasional romp is a lot of fun, and we’re all physical beings,” he said. “But sex addiction is not fun.”

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