Sex addiction: A real ailment or just men behaving badly?
If you're hooked on anything today, there will always be someone who'll call it an illness. Just ask Tiger Woods... Susan Daly reports
Published 02/02/2010 | 05:00
Once upon a time, adulterous spouses were branded 'love rats'. Now the term 'sex addict' is being used with increasing frequency to describe chronic cheaters.
But is 'sex addiction' a real disorder, or is it just an excuse used by men (and some women) who have been caught behaving badly?
Golfer Tiger Woods is the latest celebrity to check in to a sex addiction clinic - he was recently photographed outside the grounds. Woods is paying around €45,000 for six weeks of treatment. Is his stint in rehab an act of contrition or an exercise in damage limitation?
The concept of sex addiction tends to enter public consciousness only when a high-profile figure has been caught in the throes of infidelity. It carries the distinct whiff of a publicity stunt designed to save a reputation and a career.
The cynicism extends to the medical community. There is no general consensus that too much sex can be classified an addiction in the same manner as the abuse of cocaine or alcohol.
"The use of the word 'addiction' is still controversial in that context," admits Eoin Stephens, director of training for the Irish Centre for Sexual Addictions. "In the medical profession, they prefer to keep the word purely to describe addiction to substances."
The traditional view would be to bring excessive sexual activity under the umbrella of compulsive behaviour. Stephens would argue that using the word 'compulsive' brings its own problems.
"It brings obsessive compulsive disorder to mind," he says, "But the things people get compulsive about aren't intensely mood-altering. The textbook obsessive compulsive behaviours would be things like someone feeling the need to wash their hands repeatedly, or turn on and off a light a certain number of times.
"Addiction to having sex is compulsive self-rewarding -- each time it is a 'hit', a buzz. OCD I would call compulsive self-protection -- it's not rewarding, it's something the person feels they need to do to preserve the status quo."
So if it's not a form of OCD, does that necessarily imply that the desire to have excessive amounts of sex falls under the remit of an addiction?
The director of the Pine Grove clinic in Mississippi where Tiger Woods is currently trying to mend his ways is one of the strongest advocates of branding sex addiction as a definite disorder. Dr Patrick Carnes heads up a growing industry which claims that sex addiction is as real as an addiction to cocaine or alcohol -- and can be treated as such.
Carnes believes that up to six pc of the US population suffers from sex addiction. A high sex drive doesn't make you a sex addict, he says, but he does outline a range of excessive behaviours which he believes mark one out. Excessive time spent on sex that impacts negatively on your family, career and mental health is a warning bell.
Colin O'Driscoll is principal psychologist with the Forest clinic in Co Wicklow which specialises in addiction treatment. He absolutely believes that sex addiction exists, and says the last two years have seen a rise in approaches to the clinic from people who believe they are out of control. Some women have made enquiries, he says, but most of their clients have been men.
"We would classify it as a behavioural addiction," says O'Driscoll. "That means that it is not a case of being addicted to an external substance. However, it is similar to other behavioural addictions like gambling, where the person might be gambling to zone out rather than deal with bad memories or to emotionally compensate for something. They are behaviours that lend themselves to escapism."
'Some people play it down and laugh and say, 'If I was to have an addiction, that would be the one to have'. We see that people are suffering and their families are bearing drastic consequences as a result of their behaviour and that is genuine."
O'Driscoll is correct to say that there isn't much public sympathy for the sex addict. Several films and TV shows have used the sex addict as the punchline to a joke. In Blades of Glory (2007), Will Ferrell's lustful character attends a sex addicts' meeting which ends with the 'patients' hooking up in the bushes outside. Sex toys were given out as promotional gifts at the premiere of Choke (2008), a film about sex addiction.
There remains this nagging feeling that sex addiction is the affliction 'du jour'. A few years ago it became trendy to call oneself a chocaholic or shoe-aholic. In the 'because we're worth it' climate it was a badge of honour to be indulgent to the point of claiming an addiction. Similarly, the idea of too much sex evokes whispers of a guilty pleasure, of something that's a bit . . . well, naughty.
Eoin Stephens agrees that the legitimacy of the label is questioned when it's used by people to describe a habit or passion. "It can be abused," he says. "But when the reward lessens and that struggle -- 'I wish I hadn't spent all that time or money on doing that' -- increases then the addiction has taken hold."
America, whose population tends to be more outspoken and self-analytical, has been most free with the term. Z-list celebrities can be seen scrutinising their sexual patterns on the VH1 programme, Sex Rehab with Dr Drew.
We have a tougher time believing that Irish people could go down that line but, says Stephens, Ireland has spawned its own particular context which encourages sex addiction. "When you look at our history, up until 1993, Playboy was illegal here," says Stephens.
'In the space of a few years, lapdancing, telephone sex, easy access to internet pornography all mushroomed. That won't turn everybody into a sex addict but a move from low availability to high availability, and the historical repression of sexuality in this country, makes these seem all the more exciting and subject to overuse and abuse." Ireland has its own branch of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which takes referrals from treatment centres. The treatment of so-called sex addicts is modelled on the 12-step type programmes familiar to AA clients.
"Although," says Colin O'Driscoll, "abstinence is easier to promote with a substance like drugs or alcohol. You can imagine how complicated it would be for an alcoholic to be told, 'You can have one glass of whiskey a week'.
"It's much more complicated with a sex addiction because it's very like overeating -- they have to learn to engage with the process at some stage again but in a controlled way."
So while Tiger Woods might still be practising celibacy in his stay at Pine Grove, his hope will presumably to have a 'normal' sex life again.
"Do I think Tiger Woods is a good example of what I would call a sex addict?" asks Eoin Stephens. "I would be curious if this is the first time he's been caught.
"Or if he has promised to stop several times before but hasn't been able to, showing that it was definitely a case of being out of control."
As opposed to taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to a fit, famous, rich young man who finds himself frequently away from home, one presumes.