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Is sex addiction a myth?


Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame

An acclaimed new film explores one man’s addiction to sex, but does the condition really exist asks John Meagher.

No: Says an Irish Dad: 'I suffer from it and it's terrible'

The phone call came mid-morning on Monday. Richard (not his real name) had read an article in last Saturday's Weekend Review about a middle-class Irish woman who had become an escort to pay off her debts and he wanted to get something off his chest.

He was a regular user of prostitutes, he said, but he derived no pleasure from the encounters. In fact, the more he visited brothels the greater his self-loathing became.

"I feel guilty and ashamed all the time, but I'm not able to stop myself from going to prostitutes," he said. "I feel I am addicted to sex and it is making my life a misery."

For the next hour, Richard -- a 50-year-old human resources executive from the mid-west -- spoke about how his obsession with online pornography and paid-for-sex was ruining his life.

"It consumes me," he said. "Whenever my wife and son are out of the house I spend hours and hours looking at porn online. And every single day I have to battle with myself over whether to go to a prostitute or not."

Richard's predicament is explored in an acclaimed new film, Shame, which opened yesterday.

In the movie, Kerry actor Michael Fassbender portrays a handsome New Yorker whose life has been torn asunder by an unhealthy need to have sex with as many people as possible.

The character, Brandon, has numerous one-night-stands and spends a fortune on prostitutes. His consumption of online pornography has extended to his computer at work. He masturbates copiously.

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At no point in the film does Brandon derive enjoyment from his pursuit of sex. And, in a cruel irony, on the one occasion where he beds a woman he has genuine feelings for, he is unable to perform.

It's being billed as the most unsexy sex film you're ever likely to see.

"I can say with absolute certainty that wanting sex all the time is the most miserable feeling imaginable," Richard says.

"There is no fun to be had at all. The act itself has lost any allure it once had. After I've been to a prostitute, I feel revulsion about my behaviour.

"It's not just the old Catholic guilt thing -- it's the fact that I've betrayed my wife and son yet again. And it's the worry always there in the back of my mind that I might have picked up a sexually transmitted disease."

Richard is unable to pinpoint a reason for his addiction, but he remembers the moment where he realised that, for a price, he could have sex as often as he pleased.

"I was in Germany on a work trip and I was staying near one of the legal brothels there," he says. "I'd always been curious about what it would be like to have sex with a prostitute so I bit the bullet. That was the start of the problem, which has got really bad over the past three years."

Although Richard can force himself not to pay for sex for a period of a couple of months at a time, each day he wrestles with the temptation.

"People say the country is awash with cocaine, but I wouldn't know where to even begin to find any. But if I want sex, I just go on Escort Ireland and can have numbers for several girls in Limerick, Clare or Galway in seconds. Prostitution is everywhere in Ireland."

Richard says his secret life has made him suicidal -- and he's phoned the Samaritans on several occasions.

"I just can't talk to my wife about it because she'll leave me and it's not the sort of subject I can mention to my friends. If I was addicted to gambling or alcohol, there probably would be outward signs. But there's no way of knowing about my addiction."

Richard is careful to cover his footsteps by deleting the history of his computer and erasing phone numbers and text messages on his mobile.

"I've deliberately refused to upgrade to a smartphone because then the net would be at my fingertips 24/7 and I just can't cope with the consequences of that."

Beth Fitzpatrick, of Access Counselling, Dublin, hears stories like Richard's all the time.

"People snigger. They think sex addiction is something dreamt up by celebrities to excuse sleeping around. But the reality is lots of men can have their lives turned upside down by a dependence on sex.

"I've had clients who have got into serious debt because they've spent so much money on prostitutes and those who've wreaked havoc on their careers by being up all night looking at pornography.

"Others have lost their wives and children as a result."

Sex addiction, according to Fitzpatrick, has four defining criteria. "First, the obsession with sex feels preoccupying and out of control and is pursued in spite of the harm it causes. Second, all attempts to curb it fail. Third, it has a psychological function, perhaps to anaesthetise something else that is going on in the addict's life. Fourth, sex addicts are generally miserable."

"We're not talking about happy sex here," says Eoin Stephens, a psychotherapist with the Dublin-based Addictive Behaviours Centre Ireland. "We're talking about something that leaves the victim distressed, helpless and guilty. We're talking about people on a self-destruct course."

Richard has had counselling sessions to try to help him deal with his problems, but nothing has worked so far. Treatments vary and are contentious. Abstinence is usually encouraged -- and that includes a masturbation ban -- and addicts are encouraged to dispense with computers and smartphones and any pornographic magazines they may have.

"The success rate can be good," Fitzpatrick says. "But we require clients to really work hard at coming to terms with their problem.

"If they're not serious enough about changing their ways, they will have huge problems resuming a normal life. The problem is that for some of them the fleeting pleasure is enough to override the misery they feel the rest of the time."

Yes: says a top shrink: 'It's a way of having your cake and eating it...'

Not everyone is convinced about the veracity of the term "sex addiction".

Philip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, believes "addiction" should only apply to the ingestion of psychoactive drugs -- alcohol, nicotine, cocaine.

"Let's call it obsessional," he says, "not addictive. There are naturally people who are so highly sexed that the rest of us can only gasp.

"Sex addiction is an unhelpful term because it allows people to think they are less responsible for their actions. They could have said no. It's a way of having your cake and eating it."

Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University specialising in addiction, believes "any behaviour can be potentially addictive" but is sceptical about the extent of sex addiction.

"While I'm positive that there are people out there for whom sex is the most important thing in their lives, and that genuine sex addicts with very serious problems do exist, I think we vastly exaggerate their number."

Griffiths contends that if sex addiction really was as prevalent as some believe and if it was really the problem some reckonit to be, "we'd have addiction centres and rehab clinics like we have for alcohol and drugs. There'd be one on every street corner".

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