Sex addiction about ‘chasing the empty highs’
Most wives and girlfriends are absolutely shocked and blame themselves when a spouse is revealed to be a sex addict, local therapists say.
BY JO CIAVAGLIA
To some people sex addiction sounds like the perfect excuse for a bad habit. After all, who doesn’t desire physical affection? Well, sex addicts, for one, local therapists say. Like people who can’t stop gambling, eating or drinking, people who seek serial, often risky sexual behaviors often don’t much enjoy the conquests.
“They’re usually much more wounded people than we think they are,” said Dr. Kenneth Maguire, a Middletown psychologist with Council for Relationships, a Philadelphia relationship counseling center.
Sex addicts crave emotional intimacy, but they never learned how to make those connections on a non−physical level, so they equate sex for love, what Maguire calls “chasing the empty highs.” A conservative estimate is that one in every 20 people in the U.S. meets the criteria for sexual addiction and compulsivity, according to the Georgia−based Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health.
Statistically, men − such as pro−golfer Tiger Woods, who reentered a center for sex addiction treatment Monday −struggle more, but therapists point out that men are more likely to get caught and seek therapy. Others point out that female prostitutes may be sex addicts. Some therapists describe sex addiction as an intimacy disorder typically resulting from childhood experiences including abandonment, lack of attention, affection or abuse, patterns also commonly seen in addictive personalities.
“People initially can think it’s an excuse for bad behavior. Really, it is behavior that has gotten out of controlthat is being kept a secret that is going to have serious negative consequences if they don’t stop,” said Robin Cato, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health. The Internet has given sex addicts 24−hour access to pornography, online chat rooms and networking sites where they can easily pursue their behavior and validate it, Cato said.
For sex addicts, their pursuits are initially pleasure−motivated, but it quickly elevates to the person spending most of their waking hours thinking, planning and engaging in sexual activity to the point where it interferes with normal daily life, therapists say.
At that point, the person is deriving more emotional pleasure in the pursuit of sex, rather than the act itself. The behavior is a way for the person to mask emotional pain, relief stress and exercise control, experts say.“They’re using sex to self−medicate, deflect and defer intimacy,” Cato said.
COMPULSION OR ADDICTION
Sex addiction is often talked about in whispers or punch lines, but even within the psychotherapy community there is controversy over whether hypersexual behavior is a legitimate addiction.
The source of the disagreement is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered the bible of psychiatry, whose latest edition doesn’t include a specific description of non−deviant sexual “addiction.” It does allow the condition to be classified as Sexual Disorder Not Otherwise Specified with Addictive Features.
There is also disagreement over whether the behavior is compulsive or addiction, said Karen Brash McGreer, a Medford certified sex therapist. Addiction describes dependence on a particular substance or behavior to cope with life regardless of negative consequences. Compulsion described the intense urge to do something and it’s considered a small, but important, part of the addictive process, experts say.
Brash McGreer sees hypersexual activity as a compulsive behavior bolstered by a lack of moral and ethical development. Untreated depression also could manifest as sexual compulsion. “One of the ways people justify immoral behavior is what Tiger has done − that he had felt sort of an entitlement, that he worked hard all his life,” Brash McGreer said.
Kevin Medican, a New Hope therapist specializing in sexual addiction, argues that the DSM manual reflects insurance purposes more than clinical realities. He and other behavior professionals believe sex addiction is a complex illness with elements of obsessive−compulsive, impulse control and personality disorders, therapists say.
Emerging research also suggests people in recovery often substitute one addiction for another, Medican added. Some therapists believe sexual addiction will be included in the upcoming revision of the manual.
How the public perceives the partners of sex addicts is also unfairly distorted, therapists said. Often they are blamed as either complacent or nave, but it’s frequently the wives or girlfriends of addicts who are the first to seek professional help for their partner, therapists said.
Michele Saffier, who treats sex addicts in her Newtown practice, says in her professional experience, most wives are absolutely shocked when they learn about a husband’s secret sex life. They feel guilt and shame for not seeing it sooner.
“What is so devastating for them, they held a belief and he is working hard for the family. They carry all the chores and family duties and then they find out he was having sex at lunch and he has women in every city,” she said. “Every memory they had in their adult life is under review.”
Like other addicts, sex addicts are typically the last ones to admit they have a problem. They’re skilled at hiding their behavior and frequently live what therapists call “compartmentalized lives,” where they maintain family, work, and other outside lives that are separate, rather than interconnected.
Sex addicts also frequently rationalize to maintain self−denial and justify their behavior, creating what Saffier calls a sense of “destructive entitlement.”
Medford therapist Brash McGreer believes untreated depression could manifest itself as sexual compulsion since sex is still a socially sanctioned behavior, especially among men.
Treatment for sexual addiction is similar to other addictions, therapists said. The first step is the stop the behavior, typically using a combination of cognitive therapy, 12−step meetings, coping mechanisms, and group therapy where addicts learn how to develop trusting relationships. Later intensive psychotherapy focuses on childhood experiences and understanding behavior triggers. When in recovery, many addicts are horrified at their past behavior and filled with self−hatred and shame. “When they come to grips with these things, they can’t believe how they acted,” Saffier said.