So, are you a sex addict?

So, are you a sex addict?


Lots of people turn to sex for comfort

A lot of people tend to think sex addiction doesn’t  exist. That’s not just ordinary people, those of us who only ever really get to hear about the issue when celebrities such as Tiger Woods or Russell Brand check into an exclusive clinic and who therefore can’t help wondering, when the news miraculously finds its way into the media, how much this is about a genuine problem, and how much about a bit of well-timed and cleverly crafted PR.

It’s also something a lot of experts in the addiction field tend to think. Too much sex, they say, whether physical or virtual, just doesn’t cut it as an addiction. The most radical believe the word “addiction” is merely a label to describe behaviour that does not correspond to society’s norms. Some argue that to refer to the phenomenon as an addiction undermines an individual's responsibility for their behaviour. Still others reckon it is a myth, a byproduct of cultural and other influences.

Flourishing industry

None of which, of course, has stopped the emergence of a flourishing industry to treat the disorder (if disorder it is). Dr Patrick Carnes, the leading figure in the field and author of half a dozen books on the subject, including the seminal Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, runs the Gentle Path sexual addiction programme at the Pine Grove Behavioural Centre in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where the world’s wealthiest sportsman, Tiger Woods, is reportedly spending six weeks (and £40,000) in a bid to save his marriage and his endorsements, after revelations that he may have had affairs with as many as a dozen women.

So are you a sex addict? The warning signs, according to Carnes, include: feeling that your behaviour is out of control; knowing there may be severe consequences if you continue; wanting and trying to stop what you're doing but feeling unable to, despite knowing the consequences; needing more and more sex to get the same high; spending an increasing amount of time planning, engaging in and recovering from sex; and neglecting other important areas of your life in favour of sex.

Paula Hall mostly agrees. A British sexual psychotherapist, she treats up to 70 people for sex addiction every year (almost exclusively heterosexual men; there is precious little data on women with sex addiction, nor on gay people). “The first thing to realise about sex addiction,” she says, “is that it’s not about having a high sex drive, nor about any particular kind of sexual activity. It’s your relationship with sex that’s the issue: if you use it consistently as a way of altering your mood, if it becomes the primary coping mechanism for the difficulties you’re experiencing in your life. Of course, none of it may matter if you’re not breaking the law, or not risking your health. Lots and lots of people turn to sex for comfort. What matters is if it's the only source of comfort you have, and if it has damaging consequences.”

Tina Grigoriou, a chartered counselling psychologist who regularly deals with sex-addiction cases, concurs that such behaviour is generally “a manifestation of people not having the psychological resources to deal with their lives.” And the best way to treat it, she believes, is with a classic anti-addiction programme much like that originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Some professionals, though, are sceptical about the supposed extent of sex “addiction”. Professor Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University specialising in behavioural addiction, says he is sure “any behaviour can be potentially addictive” in the sense that “it becomes the most important thing in people’s lives; people compromise their relationships, their jobs, their families because of it; people use it for a high, and to obtain relief.” We become addicted to such behaviours, he says, “for constant reward- physiological, psychological, social and financial.”

The vast majority of people who check themselves into sex addiction clinics , believes Griffiths, simply “using the term “addiction” to justify their behaviour. Psychologists call it functional attribution.”

And in the case of high-profile celebrities who are allegedly addicted to sex, "they were simply in a position where they were probably bombarded with advances, and they succumbed. But how many people wouldn't do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you're discovered, when it's in danger of harming your brand image. Look, I probably had way too much sex when I was a student. But it didn't cause any problems with the rest of my life. I don’t know anything much about Tiger Woods, but if he hadn’t been caught, I doubt he would see himself as a “sex addict”.

And there wouldn’t, presumably, be a clinic prepared to take £40,000 off him in exchange for a cure.

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