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Some question sexual addictions

Not long after Tiger Woods apologized for scoring off the golf course, his appearance at the Masters was greeted by a low flying plane dragging a sign of the times: “SEX ADDICT? YEAH. RIGHT. ME TOO!!”

Can you be addicted to what another flying sign at the Masters referred to as “BOOTYISM?”

Let’s face it: In the wake of the recent admitted philandering of Woods and Mr. Sandra Bullock (Jesse James) and their apparent treatment for sex addiction, the question of whether such a disorder exists has briefly stirred debate as vociferous as that over health care reform.

And although polls reveal that the majority of Americans think a diagnosis of sexual addiction is a crock, traditional talk therapy counseling as well as 12-step programs — both secular and religious based — continue to expand across the country, including in Las Vegas.

And here, as elsewhere, the pain of those seeking relief seems real enough, regardless of whether what ails them is an actual psychiatric condition.

Nearly 70 percent of people responding to a Medscape.com poll concluded sexual addiction isn’t a valid psychiatric diagnosis, and 63 percent of women in a Womenshealthmag.com poll believe it’s just an excuse for cheating. They don’t buy the idea that a cheater is a victim, someone suffering from a disease.

And no such diagnosis is even recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s bible.

Confused? Well, even mental health professionals contacted by the Review-Journal can’t agree on whether sex addiction exists or whether it will be recognized as an addiction in the future.

To complicate matters, shrinks who do not agree with a sexual addiction diagnosis still acknowledge that some people lose jobs and marriages because they are unable to control their sexual appetites.

“Overall, the science on the question of sexual addiction is on the thin side,” said Dr. Ole Thienhaus, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine. “Not enough research has been done.”

Thienhaus doesn’t believe sex addiction exists in the same way as drug or alcohol addiction, as a chemical dependency. But he argues that someone in the manic phase of bipolar disorder can be overly sexual, and an individual with obsessive compulsive disorder may spend hours at the computer viewing pornography.

“These people need help,” he said.

What gave birth to the idea of sex addiction was the 1983 publication of “Out of the Shadows,” a book by psychologist Patrick Carnes. He says he has treated many patients with the disorder, including at his Mississippi clinic where Woods sought treatment for a month.

Carnes suggests that because sex releases dopamine in the brain and provides a temporary high, just as many drugs do, problematic sexual behavior can be understood as being similar to a chemical dependency.

But Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York psychiatrist who has treated many patients for sexual problems, says the research showing chemical change “has not been determined.”

“Sometimes an addiction model is a way to step out of the notion of personal responsibility,” Drescher said. “By medicalizing the problem, it makes for a more sympathetic figure.”

Ron Christensen and Gary Dymek, counselors in the LifeStar network, a sex addiction recovery program that opened in Las Vegas four years ago, both reference Carnes’ work when talking about a chemical component of sex addiction. They see it as a disease that afflicts both men and women.

“We do have a few women, and the problem is essentially the same for them,” Christensen said.

“I’ve counseled men who spent $20,000 on prostitution and lost their homes or rent,” Christensen said. “Others lost their jobs because they’re looking at porn on the Internet at work. Even though they know the behavior will get them into trouble, they continue with it.”

Often, Christensen said, he must help a patient work through early childhood trauma or exposure to sexual activity.

“It may be a guy who initially thought he got lucky with an adult woman in his early teens and that caused his need for sex,” he said.

Some men, he said, will routinely watch hours of pornography to deal with boredom, rather than, say, play basketball with a friend.

Dymek said it may be more difficult for Las Vegans to fight sex addiction. “This is Sin City after all. Sex is everywhere.”

Could it be that some therapists want problematic sexual behavior classified as an addiction to ensure a steady stream of patients?

Peter Nathan, a former psychology professor at the University of Iowa, said he’s sure “for some, that’s a reason. That’s something we’re good at in America.”

At a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse on West Bonanza Road, a dozen men gathered recently for help at a 12-step program led by Harvey Foutz and Duane Halter. Such programs were started by Alcoholics Anonymous and are geared toward solving addiction, compulsion, or other behavioral problems.

“The problem with sex addiction, thanks to Lucifer, is getting greater every day,” said Foutz, who runs a program sponsored by the Mormon church.

Two men at the meeting wept about their pornography addictions.

One man confessed that he knew he had a lifelong fight ahead of him because the devil would sometimes get the best of him and force him to watch porn and masturbate. Another said he had to fight off watching a neighbor woman who disrobed in front of a window every night.

Several said the power of prayer helped them stay away from porn and become better husbands.

Foutz, who said he has overcome his own longtime porn addiction, said he is proud that Mormons are publicly fighting sex addiction. “We’ve called 2,500 missionaries across the country to fight this. We want to save families.”

Justin, a Las Vegas writer who doesn’t want his full name used because he fears it would hurt his employment, said he has been a member of the secular Sex Addicts Anonymous, which has a chapter in Las Vegas, since 2005.

He said sex addiction has caused him to contract herpes as well as another venereal disease, go through a divorce, and incur two arrests for public exposure.

In the 12-step program that calls for him to admit he has a problem, Justin said he has learned to avoid the temptations and triggers of sex.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether people think I’ve got an addictive disease or it’s something else. I just need help.”

Contact reporter Paul Harasim
at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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