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What If You Can't Stop Having Sex, Even If You Really, Really Want To?

$150,000 on phone sex? 14 hours looking at porn without eating or drinking? Sex addiction is easy to mock, but the compulsive behaviors associated with it truly hurt sufferers.

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“When I’ve told people, they think it’s funny, not true, or that I’m a pervert,” Dean said. “The biggest thing that hurts as a person is that (sex addiction) is so misunderstood.”

To underscore the reality of his situation, Dean points out to the addictive patterns that played out in his life—twelve to fourteen hours of looking at pornography at a time, he said, and extended phone sex binges. One of his phone sex binges lasted 36 hours, in which Dean neither ate nor slept, and which cost him $2000. In all, Dean estimates that he spent more than $150,000 on phone sex over the course of his addiction.

The addictive pattern, Dean said, was a way to escape feelings of low self worth and loneliness. These deep feelings had roots in both his parents and his grandfather being alcoholics; his brother has a gambling problem. Dean said that he was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused as a child. His steep investment in his therapy—he has been through many intensive programs and has been in a weekly program for more than two years, most of which is not covered by his health insurance—is in part an effort to ensure that his own child is not affected by his addiction.

Elle can attest to the pain that sexual addiction can cause a family. The Canadian mother, who asked that her real name not be used, never heard of sex addiction until her husband confessed to her that he was seeking recovery from it.

“I was floored. (Sex addiction) …   what the hell was that?” Elle said. “I worried that it meant he was a pervert. The very next morning (after he told me about it), we had a conference call with his counselor who helps set up treatment programs for sex addiction. Thankfully he laid out the facts, assured me it was treatable, explained to me that my husband was doing very well and desperately wanted to put his past behind him.”

That past involved betrayal that Elle said nearly destroyed her. What she initially thought was one affair turned out to be a pattern of secrecy that was difficult for her to accept.

“I had a very hard time with it. Felt very, very lonely. Felt duped. Ripped off,” Elle said. “My perfect world wasn’t so perfect after all.”

Elle and her husband didn’t discuss the details of the sex addiction with their young kids, but Elle said that the process of recovery has made it possible for her husband to reconnect with his whole family by spending more time together; his addiction had led him to detach from the family. Recovery, she said, “involves a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reparations, total disclosure, total transparency.”

There remains, however, a strong segment of the population that believes that sex addiction is merely a manufactured phenomenon. John Wilder is one of them. A retired Baptist minister from Newcastle, Indiana who serves as a marriage and relationship coach, Wilder contends that sex addiction is so much “pop psychology.” A true addiction is distinguished by a chemical dependence, resulting in painful physical withdrawal, he argues. While many people have obsessive-compulsive patterns of sexuality, often out of a need to be soothed, Wilder said, it is misleading to call it an addiction.

“There’s simply no physical (withdrawal) component with so-called sex addiction,” Wilder said.

In the most recent version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), published in 2000, “sex addiction” is not listed as a diagnosis.

 
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