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New Cure Programs Are Popping Up, But Should Sex Be Considered an Addiction?

With four competing 12-step programs and numerous new treatments, sexaholics have more options than ever.

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After several years in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Jennifer,” now a 74-year-old Tampa Bay–area resident, realized she had a problem with sex, too. “I’d been doing the same things in the rooms of AA that I’d been doing in bars: picking people up and having a lot of casual sex partners,” she recalls. Coming to the self-diagnosis that this behavior was proof positive of her sex addiction, Jennifer started going to meetings of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) two years after the pioneering group launched in 1976. There she quickly grabbed some tools—literally—to distract her mind from sexual thoughts. Building things and doing fix-it projects around the house have served her well ever since, allowing her mind to “go into idle.”

Fantasies are a tricky negotiation for recovering sex addicts (or people suffering from “hypersexuality”—the revised DSM, due out next year, reportedly will deny this problem the addiction label). Whereas a drunk can’t quite “think up” an alcoholic slip, euphoric erotic recall is rote for sex-obsessives the world over.

The addiction-or-not argument may remain unresolved, but treatment for sexual obsessions and compulsions has made impressive strides over the past three decades. Standard treatment for sex addiction these days is membership in a 12-Step program plus cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a systematic, short-term, goal-setting approach to the talking cure. In the 1980s, frustrated with the failures of the “just-stop-what-you’re-doing” method of fighting hypersexuality, Mississippi-based sex-addiction pioneer Patrick Carnes, PhD, developed a task-oriented CBT (the “Thirty Task Model”) that has inspired numerous treatment programs. Carnes is the eexecutive director of the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Center in Hattiesburg, where golfer Tiger Woods and other celebrity sexaholics have spent time.

As the thinking goes, Jennifer had to challenge her own patterns and routines before starting to figure out how she ended up trolling bars after an uneventful childhood as the daughter of non-alcoholic parents and the sister of three Eagle Scouts.

Unlike traditional psychotherapists, who tend to focus on family issues and early development, CBT therapists ask sex addicts to own up to their behavior and their beliefs about themselves; patients even get homework. Alex Katehakis, MFT, clinical director of the Center for Healthy Sex in Los Angeles, gets patients to list everything they do that is “secret, shaming or abusive.”

And then there’s the all-important spring cleaning—the sex equivalent of “getting all the booze out of the house,” says counselor Jeff Schultz, LPC. This is a lot harder in the digital age than it used to be. Chucking flesh magazines and DVDs is one thing, but people need computers and the Internet—where more than 12% of all websites are pornographic—for work and for keeping in touch with family and friends, so cutting the broadband cord is rarely practical.

One option is to set up web-browsing filters or even “accountability software,” which tracks computer activity and shares it with an “accountability partner,” or if sexting is a problem, canceling the text part of your cell-service package.

But that doesn’t touch some of the biggest temptations. “Smartphone apps are crack for sex addicts,” says Robert Weiss, LCSW, founding director of LA’s Sexual Recovery Institute. GPS-based dating services such as Grindr for gays and Blendr for straights make it incredibly easy to find people willing to hook up. And now there’s Siri, the iPhone 4S’s “humble personal assistant.” In the past, if you wanted to find a prostitute, you had to get dressed, get in your car and risk getting arrested. Now all you have to do is ask, “Siri, where are the escorts?” And she will tell you.

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