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Addicted to Sex
WebMD FeatureReviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD, MDJim (not his real name) couldn't understand why anyone would want to be monogamous. As a 47-year-old divorcé who worked as a part-time bartender, he had sex with as many women and men as he pleased.
Then he fell in love with a young mother of two who was separated from her husband. She liked to party, and he was always jealous of anyone who came near her. He constantly kept tabs on where she was and who she was with. But no matter how much she consumed his thoughts, inside he felt empty. That's when he realized something was really wrong in his life.
At the urging of a therapist who was treating him for depression, Jim went to a meeting of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. "I thought I was going to walk in and see dirty old men with raincoats," he says. What he found, however, was an understanding community of people with similar troubles -- a diverse group "made up of priests, carpenters, 70-year-old men, 50-year-old women, housewives, career professionals, gays, straights, blacks, and whites."
Modeled after the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, the organization currently hosts about 1,200 meetings around the world. Now in its 25th year, the group is one of a handful of nonprofit organizations dedicated to helping members recover from sex and love addiction.
"I've become a person," Jim says after years of membership in the program. "Before, I was always hiding, keeping secrets. Now I can be open and vulnerable."
A Brain Problem?
"Lust is an ancient problem," says a source who wishes to remain anonymous at another recovery group, Sexaholics Anonymous. She notes that sometimes children of broken families, who live in environments that feature molestation or affairs, may grow into adults who can't distinguish between what's acceptable and what's not. The problem can be made worse by the many sexual images in today's media.
The theories on why people self-destruct using sex and love run the gamut.
"People do it a lot of times to escape," says Jim.
Jim acted out his addiction by having multiple sex partners, and, ultimately, obsessing over a woman who was emotionally unavailable to him. Others derail their lives by frequently masturbating (sometimes as much as four or five times a day), having inappropriate fantasies or extramarital affairs, continually logging onto pornographic web sites on the Internet, or hurting themselves sexually with various objects.
Peter R. Martin, MD, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the Vanderbilt Addiction Center in Nashville, Tenn., says the root causes of problems related to sex aren't known, just as there are still questions about how people become addicted to drugs.
He says scientists are starting to believe it has something to do with how the brain processes our drives and that there may sometimes be problems with the "reward centers" of a person's brain.
It's unclear how sexual addictions fit within the realm of mental illnesses, says Martin. Because of this, he prefers to call the disorder "problematic hypersexuality" rather than "sex addiction."
It's interesting, he adds, that a lot of problems in which the brain is obsessed with one activity -- whether it's sex, drugs, or alcohol -- tend to occur together.
Scientists are now studying medications that could possibly treat addiction to love and sex. In the meantime, doctors like Martin use psychotherapy and techniques used for treating other addictions to help people who have life-disrupting sexual thoughts and actions. This may involve prescribing drugs for problems that go along with it, like depression or anxiety.
Twelve-step programs use meetings and the sharing of stories to provide comfort for the troubled. The idea is that there are other people who are trying to deal with the same problems.
Jim says his salvation came through being in the company of people whose lives had also spun out of control.
Do You Need Help?
On its web site, the group Sexual Compulsives Anonymous lists some characteristics most of its members have in common:
They use compulsive sex as a drug, to escape from feelings like anxiety, loneliness, anger, and self-hatred, as well as joy.
They become immobilized by romantic obsessions. Becoming addicted to the search for sex and love makes them neglect their lives.
They try to bring intensity and excitement into their lives through sex, but feel themselves growing steadily emptier.
Even when they get the love of another person, it never seems enough, and they're unable to stop lusting after others.
They try to conceal their dependency demands, growing more isolated from themselves, from God, and from the very people they long to be close to.
For those still unsure of whether they have a problem with sex and love addiction, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous has drawn up 40 questions for self-diagnosis, including:
Where to Turn
The following organizations are resources for people who have addictions to sex and love:
American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP)
Codependents of Sexual Addiction (COSA) 763.537.6904)
Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA) 800.477.8191
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) 615.331.6230
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) 781.255.8825
Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) 800.977.HEAL
Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA) 212.340.4650