When you think addiction, you think heroin, barbiturates, cocaine, and cigarettes. You think physical withdrawal, cold turkey, the need often for hospitalization. Your notion of addiction may extend to prescription drugs or gambling, but sex? That seems ridiculous. What does it mean to be a sex addict?
Mostly, you will hear that it is a lifelong label in the same vein as the label alcoholic. In other words, even if he no longer actively practices the addiction, he is forever vulnerable to it as an alcoholic is vulnerable to alcohol.
You may even hear the term “allergy” with respect to alcohol, and some sex addicts will render their own addiction in the same vein, though it is a very imperfect analogy. No matter how much they may wish to believe they have a physiological response to sex, they are not allergic to sex. A better analogy might be to someone who is addicted to chocolate, so that even though they weigh four–hundred pounds and have been warned they might die from one more fondue, they eat it anyway. Addiction? Possibly. But not an allergy.
Our notions of what an addict looks like, sounds like, and acts like, turns out to be quite important in determining our response to our addict husbands, at least initially. We all have preconceptions.
I heard a talk in which one of America’s most famous spiritual thinkers, Ram Dass, describes the first time he went to the city of Benaris in India. Banaris is known as the City of the Dead, and people come to it from all over the country to die. All around the place Ram Dass saw people dressed in rags and with no skin on their bones. He saw them with ulcerating sores, terrible cancers, carrying their begging bowls. Onto their robes they would tie a little pouch in which they kept the coins necessary to purchase firewood for their funeral pyres. They had enough money for their funerals but no more.
It was too much for him. He was Ram Dass, a spiritual giant in the making, a man who whose name for many in America would become synonymous with the word “enlightenment.” But he was also Richard Alpert, a Jewish boy from Boston, the son of a lawyer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, with his American passport and his traveller’s checks all in order. The dying people of Benaris terrified him. He went back to his hotel and hid. He didn’t want to see their faces. He didn’t want to confront their suffering.
You might ask what exactly he thought the dying ought to look like, if not wretched? You might think the term “City of the Dead” might clue in a Harvard professor about what kind of experience he would have there. Nonetheless, this highly gifted man went to city of the dead to do good for people but got overwhelmed when he saw what the dying really looked like. The reality of the situation was too great at first. It took him some time to adjust.
I remembered Ram Dass’s story about Benaris when I was thinking about my own response to my husband’s addiction. If someone had asked me at any time in my life how I might respond to an addict, I’d have probably said, With compassion. With understanding. After all, something drove them to that addiction. I’d be kind. However, when I was faced with a real addict I wasn’t particularly kind. I didn’t believe it. I thought he was just being weak and irresponsible. I thought sex addiction was an invention because it did not fit within my mental image of an addict.
Furthermore, I believed that addiction required a substance that an addict inhaled or drank or ate or injected. How could you be an addict if you didn’t have syringes, or powders or crystals or pills? Not only did sex not match my idea of what an addict “uses” but I had in my mind a physical image of what an addict looked like. In my mind, the addict was a skinny kid in ragged clothes with needle marks up and down his arms, unable to work or occupy himself in any useful manner. He was not my husband in his suit and tie.
If he was an addict, I reasoned, maybe it was possible that with help he could deal with his “problem” and get over it. If he wasn’t an addict, what was he exactly? A psychopath or just the world’s worst husband?
During the time I was wrestling with this question there was little to support sex addiction as a “true” addiction. I was suspicious that those who used the term did so for their own gain. Celebrities played the addiction card it so they could hide away in rehab and gain public sympathy instead of public hate, I reasoned. Psychologists used it so they could make a living treating the addiction.
Maybe my husband was using the label “sex addiction” as a means of manipulating my response to his actions. By classifying his behaviour as an addiction, he could adopt a disease model that made his situation not only more acceptable to himself, but also to me. If he was an addict instead of an asshole, I might remain with him in hope that he could “beat” his addiction. For this is what he feared most of all: that I would leave him.
I’ve heard it said that a sex addict tends to two fires: his addiction and his wife. There may be some truth in that. While your husband is busy trying to get you to accept the situation and find a way of living with him, he is also trying to find a way of living with himself. If he thinks of himself as a person suffering an addiction, then he can develop a little compassion for himself. In simple terms, he is not a “bad person” who has treated his wife or partner (who he loves) in an appalling manner, but a “sick person.” After all, sex is a pleasurable event and he had sex with hundreds of women while his wife ironed his shirts, or looked after the kids, or went to work. It would be difficult to have sympathy for him if he did it purely for pleasure and with no underlying pathology driving him.
But what is the evidence? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a volume considered to be a kind of Bible of the American Psychiatric Association, does not include sex addiction in its pages. The American Psychiatric Association claims there is a “lack of evidence” to support sex addiction as a real addiction. Does that mean that sex addiction as a disease does not exist?
Dr. Robert Weiss, a psychotherapist who writes for such publications as Psychology Today, Counselor Magazine, and Huffington Post, is an expert on intimacy disorders and sex addiction. He explains in an excellent lecture available on youtube under the title, Diagnosis and Treatment of Sexual Addiction in A Digital Age, exactly why sex addiction is not in the DSM. In summary, the current DSM does not use the term “addiction” anywhere for any addiction, not even drug addiction. So, the absence of sex addiction in the most recent DSM is hardly surprising, nor would it be reason to dismiss the validity of sex addiction as a disease.
I’ve learned from Dr. Weiss and from work by his colleague, the internationally respected psychologist Dr. Patrick Carnes, that previous editions of the DSM had listed sex addiction as a diagnosis under the term Sexual Disorders, Not Otherwise Specified. The DSM then dropped the term in the early 1990s. This was especially confounding because the internet was taking off at that time and the numbers of people accessing pornography and cybersex was growing astronomically, resulting in a great rise of sex addiction.
However, Weiss argues that the concern with making sex addiction a legitimate diagnosis, even under the umbrella of the term, Hypersexual Disorder, was that people with sex offense charges could use sex addiction as an excuse.
This is exactly what happened in the case of Ariel Castro, the man who kidnapped and falsely imprisoned three women in his Ohio home between 2002 and 2013. He kidnapped women, imprisoned them, used them for sex, then tried to get reduced charges by claiming he was a sex addict. “I don’t know if Castro was a sex addict or not,” says Dr. Weiss in his lecture, “but that’s not addictive behaviour, that’s predatory offending.”
Every time we hear someone who is not a sex addict use the term as an explanation for their wrong behaviour, it makes us distrust the term. But disingenuous claims of sex addiction do not make the condition unreal. It just means that people are opportunistic when it comes to their own legal defence—and this is nothing new.
Aside from the problems of using the term sex addiction as a defence in court, Weiss also claims there is no political will among the American Psychiatric Association to agree that consensual sex between adults can ever be pathological. So, if your husband is having sex with a prostitute and if both he and she are consenting adults, it won’t matter if she is the fifth hooker he’s had sex with that day or the five hundredth, the APA will not agree that this behaviour indicates he has an addictive disorder, and certainly not sex addiction.
There is plenty of verifiable evidence that sex addiction is real. Dr. Stefanie Carnes, who at this writing serves as President of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals and as a National Clinical Consultant for Elements Behavioral Health writes, “…neuroscientists all over the globe are studying the actions and brain responses of sex addicts, comparing those reactions and responses to what occurs with other addicts (usually substance abusers). And the results are indisputable: Sex addiction manifests in the brain in much the same way as any other addiction – the only real difference being the substance/behavior of choice.”
In February 2016, former football star and actor, Terry Crews, released a series of videos about his own porn addiction entitled Dirty Little Secrets. Millions of viewers have now heard his frank account of the days and nights he lost to an addiction to pornography, the pain and destruction it caused to his marriage and family, and his inability to stop the addiction without help. This was not a man who got “caught” and had to account for his behaviour, but a courageous man who wished to tell the world about the reality and dangers of sex addiction. You can find his series of videos on Youtube and Facebook.
I have a story I tell people to help them understand why I always believed there was something more to my husband’s behaviour than sheer selfishness and disregard. Let’s say that we are not talking about sex but cake. You made a cake for someone’s birthday and you came into the kitchen to discover your husband had eaten a slice of it before the party had even started. That would be selfish behaviour on his part and you’d be angry at him because he ruined the cake for the person whose birthday it was.
By contrast, let’s say that you came into the kitchen and discovered that your husband hadn’t eaten a piece of the cake but the entire cake, one so large it would serve thirty people. And let’s say, too, that even though he’s finished the cake, he is now eating every one of the sandwiches and salads you made for the party. Suddenly, your attention is not on the cake or the birthday party, but on your husband. What is the matter with him? No normal person eats that much and looks for more. It is clear to you there is something terribly wrong with him that far outweighs the gravity of a spoiled birthday party.
When I found out about my husband’s affair, it was like the piece of cake. When I found out about everything else involved with his addiction it was like the entire cake, and all the food for the party plus all the food in the refrigerator. He was out of control and he was sick–that much was obvious.
There is a whole list of useful books and websites to investigate if you want to satisfy yourself on whether or not sex addiction is a real addiction, and I will list a few of the ones I’ve found useful in the Resources section of this website once I’ve built that page. Thank God information is available now as it was not always. Educating myself on sex addiction has been very important to me, and would have been even if I had not remained married to my husband. I want to know what happened in my life. I want to understand how it all went so wrong (and then right).
These days, I read books, go to Sex Addiction Anonymous “recovery days,” listen to men who once practiced addiction on a daily basis talk about their return to sanity. I pay attention to their stories, familiarize myself with the literature, find out what the science is on the brain’s response to pornography. It isn’t that I need convincing anymore—I do not—but in understanding what has happened to the addicts, I feel compassion toward them. And compassion feels so much better than resentment.
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