The concept of sex addiction came from sex addicts. It was never imposed on them by clinicians– far from it. If you read the first of the personal stories in the Sex Addicts Anonymous “Big Book,” which includes an account of how SAA was founded 36 years ago this is clear. At that time people with compulsive forms of sexual behavior were receiving other forms of psychiatric treatment that were mostly doomed to failure; treatments like aversive conditioning or psychoanalysis. The groundbreaking work of Dr. Patrick Carnes and others created SAA as a way to treat sexual addiction in order to help themselves and ultimately to help others.
Listening to addicts, lots of them
And people have been steadily joining the ranks of self-identified sex addicts. Today SAA has 1,176 groups (regular weekly meetings) in the U.S., that are registered with the International Service Organization (ISO) of SAA. In addition there are 62 in Canada, 51 in the U.K., 31 in Central and South America and 48 in other locations including South Africa. There are 101 different registered telephone meetings and other electronic meetings.
These statistics are as of last October and the ISO informs me that the number of meetings has grown steadily by 10% per year in recent years. That’s a lot of people in SAA alone. And there are currently four additional 12-step self-help programs for sex addicts all modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous:
Sexaholics Anonymous (SA)
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) and
Sexual Recovery Anonymous
Even this does not represent the whole picture. Nowadays many sex addicts can get appropriate treatment with therapists who specialize in working with sex addiction. And of course there are many people struggling with sex addiction who are not getting any help at all, often because they don’t understand the nature of their problem, or because the psychiatric establishment has yet to educate the mass of clinicians as to the diagnostic issues.
The current wave of sex addiction denial
Today there is a rash of sex addiction denialism or misinformation fueled by some flimsy studies that have been easily discredited and gaining followers among those who feel judged or pushed around by the idea that someone might call them (or anyone) a sex addict. But in fact clinicians don’t go around looking for sex addicts or labeling people just because they exhibit certain behavior. People need to be evaluated on a case by case basis. This is partly because compulsive sexual behaviors can be a symptom of at least half a dozen other psychiatric disorders that don’t have anything to do with addiction.
But the “evidence” that porn and sex addicts are not exactly like drug addicts in this one experimental response in this or that isolated experiment is really largely irrelevant to the experience of thousands of sex addicts over decades. In the attempt to save patients from being mislabeled by clinicians, the deniers have ended up undercutting the recovery efforts of bona fide sex addicts. “Sorry, what you have may not be a “real” addiction; so maybe you don’t really need any help!”
The plural of “anecdote” is “data”
Most people and clinicians generally agree that sex is a good thing. People tend to show up for treatment when they, or someone who knows them, notice that their sexual behavior is way out of control and is causing a lot of problems. Some people have had their lives taken over by pornography, some have lost a job due to sexual behavior, others have been arrested more than once for indecent exposure, and some simply spend hundreds of thousands of dollars they can’t afford on prostitutes.
But whatever brings them into the office or the 12-step meeting, they still need to be helped to figure out if in fact they are a sex addict. This can be done by pointing them in the direction of the literature on the subject, by talking to other people with the same problems, and by well validated tests.
I have listened to numerous patients of mine, read hundreds of emails and blog comments and listening to sex addicts talk at hundreds of SAA meetings over the years. Many addicts are unsure to begin with about whether they really have an addiction. But for many there comes a point when the addict realizes that they simply have no control over this or that behavior. I have heard over and over again: “This is an addiction!” ” I can’t stop even though I desperately want to!” and ” I’m ashamed of what I do because it’s not who I am, yet I do it anyway!”
Other addicts will occasionally waver in their grasp on the addictive nature of the problem. This is not at all unusual. “So am I really an addict?” “So-and-so is so much worse than I am!” But of their own accord or because of many unsuccessful attempts to quit, they come back around to the need to approach the behavior as though it were on a par with alcoholism or drug abuse. Many will tell you that it is more addictive even than these.