Sex addiction: Is it real?

| Scene Sex Columnist

With the recent publicity surrounding Tiger Woods’ alleged sex addiction and the impending release of the 5th Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) and its major reorganization of the sexual dysfunctions category, the debate about the existence of sexual addiction as a diagnosable mental disorder rages on. Although the American Psychological Association did not recognize sexual addiction in its publication of the DSM-IV-TR in 2000, reality show titles like “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew” keep the possible disorder alive in the media, at the very least.

Tiger Woods supposedly receives treatment for his “sexual addiction” at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Mississippi (according to the Huffington Post); similarly, Californication’s David Duchovny successfully completed his own sexual addiction treatment in October of 2008. With so many similar stories popping up in Hollywood, the upcoming DSM-V is purported to include “hypersexual disorder” to address Woods’ and Duchovny’s psychological ailments, as well as the claims of many others.

“Hypersexual disorder,” a term already accepted by the psychology community, attempts to define sexual addiction outside previous definitions, which relied on sexual predation, nymphomania, sexual dependency and sexual compulsivity. Hypersexual disorder, in tune with the definition that comes from the sexual addiction therapist from “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew,” Jill Vermeire, will instead look at elevated sexual desire of enough significance to contribute to personal problems, daily distress and even health issues. Like Victor Mancini in “Choke,” someone experiencing clinically valid hypersexuality finds him or herself unable to stop seeking out sexual gratification, even—and often—when social, personal, economic and physical risks are at stake.

But the consequences remain vague, keeping hypersexuality out of the category of various other clinical addictions (alcohol, drugs, kleptomania, gambling, etc). While many, like Dr. Drew, treat those affected by hypersexuality in a similar fashion to those addicted to drugs (banning masturbation, taking away phones that could engage a patient in illicit sexual conversations, etc.), the DSM-V will continue the academic tradition of separating hypersexuality from substance dependencies. Although hypersexuality does not involve known physical withdrawal symptoms mirroring those of substance dependencies, Vermeire and others point out its “emotional” withdrawal effects. While hypersexuality can be compared to our societal convictions defining “addiction,” it remains on its own as a disorder accompanied by its own struggles and recovery plans.

But under the label of hypersexuality, it seems sexual addiction does in fact exist. Whether or not Tiger Woods paints a relevant picture of sexual addiction, however, remains unclear. A line must separate being exceptionally desirous of sexual contact, and even seeking it, from being unable to control desirous thoughts, feelings and actions in a sexual capacity in a way that shapes and even transforms one’s life. Diagnoses of either sexual addiction or hypersexuality will continue to remain controversial, but as the problem grows, perhaps its empirical backing and our understanding of its nature and trajectory will be more clearly shaped.

Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), formed in 1997, is one working organization pushing to adapt to this expanding affliction. Helping hypersexually afflicted individuals to achieve and remain “sexually sobriety,” the program, inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12 steps, has doubled in the last six years, according to the Detroit Free Press. SA’s 15 locations and booming membership show how sexual addiction and hypersexuality are significant emerging problems.