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No sex addiction please, we're British

Are you screwed up if you screw around? asks Tessa Mayes

If you are an American concerned about your sexual behaviour, there is an industry of specialists on hand to diagnose your complaint as sex addiction. You no longer have to be a Hollywood star or president of the United States to be deemed a sex addict. Therapists now claim that thousands of Americans have had their lives destroyed by sex addiction.

But what is supposed to be the difference between a modern-day sex addict and that historical figure, the philanderer?

Sex addicts, apparently, are not just people who sleep around. According to medical experts who recognise the addiction, compulsive sexual behaviour is a disease that can take over the life of the unfortunate addict. Dr Patrick Carnes was the first to list particular sexual behaviours as an addictive disease, in his 1983 book Out of the Shadows: understanding sexual addiction. Since then the American sex addiction industry has flourished through books such as Is it Love or is it Addiction? and audiotapes like The Final Freedom: pioneering sexual addiction recovery. Sex Addicts Anonymous holds regular meetings across America for up to 5000 people. Like drugs, alcohol, smoking, chocolate, gambling, shopping, eating, cleaning or work, sex can now be described as a potentially addictive activity.

Sex addiction can no longer be dismissed as an American fad from 'over there'. Sex Addicts Anonymous came to Britain seven years ago. Ian, a founding member, says he used to get enquiries from tabloid newspapers assuming addicts were sad nymphomaniacs. 'The idea of sex addiction was treated as a joke like alcoholism was in the 1930s', he explains. 'Now people are prepared to say it is an issue.' Addiction centres such as The Priory (London), Addiction Recovery Agency Ltd (Bristol) or the PROMIS Recovery Centre (Kent) are adding sex addiction to their list of treatments. Women's magazines run earnest features about addicts who have to masturbate 20 times a day. Attendance at Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings in London, Scotland and Wales has risen from 50 people to several hundred in the past five years.

So how can you tell if you're a sex addict? Robin Lefever, director of the PROMIS Recovery Centre, says some people are born with 'addictive genes'. Other addiction specialists claim that sex abuse or 'emotional neglect' in childhood can trigger an endless search for love and sex years later.

David, a 46-year old British ex-sex addict, says that he knew he was addicted when he had to have sex even if it made him unhappy. 'I ended up having the kind of sex that I knew would eventually get me imprisoned, beaten up or killed', he says. After attending Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings David discovered he had been a sex addict since the age of four. Marnie Ferree, a 43-year old marriage and family therapist at the Woodmont Hills Counselling Centre in Tennessee, claims that her sex addiction began in childhood. 'My mother died and my father was a workaholic and absent much of the time', she explains. For years she was 'hungry for love' and kept having extramarital affairs. 'Then I was diagnosed with cervical cancer caused by a sexually transmitted disease', she recalls. 'I entered therapy for sex addiction. It was a long journey and it took me a year to stay sober and break off the affairs.'

Some people may describe themselves as 'sex addicts', but there is still some resistance to the idea among British therapists and medical practitioners. Sandra Hobbs, a member of the British Association for Counselling, refuses to use the term. 'It's another one of those Americanisms that is unhelpful to the person being treated', she says. Many medical experts pour cold water on the notion that sex can be addictive. To some psychologists, saying you are addicted to sex is like saying you are addicted to breathing: it is not an addiction to an artificial stimulant, but a natural and normal function.

For Dr Stanton Peele, an American social-clinical psychologist and author of Diseasing of America, theories which interpret sexual behaviour as a disease are 'pseudoscience'. He points out that if addicts require treatment by experts, how come millions of people deal with such problems themselves - or that randy teenagers grow out of their obsession with sex? And reinterpreting certain forms of sexual behaviour as disease raises the broader problem of self-confessed sex addicts denying responsibility for their actions. Julia Cole, a psychosexual therapist at the marriage guidance counselling service Relate, says that people will describe themselves as sex addicts in an attempt to make sense of confusing and frightening sexual experiences. 'But it gives them a reason to do it', she says. 'The covert message is "I can't help myself".'

Yet on both sides of the Atlantic the notion of 'sex addiction' is becoming more widely accepted. Promiscuity is now termed 'addictive behaviour' rather than having 'a bit of fun'. Searching for the 'perfect partner' is taken as a negative, addictive attitude. Unsatisfying sexual relationships which you could once have put down to bad luck are now explained as an addiction to bad sex. The National Council on Sex Addiction and Compulsivity in America lists compulsive masturbation, multiple affairs, the use of pornography, unsafe sex, sexual anorexia (having a problem with sexual intercourse), having multiple or anonymous partners, regular phone or cybersex, visiting escorts and even working as a prostitute as possible indicators of sex addiction.

As the distinction between sex addiction and everyday sexual behaviour becomes blurred, sex addiction looks less like a medical condition than a new way of presenting sex as a problem. Instead of putting forward a moral objection to certain forms of sexual behaviour, those indulging in unacceptable sex are condemned by medicine. Dr Glenn Wilson, psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry (University of London), says, 'Sex addiction began as a politically correct description of men behaving badly, and often they are pressurised into treatment to save their marriage'. Handily, the doctors and therapists step into the void left by priests.

Sex addiction is claimed to be a 'hidden disease' only recently recognised in Britain. But if the American story is anything to go by, the growing sex addiction industry will not simply go out and 'find' addicts. It will create the addicts by convincing men and women behaving badly that they are not really bad - just sick.

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999

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