There's something about sex addiction that not only raises eyebrows but also furrows them. "Oh, c'mon," people tend to say about a supposed sex addict. "Can't he just control himself?"
The recently released movie "Thanks for Sharing" frames the subject accordingly. When Gwyneth Paltrow's character learns her beau, played by Mark Ruffalo, is a recovering sex addict, she voices the predictable doubt and bewilderment: "Isn't that something that guys just say when they get caught cheating?"
Judging by the characters portrayed in this film, no.
Addiction is the failure to rein in behavior that threatens someone's life and everything dear to it. "Thanks for Sharing" depicts just that through the experiences of four addicts, who endure heartbreak, turmoil and trauma as they coax each other on the bumpy path toward sobriety. One character struggles to transition from an ascetic, sex-free recovery to one that includes a relationship. Another, court-ordered to attend a recovery program, soothes himself in cycles of porn watching and binge eating, and ultimately loses his dream job as a physician after getting caught trying to record a video beneath his boss' skirt.
The film gets it right, and also reflects what sex addiction is really about – "an underlying intimacy disorder," says Robert Weiss, founder of The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. The characters display "the struggles [sex addicts] have around plain old intimacy, being vulnerable, being real, telling the truth," he says, adding that "people that have these kinds of issues don't just struggle in one way. They struggle in multiple ways."
While there may be more talk of sex addiction these days – with the term bandied about amid the slew of sex scandals that have riveted national media – sex addiction remains deeply misunderstood, experts say. "We don't have Betty Fords for this issue," says Weiss, explaining that until the first lady put a public face on the problem of alcohol addiction in the early '80s, alcoholics were considered bums.
When it comes to process addictions such as food, gambling, sex and spending, Weiss says society has "a lot of moral judgement about those people – much like we did around drugs and alcohol 30 years ago."
Like other addictions, this one is fueled by anxiety, depression or other deep-seeded emotional vulnerabilities – not by reason and rationale. In 85 to 90 percent of cases, the addict has suffered some kind of abuse, says Jill Bley, a Cincinnati-based clinical psychologist and sex therapist. Consequently, treating the addiction requires identifying and dealing with the trauma.
While the addiction may take various forms – from compulsive masturbation to voyeurism to victimizing another person – the disorder is classified as such when it interferes with healthy functioning. As a result, sex – ostensibly, the ultimate act of connection – becomes a way of avoiding intimacy.
"Sex addicts are looking for controllable sources of getting themselves fed emotionally," Weiss says. Real intimacy requires risk, vulnerability and being loved for who you are. Sex addicts, however, may struggle with self-esteem or narcissism, and avoids the self-disclosure and authenticity that would lead to that, he explains.
According to Weiss, about 5 to 8 percent of the population are sex addicts, one-third of whom are women. As stigmatized as the issue is, it's even more so for women, who are less inclined to get help, he says.
Treatment typically begins with a 30-day period of abstinence. Without the coping mechanism of sex, the addict becomes emotionally ready for therapy, which is "when the real work begins," Weiss says. Ultimately, individual therapy is followed by couple's counseling, if and when the addict is involved with a romantic partner, to help the addict develop a healthy intimate relationship.
[Read: Confessions of a Former Shopaholic.]
Therapists try to teach intimacy on every level – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and sexually – with one person, Bley says. "That's hard for all of us, but it's really hard for people with an intimacy problem." And yet, it works. "When they learn that, and really get it, it's kind of beautiful to watch," she says. "It's a real transition, and their partner feels it."
As with any addict, the first step for sex addicts to get healthy is realizing they need help. After reaching that milestone, it's critical to get help as soon as possible, Bley says. "Really look at yourself, try hard to overcome your personal denial before some tragedy happens in your life that is threatening to ruin you."
One way to determine if you have a problem is to go cold turkey, so to speak. For example, if watching porn feels compulsive, eliminate it from your life for 30 days. If you can do that, without replacing it with another pleasurable obsession such as food or alcohol, then you're in control. But if not, seek out a 12-step program and a therapist trained in addiction, preferably sexual addiction, who understands the vulnerabilities at the root of the disorder, Weiss says. "We're designed to connect. We're designed to be in community. We pair bond," he says. Sex addicts "either don't know how, or they're too frightened."