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Page last updated at 01:24 GMT, Wednesday, 30 April 2008 02:24 UK

Does sex addiction exist?

The Magazine answers...

Russell Brand
Brand, also self-confessed sex addict
Lord Laidlaw of Rothiemay has admitted to receiving treatment for "sex addiction" at a private clinic, likening it to alcohol dependency. But is it really?

It's a term that first came to widespread attention when actor Michael Douglas was admitted to rehab in 1990 and it was reported - inaccurately, he later claimed - to be a sex addict.

More recently, comedian Russell Brand admitted to spending a week at a centre for sexual addiction in Philadelphia.

And earlier this year, relationship counselling service Relate said there had been a huge increase in the number of cases concerning sexual compulsive behaviour.

Sex therapists would argue it is a real addiction with serious consequences
But others in psychiatry and psychotherapy argue it is not comparable to substance addiction and should not be classed as such

Now Lord Laidlaw, 65, says he has been fighting the "disease" for the whole of his adult life.

So are so-called sex addicts suffering from an illness or just making excuses for being unfaithful?

It's a very serious addiction, says Paula Hall, who runs a group therapy course for "sex addicts" in Warwickshire, and it's believed about one in 20 people suffer from it.

Although not a chemical addiction like alcohol or heroin, it's a "process addiction" like gambling, she says, with a biochemical element linked to the release of dopamine in the brain.

"It's a compulsive need to seek out and follow a certain type of sexual behaviour. That behaviour varies but it's basically an anaesthetising behaviour, something you are doing in order to avoid dealing with something else.

"It's a coping mechanism and it's totally and entirely out of control. You are continuing to pursue it in spite of the consequences, like losing your job, your status, your wife and your health."

It's not really about sex. It's driven by shame
Paula Hall
Relationships counsellor

Addicts are usually men and they are of any age, she says, and from any background. The behaviour ranges from viewing online porn for a few hours a day, which is usually a starting point and then escalates, to visiting prostitutes at every opportunity.

"It's a way of escaping from low self-esteem, feelings of anger and insecurity. It's not really about sex. It's driven by shame.

"You feel about yourself and one way to stop feeling bad about yourself is to do something nice, but afterwards you feel even worse about yourself."


The difference between having an addiction and merely having a high sex drive is the level of compulsion, "disappearing into their own bubble and running away from the world", she says, and there's evidence that's it in the genes.

A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

But Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says the term "addiction" is not appropriate for this behaviour, which would be better described as obsessive, compulsive or even greedy.

Some very successful men have a habit of thinking they can get away with anything, especially behaviour they view as exciting, he says.

"Sexual addiction is a relatively recent American, jargonized category of personality behaviour.

"It uses a medical model - 'I'm an addict, I've got an illness and need a 12-step programme.' But I don't buy into it."

Trainspotting book
Heroin withdrawal induces physical pain

There's a difference in responding to your own adrenaline rush - which some people may receive from a passion for golf or Celine Dion - and craving a substance your body is addicted to.

If everything was resting on it, then a sex obsessive would not walk over the abyss but a real addict would, says Mr Hodson. Substance addiction stops the body's natural production of opiates, thus inducing "cold turkey" which has a physical pain akin to old age.

What some may describe as sex addiction does not stand up when applied to the proper definition of the word, says Glenn Wilson of the Institution of Psychiatry.

"The original idea of addiction was that you had a chemical hijacking of the circuits of the brain built to give you pleasure as reward for doing things of a survival value, such as eating or having sex."

After continued use, cocaine or cigarettes are capable of acquiring survival value for the individual concerned, he says.

"But to turn round and argue that one is addicted to chocolate or sex, which are activities you would expect to be rewarded in survival terms, strikes me as hijacking the concept of addiction.

"It's a way that people signal to the world that they think they have a problem and need to break it."

But they are no different from anyone else, he says, because we all have sexual drives which can get us into trouble without inhibition or control.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Having dealt with my own sex addiction thru SLAA - sex love addicts anonymous - am currently trying to help my 79 yr old father. I tracked him having a relationship with a strip club girl, confronted him and realised he was funnelling all his pension, and borrowing more to boot, to save this poor girl from poverty at mum's expense. Yes he really felt he was doing spiritual work, and that's where the illness will take you. Have been unable to get him help, as he refuses to sign himself in for treatment. To me it's an inheritable disease.
Steve Thomas, PA, USA

I agree with the comments that this condition is not an addiction, but it is a strong compulsion. I know I suffered with this condition, and it wrecked my life. Every spare moment was taken up with browsing internet/phone chat lines, purely looking for people, men and women who wanted to meet up for "no-strings" sex. If I couldn't arrange anything it resulted in missing work, driving around all day to known spots where I would end up having sex with other men usually, in toilets, lay bys etc. This obviously has its own dangers, which never bothered me due to my need to get my fix. I realised that I was having this sex for the experience, the person didn't matter I'm trying hard to distance myself from the obvious places/sources that can tempt me, but it is genuinely difficult to control. I am not cured by any means, and I'm relying on a self-imposed cold turkey regime to try and break my habit.
Darren, B'ham, UK

Well said Darren, I'm exactly the same as you, and full of shame with it. I hate myself for it and wish I could do something about it - maybe I am weak and have no lack of control but I'd appreciate some help with it because I have no clue what to do to resolve it. I beg myself to say no but it doesn't work. I guess in 20 years this will be accepted like other addictions but we are the same stupid people who need to learn everything over and over again before we finally get it.
Ian, Bolton

Isn't this just a way for men to try to legitimise their inability to control themselves? I don't see reports of women with this problem. Pull yourselves together and start behaving yourselves - make your mother proud.
Ellen, South East, UK

But what really is control in this sense? It stated that males are more prone - which makes sense. Built into our genes is the desire/drive to reproduce and spread our seed. In anthropological terms, it's our sexual fitness and we all want to be as fit as possible. I don't think they are blaming society at all. If anything, they do have an issue for needing sex all the time. But really - who doesn't? Some are just more successful than others.
B, Utah, US

As women we have hormonal changes that mean at certain times we are 'on heat' and every conversation with a man gives rise to excitement while at other times it's unthinkable. We also have to bear orgasms that take us to the edge of insanity with the sheer intensity of feeling. The end result for us is nine months of discomfort, hours of agony and years of heartbreak. Possibly that's what save us from the 'addiction'?
Anonymous, Surrey, UK

Lots of so called celebrities, high fliers etc claim to have some sort of exotic disease or something wrong with them. Normally the real issue is trying to keep themselves in the public eye. You don't hear of any of them having leprosy do you?
Marc, Perth WA

Of course sex addiction is real. It does not matter how many times I have sex, I never get satisfied or feel that it is the best I can get. It is a compulsion where one can have sex 10 to 20 times in a 24-hour period and still feels the need to have more partners. It is a compulsive behaviour where the need to view adult material, read and discuss such stories to such an extent that such activities dominate ones life - year after year. It is an addiction where ones female partners tell you, day after day, that one must see a GP or a specialist. It is an addiction when all around one are getting angry and fed up with consistent pleadings for more. I think it is more than a 'process' addiction.
A Singh, Reading, GB

If we're talking about addiction in terms of dopamine and serotonin release, then sex can be every bit as addictive as cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and gambling. The need for a 12 Step seems a bit over the top though. Why not just enjoy the ride, if you'll pardon the pun?
Matt McPherson, Edinburgh

I think this is a compulsion rather than an addiction, but that doesn't mean that it can't wreck someone's life. Unfortunately it's becoming a 'trendy' problem to have, so there'll be plenty of people claiming sex addiction to gain media attention or as an excuse for poor behaviour - an action that demeans everyone who's truly got a problem.
KE, Leeds

I think sex addiction does not exist as an addiction, but definitely does as a compulsive disorder. I have had a similar situation with porn. I realised that it was getting out of hand when I felt a need to look at porn even when I wasn't feeling horny. Later I realised that I wasn't necessarily fantasizing about sex with these images either, but perhaps what I really wanted was a cuddle. The whole process dodges the fact that I don't feel comfortable in social situations and as I get older find myself preferring to stay in with the computer rather than go out.

Anon, London, UK

Nonsense; these are just pathetic people trying to blame society on their own weakness and lack of control.

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