Uncovered: Sex Addicts

Jesse James, Tiger Woods, David Duchovny — all self-proclaimed sex addicts.

Is it an excuse for people caught cheating? Or is it similar to other addictions like alcoholism — a legitimate problem that society isn't comfortable addressing yet?

Andrew Lukas, a registered clinical counselor for Freedom for Life Counseling in London, said sex addiction is not unlike a "normalized" addiction like those associated with drugs and alcohol. Sex addiction is similar to those addictions in that it involves "someone trying to stop but (who) keeps going back," said Lukas.

They keep doing it despite the consequences," he said, adding these consequences often include an inability to concentrate on school or work and difficulties in relationships. Richard (last name withheld) of Indianapolis, IN., experienced these consequences having been a sex addict for the past several decades. Currently a member of Sex Addicts Anonymous' speakers' bureau, Richard's addiction began in his 20s. He had gotten out of the service and was married at 22 years old. He and his wife started having problems and he found himself turning to the addiction, like buying pornography and masturbating more than normal, because it offered a "momentary feeling of relief," he said.

But the addiction became more than just stress relief; it became constant. He divorced his first wife and remarried, thinking he could stop these "acting out" behaviours, as he called them. From seeking out anonymous sex with men and women in parks and malls, to seeking out porn and peep shows and even masturbating while at work, Richard still did not completely realize how pervasive the addiction was in his life despite its negative impact on his family, he said.

It wasn't until 1996, when a police sting operation set up in a park caught him when he was looking for anonymous sex, that he realized he needed to confront his addiction.

After finding a support group in his area, Richard started the path to recovery. Part of the process was identifying instances in his past that may have contributed to his current addiction, a common step in recovery. One theme in his past was abandonment. Born in the early 1940s, his mother was a single parent, which was frowned upon, so he was sent to live with his grandparents. Eventually his mother, who remarried, came back to claim him and the emotional attachment to his grandparents was severed, he said.

Then at 14 years old, his adoptive father passed away suddenly from a heart attack and Richard experienced another moment of loss. His issues with abandonment related to his sex addiction in that, ironically, it can be a very isolated addiction.

In addition to looking at an individual's emotional past, recovery can include one's sexual past as well, said Lukas.

"There may be abuse back there," he explained. "There is emotional content at these moments (and) significant turning points."

Lukas added that, in counselling, they don't go through every sexual encounter — just very memorable ones and then work to reconcile and heal that emotional content.

Essentially, addicts in the recovery process are learning tools to help them deal with feelings, like anxiety and depression, which usually lead them to acting out.

"(We help them) live connected with their own hearts and emotions, (which) are often disconnected," said Lukas.

Which brings the topic to the celebrities who have popularized the addiction. Are they legitimately afflicted by this addiction, or is it an excuse because they got caught?

It is possible they could be experiencing a sex addiction, said Lukas. Society is just not as used to hearing about this type of condition as they are with alcoholism, but "people now know what it is they're dealing with," he explained. "There's a lot of shame associated with (this addiction)."

As witnessed, the addictions affect an individual's entire life — even if it's not obvious to that individual — and the relationships in it. Thankfully, Richard's wife has remained supportive throughout his recovery, he said.

Resuming a "regular" relationship, particularly sexually, is also part of the process. Recovering sex addicts begin to learn to deal with their emotions rather than distracting themselves with the addiction — same goes for sex. "It's very relationship-less," said Lukas, of the types of connections the addicts have with others. "(But) with a partner it needs to include emotional and spiritual (components). Less about two bodies coming together."

He added that when emotions enter into sexual relations, the addict will push them away if they're bad and turn to the addictive mindset. Partners can feel like a "piece of meat" until the addict learns to accept emotions in the bedroom.

One thing is that is evident throughout the addiction is that it's very real to those living with it, and the recovery process is no less difficult despite people's belief that being a sex addict can't be all that bad.

"The important thing is for people to understand that as human beings we react to pressures of life," said Richard. "Very few of us are armed with the tools to make decisions about (the pressures). I'm always struggling with things that direct me to the addiction."

"Recovery has been one of the greatest gifts (it has) brought clarity ... into my life (that) I've never had before. Recovery is work."