Celebrity sex addicts steal the headlines, but a growing number of ordinary people are seeking treatment for the controversial disorder, which has the power to ruin lives.
With his blond hair, blue eyes and cheeky grin, Peter* had no trouble attracting pretty girls. Yet the more women he seduced, the more he wanted. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he could no longer control his compulsions. He hired prostitutes in dangerous back streets, seduced women in nightclubs, while his girlfriend was metres away, and when he needed more, sought group sex with strangers.
“I used women like a drug,” he says. “One was never enough. The more you are stimulated, the more you want.”
Eventually, Peter realised he needed help. His counsellor diagnosed him as a sex addict and he entered a recovery program. He is in famous company. Champion golfer Tiger Woods is the latest celebrity rumoured to be being treated for sex addiction, after allegations of affairs with up to 14 women involving threesomes, prostitutes and trysts in car parks.
Experts are divided about whether sex addiction is a legitimate disorder. Proponents say sex addicts, like alcoholics or drug abusers, cannot control their behaviour, need increasingly intense experiences to satisfy their urges and feel unable to stop, despite the hurt they are causing.
Yet the American Psychiatric Association has not yet recognised sex addiction and many doctors argue it is a symptom of other impulse control problems, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and manic depression.
“It’s inconclusive as to whether it’s a diagnosable addiction,” says Anne Hollonds from Relationships Australia. “There are certainly some people who behave as if it is a condition.”
Sceptics say sex addiction makes a disease out of bad behaviour – a handy excuse for adulterers, who will blame the addiction rather than take responsibility for their actions. “From puberty to 40, most men would have sex with a different woman every day if they could,” says Robbie Swan from the Eros Foundation, a lobby group for Australia’s sex industry.
Then there is the problem of how to draw the line between so-called sex addicts and those who just like lots of it. Is famed womaniser Warren Beatty – who has slept with almost 13,000 women, according to a new biography – an addict or simply a playboy? The answer depends on whether they are in control, says Jay Spence, a psychologist at South Pacific Private Hospital in Sydney, who specialises in addictions.
“[Some people] might have many sexual partners, but they stop once the costs outweigh the rewards,” he says. “Sex addicts have a lot of difficulty assessing the consequences. In neurological research, the section of the brain which is essentially the brakes is not functioning in the same way as other people.”