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domenica 27 novembre 2011
The Sex Addiction Epidemic
Valerie realized that sex was wrecking her life right around the time her second marriage disintegrated. At 30, and employed as a human-resources administrator in Phoenix, she had serially cheated on both her husbands—often with their subordinates and co-workers—loggpornoing anonymous hookups in fast-food-restaurant bathrooms, affairs with married men, and one-night stands too numerous to count. But Valerie couldn’t stop. Not even after one man’s wife aimed a shotgun at her head while catching them in flagrante delicto. Valerie called phone-sex chat lines and pored over online pornography, masturbating so compulsively that it wasn’t uncommon for her to choose her vibrator over going to work. She craved public exhibitionism, too, particularly at strip clubs, and even accepted money in exchange for sex—not out of financial necessity but for the illicit rush such acts gave her.
For Valerie, sex was a form of self-medication: to obliterate the anxiety, despair, and crippling fear of emotional intimacy that had haunted her since being abandoned as a child. “In order to soothe the loneliness and the fear of being unwanted, I was looking for love in all the wrong places,” she recalls.
After a decade of carrying on this way, Valerie hit rock bottom. Facing her second divorce as well as the end of an affair, she grew despondent and attempted to take her life by overdosing on prescription medication. Awakening in the ICU, she at last understood what she had become: a sex addict. “Through sexually acting out, I lost two marriages and a job. I ended up homeless and on food stamps,” says Valerie, who, like most sex addicts interviewed for this story, declined to provide her real name. “I was totally out of control.”
“Sex addiction” remains a controversial designation—often dismissed as a myth or providing talk-show punchlines thanks to high-profile lotharios such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Tiger Woods. But compulsive sexual behavior, also called hypersexual disorder, can systematically destroy a person’s life much as addictions to alcohol or drugs can. And it’s affecting an increasing number of Americans, say psychiatrists and addiction experts. “It’s a national epidemic,” says Steven Luff, coauthor of Pure Eyes: A Man’s Guide to Sexual Integrity and leader of the X3LA sexual-addiction recovery groups in Hollywood.
Reliable figures for the number of diagnosed sex addicts are difficult to come by, but the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, an education and sex-addiction treatment organization, estimates that between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population—or more than 9 million people—could meet the criteria for addiction. Some 1,500 sex therapists treating compulsive behavior are practicing today, up from fewer than 100 a decade ago, say several researchers and clinicians, while dozens of rehabilitation centers now advertise treatment programs, up from just five or six in the same period. The demographics are changing, too. “Where it used to be 40- to 50-year-old men seeking treatment, now there are more females, adolescents, and senior citizens,” says Tami VerHelst, vice president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals. “Grandfathers getting caught with porn on their computers by grandkids, and grandkids sexting at 12.”
In fact, some of the growth has been fueled by the digital revolution, which has revved up America’s carnal metabolism. Where previous generations had to risk public embarrassment at dirty bookstores and X-rated movie theaters, the Web has made pornography accessible, free, and anonymous. An estimated 40 million people a day in the U.S. log on to some 4.2 million pornographic websites, according to the Internet Filter Software Review. And though watching porn isn’t the same as seeking out real live sex, experts say the former can be a kind of gateway drug to the latter.
“Not everyone who looks at a nude image is going to become a sex addict. But the constant exposure is going to trigger people who are susceptible,” says Dr. David Sack, chief executive of Los Angeles’s Promises Treatment Centers.
New high-tech tools are also making it easier to meet strangers for a quick romp. Smartphone apps like Grindr use GPS technology to facilitate instantaneous, no-strings gay hookups in 192 countries. The website AshleyMadison.com promises “affairs guaranteed” by connecting people looking for sex outside their marriages; the site says it has 12.2 million members.
This year the epidemic has spread to movies and TV. In November the Logo television network began airing Bad Sex, a reality series following a group of men and women with severe sexual issues, most notably addiction. And on Dec. 2, the acclaimed psychosexual drama Shame arrives in theaters. The movie follows Brandon (portrayed by Irish actor Michael Fassbender in a career-defining performance), a New Yorker with a libido the size of the Empire State Building. His life devolves into a blur of carnal encounters, imperiling both his job and his self-regard. In perhaps the least sexy sex scene in the history of moviedom, Brandon appears to lose all humanity during a frenzied ménage à trois with two prostitutes. “It’s a foursome with the audience,” says director and co-writer Steve McQueen. “What we were doing was actually dangerous. Not just in terms of people liking the movie, but psychologically.”