Blame it on sexual addiction

Victoria Frank,

Added 02 December 2011

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What exactly is sex addiction? One may define it as any sexually related activity that is having a destructive effect on your life. Sufferers latch on to a behaviour – masturbation, pornography, anonymous hookups, or standard affairs – until it starts to take over their lives. Like most addictions, the physical symptoms include intense cravings, high tolerance, loss of control, and in the later stages, dependence and compulsion. This might mean blowing the rent money on trips to Bush Hill, trolling the Internet for unprotected sex with strangers, or putting a loving marriage at risk over a meaningless affair. And just as a heroin addict chases a substance-induced high, sex addicts are bingeing on chemicals – in this case, their own hormones. But different thinkers have differing opinions. Dr Michael First, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, says that while MRI studies suggest that gambling addicts react to the blackjack table in the same way that cocaine addicts react to a line, there are no comparable studies for sex. “It’s a biological process, and there’s a limit to how long you can do it,” he says. “So the analogy breaks down.” Calling a natural, pleasurable human behaviour addictive begs the question: where do you draw the line? How do you distinguish between a strong sex drive and a condition requiring medical attention? Coming back home to Barbados, to Sharla, a 39-year-old employer who became hooked on porn in the throes of a bad breakup, sex addiction is no joke. “My boyfriend stopped sleeping with me, and I was looking for other ways of release,” she explained. “Soon I was masturbating to porn with the window open, hoping someone would see me.” By day, she was a starched and pressed uniform worker; by night she was online, having sex chats with strangers and watching hard-core videos. “Throughout my 20s, I’d equated hooking up with random men in bars with sexual freedom. It made me feel powerful,” said Sharla. The sex would be thrilling – until she climaxed. “That’s when the fantasy would come crashing down and I’d feel like garbage,” she said. Rather than dwell on bad feelings, she would seek out her next fix. “I’d convince myself, oh, that was so hot, and start chasing the high again,” she said, even after she was sexually assaulted – twice. While many psychologists cannot pinpoint exactly what causes sex addiction, most say that addicts have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and were raised in “chaos, or a rigid, disengaged, abnormal family”. But how does one define “normal” in a society where casual sex is broadcast as liberating and empowering, threesomes are glorified in modern songs, having “friends with benefits” is considered cool, and porn is not only easily and anonymously accessible, but often defended? Equally subjective is what may constitute “sexual sobriety”. For Sharla, whose new boyfriend knows her history, it “doesn’t mean never having sex again”. “It means taking it slowly within the context of a committed relationship,” she said. “People may say sex addiction doesn’t exist,” she said, “but for me, it’s painfully real. “Sex addiction is not about getting away with something, but rather it is about taking responsibility for yourself, your behaviour, and your life.”  

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