Sex addiction as real as any other

Let’s talk about sex. Or rather, the deeply stigmatised addiction to it and the growth of internet pornography.

A talk to be hosted at the South African College of Applied Psychology (Sacap) in Cape Town on 24 February will try to shed light on this heated, albeit often hidden, topic.

Speaker Dr Owen Redahan’s topic will be: “Sex Addiction: Accepting its existence and doing something about it”.

According to Redahan, an estimated three to five per cent of the population may be affected by sex addiction and the growing use of internet porn may contribute to an even larger problem within the next ten years.

People’s Post spoke to two local medical professionals to try and learn more about sexual addiction, its causes, symptoms and treatments.

Clinical psychologist Dr Larissa Ernst and general practitioner and fellow on the committee for European Sexual Medicine Dr Anthony Smith, shared their knowledge with us.

How prevalent is sex addiction among the local population?

Ernst: “In my practice I have found that it is less prevalent than other sexual dysfunctions. This however does not mean that it necessarily is less prevalent. It may just indicate that people are more reluctant to seek help. I do believe that sexual addiction may be on the increase due to the accessibility of pornography on the internet via mobile devices (phones and tablets).”

Smith: “It’s impossible to give prevalence figures as sex addiction is not a clear diagnosis to make. It is not an established medical issue, but a controversial one which often presents with the shame and which is not open and even. There are many issues with the definition and presentation of the addiction and the statistics are not many. Sexual addiction tends to find itself predominantly a co-addiction and it is treated with other addictions including drugs and alcohol and by psychologists who deal with addictive tendencies.”

Why is there a stigma attached to sex addiction?

Ernst: “Stigma still exists around all mental health challenges and sexual difficulties are no different. People are ill-informed and the lack of knowledge makes differences among people threatening. Sex and sexuality is also still a topic that is rarely discussed openly and freely. Discomfort and judgement still exist, which also contribute to prejudice. This further contributes to (sex addicts) finding it difficult to seek help. They are often scared of judgement.”

Smith: “The stigma can work two ways: The nature of the hidden aspect of the symptoms, like people who are addicted to internet porn, show behaviour with very little ability to control it, so to bring it out comes with a lot of shame. This causes symptoms to be hidden, often to themselves and others. There is another side where you hear about sexual addiction in the media, where people have a lot of sex and claim an addiction to sex as a medical diagnosis to help them out. One group of people clearly have an addiction to sex: When it starts monopolising their life, ruining their relationships and making them less able to function at work or living a fully active life. But there is also the other group who have lots of sex, but are not addicted. If the rest of their life is not compromised, it cannot be seen as a medical issue.”

Is it a cross-gender issue and why or why not? Ernst: “Sexual addiction has a similar function to any other addiction. People become addicted to different things – mostly for the same reason, namely as an escape from a difficult, emotionally challenging or boring reality. It is a symptomatic way of dealing with difficult feelings. It therefore affects both men and women irrespective of sexual orientation.”

Smith: “It tends to be more men than women who have the problem. There could also be several cultural aspects meaning more men become addicted than women.”

What causes sex addiction?

Ernst: “Someone who is addicted to pornography essentially ends up defining his sexual pleasure as in relation with himself (whereas healthy sexuality is defined and experienced in relation to someone else – a partner). The fulfilment is heightened as there is no pressure to please someone else and no pressure to perform. This becomes very rewarding, which strengthens the conditioning process and hence creates a stronger attraction to pornography. This then leads to the person increasingly finding it difficult to perform sexually within a relationship with another person, which creates the secondary problem in that often the person ends up struggling with anorgasmia or erectile dysfunction.”

Smith: “It’s really hard to determine as there are no concrete causes, but one could say technology and the readily availability of internet porn, or even abuse as a child and other addictions, may be causes. These are multiple, but like any other addict, addiction depends on the rewards system – there is no specific cause.”

Do you find internet porn has an influence on sex addiction?

Ernst: “Yes, definitely. This is often the way in which the individual enacts his sexual addiction – the pleasure of an orgasm is paired with the stimulus of the porn which creates a strong conditioned response and it often becomes quite boring to be sexually active without the stimulus of porn.”

Smith: “Yes. Often people involved with internet porn project behaviours they have very little ability to control.”

Is there an age group within which sex addiction is more prevalent?

Ernst: “I am not aware of any specific statistics. Most of my clients who are addicted to sex are between 20 and 40.”

Smith: “At younger ages sexual scripts have not been established. You will find addiction more when the person has a family and responsibility – at a latter stage. I would say mid-20s and thereafter is when addiction will tend to present.”

Where can a sex addict turn to if they suspect they have an addiction?

Ernst: “A registered psychologist with specialisation in sex therapy or an internationally certified sexologist.”

Smith: “There is a sex addicts group which works in Kenilworth. They can also contact any addiction psychologist or sex therapist or addiction counsellor.”

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