Questioning addiction

September 24, 2010 2 Comments »

Sexual addiction has recently become a part of popular culture with many celebrities blaming it for their infidelities. While science hasn’t reached a consensus, there are still people looking for treatment.

In London, some say they’re finding help with 12-step programs. Others say they’re no help at all. Gazette contributor Trevor Melanson takes a closer look at the culture of sexual addiction in the city.

Their meetings are held five times a week throughout London, always at undisclosed locations, and those who go use only first names. The participants are usually men, but they may not have much else in common. Some are teachers, others are priests. Some are white collar, some are blue. Some are young — as young as 18 — and a few are seniors. But they all sit together, in a circle, and talk about the one thing they believe they share: a problem with sexual addiction.

Ted, who’d rather not reveal his last name, is one of them. He’s 52 now, but his problem began 10 years earlier, he explains. That’s when he discovered online pornography.

“I’d be skipping out of work so I could zip home and masturbate.”

At his worst, Ted would masturbate three or four times a day to online porn, behind his wife’s back. But he eventually confessed to her, and then to his pastor. He describes it as the most difficult thing he’d ever done.

Ted has had ups and downs since then, though right now he’s not doing so well, he says. He’s currently unemployed and has too much time on his hands, he explains, which “makes it much worse.”

But he’s not struggling alone. Five years ago, Ted began attending sexual addiction meetings in London. He had heard about them through his church, and he still goes at least once a week, to the Christian ones, he says.

There’s the Band of Christian Brothers, which meets on Mondays, and there’s also the Christian Men’s Group on Thursdays.

But there are others that Ted doesn’t attend. Two more meetings are hosted every week by Sex Addicts Anonymous, and another by Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. All of them in London.

Yet despite the variety, each group follows the same popular 12-step program — a near carbon copy of the Alcoholics Anonymous one. The first step is to admit you’re powerless over your addictive sexual behaviour; the third is to turn your life and will over to God. In short, only a higher power can save you.

Jason Winters, a Vancouver-based research psychologist who’s written on sexual addiction, isn’t the program’s biggest fan. His opinion of the 12 steps: “It’s total bullshit.”

“The whole underlying theme — that by accepting Christ into one’s heart, one can heal addiction — has no scientific support,” he says via email. “Twelve-step programs place last in terms of treatment efficacy. Research does show that the 12-step program can work, but I suspect that has more to do with people’s motivations to change than the program itself.”

But Ted disagrees. He thinks the 12 steps can really help, and so does his counsellor, Andrew Lukas.

Lukas, a registered clinical counsellor who specializes in sexual addiction, says most of his clients are like Ted: They want to stop looking at porn, but are struggling. He used to have the same problem, he explains.

“It’s the internet that’s caught people off guard, the availability of it.”

But not everyone who frequents porn is an addict, he clarifies — nor is everyone who regularly cheats. To qualify as an addict, you must have a desire to stop, one you continually fail to satisfy. That’s why he’s not sure Tiger Woods makes the grade; had the pro golfer not been caught, Lukas wonders if he would have ever sought recovery.

In Lukas’ office, situated in his suburban home, his commitment to sexual addiction awareness is visibly apparent. Stacks of sexual addiction books cover an entire table. Glancing at them, he says they’re mostly Christian.

“Jesus said that to even look at another woman lustfully is as sinful as committing adultery,” he explains. “And porn is all about lust.”

In a few cases, he’s had clients who weren’t religious. He says he doesn’t push his beliefs on them, but he mostly markets himself to churches and Christian groups.

In his opinion, churches ignored the problem of internet porn for too long, believing it would just go away. But it didn’t, he says, and now they’re finally talking about it. The 12-step method is a good start, he thinks — though he disagrees with it in one regard. He believes people can be cured.

“Post-recovery is the goal. Living in ongoing recovery is not.”

But Ken, 60, another self-described sexual addict, doesn’t think total recovery possible.

“I’m an alcoholic too, so I go back to the idea of once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,” Ken explains.

“I can’t ever drink again because I don’t know when I’m going to stop. And the same is true of my sex addiction. Anything I haven’t done as a sex addict, it’s a matter of I haven’t done it yet.”

Besides porn, Ken also has problems with voyeurism. He says he once peeked at his stepdaughter undressing. It was one of the things that led to his divorce.

Now he’s a Sex Addicts Anonymous member — a board member, in fact — and, like Ted, he claims the 12-step program is really helping.

But Winters remains skeptical.

“People highly motivated to change will change regardless of what treatment they receive,” Winters says. “You could create a treatment program based on knitting, and highly motivated people would still show treatment improvements merely because they want to change.”

He believes the peddlers of 12-step programs have an incentive for sexual addiction to be real.

“The religious love it,” he says. “Basically anything that falls outside sexual behaviour prescribed by religious doctrine can be labelled [a] psychological disorder.”

But he’s not even sure it is one.

Though if it is, he says, 12-step programs aren’t the answer.

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