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  • No Sympathy for the Sex Addict

    Hollywood has shown little tact in portraying people diagnosed with sex addiction.

September 7, 2008

No Sympathy for the Sex Addict

THE distributors of “Choke,” a forthcoming film about a sex addict’s struggle to overcome his demons, have been handing out a strange promotional gift at preview screenings. Attached to a bookmark, the gift is a set of beads typically used as a sexual toy.

“Not for small children,” the bookmark warns.

In “Blades of Glory,” last year’s ice-skating comedy, Will Ferrell’s character attends a Sex Addicts meeting where the 12-step serenity prayer has been rewritten: “God, grant me the serenity to not have sex with my friend’s girlfriend, the courage to go home tonight without having sex with my friend’s girlfriend, and the wisdom to walk away from my friend’s smokin’ hot girlfriend.” Many of the meeting participants, unhealed, wind up coupling in the bushes outside.

Move over, tubby; take a break, old maid, there’s a new straw man available for theatrical ridicule: the sex addict. Even as Hollywood has learned, slowly, not to mock the handicapped or brand all Middle Easterners as terrorists, and has turned a more sensitive eye toward alcoholics and drug addicts, it has shown little tact in portraying people diagnosed with sex addiction.

Which is why experts in the field took heart from the announcement last month by the actor David Duchovny, who plays a sex-obsessed writer on the television drama “Californication,” that he was seeking treatment in real life for the disorder. “I have voluntarily entered a facility for the treatment of sex addiction,” Mr. Duchovny said in a statement released by his lawyer. “I ask for respect and privacy for my wife and children as we deal with this situation as a family.”

Robert Weiss, the director of sexual integrity services for the CRC Health Group, a nationwide behavioral health provider, said it can be difficult to find sex addicts willing to tell their stories, change the clichéd images of the condition and explain that there are effective treatments.

“It’s exciting to see someone for the first time come out and say ‘I am a sex addict and I am going into treatment,’ ” he said

Many of those who might have put a sympathetic face on the condition — choose any person whose sexual behaviors seemed to defy all reason and, once exposed, cost him or her a career — have not stepped up to do so.

Nevertheless, there have been a few sex addicts willing to discuss their battles. The author Susan Cheever has a book coming out in October called “Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction” in which she discusses her struggle with obsessive relationships. The comedian Russell Brand, the host of the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, admits in his memoir, “My Booky Wook,” that he is a sex addict who received treatment at the Keystone Center in Chester, Pa.

“One day,” he writes, “I had to write a victims’ list — a litany of the women I’d wronged as a result of my sexual addiction. I felt like Saddam Hussein trying to pick out individual Kurds.”

Sex addiction is defined as “any sexually related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones and one’s work environment,” said Patrick Carnes, the author of the pioneering 1983 book “Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” and creator of the Web site Addicts often vow to stop behaviors such as hours-long sessions with Internet pornography, infidelity or criminal sexual activity, and cannot.

Comments on the Web about Mr. Duchovny seeking treatment show that not everyone is willing to accept that compulsive sexual behavior can be an addiction.

“How do they cure someone’s craving for sex?” asked a commenter on the gossip Web site “Lol this is funny,” wrote another. “I love it!”

A few mental health professionals still argue that sex addiction is not a real disease. “You cannot be addicted to yourself,” said Roger Libby, a relationship therapist in Seattle. “You have to have a substance external to yourself like alcohol or drugs to be addicted.”

Sex addiction is not listed as a disorder in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of psychiatric disorders, but it is being considered by a work group on non-substance-related addictions for inclusion in the next edition, the DSM-V due in 2012, said Dr. David Kupfer, chairman of the DSM-V task force with the American Psychiatric Association.

Treatment for the affliction aims not to remove sexual desire but to reconcile a person’s sexual behavior with the positive values the person already holds, Mr. Weiss said. Since as much of the brain’s pleasure-causing chemical dopamine is released during orgasm as during the consumption of alcohol, Dr. Carnes said, it is also possible to view sex addiction as a chemical addiction.

Throughout the country, there are sexual recovery 12-step meetings where the real serenity prayer is read and those who believe their behaviors have become unmanageable share experiences.

One participant, who asked for anonymity in accordance with the program’s traditions, said he was offended by the sex toy promotion at ”Choke.”

“It’s like if they made a movie about alcoholism and they were handing out shot glasses or a movie about diabetes and they were handing out sugar cookies,” said the man, who is in his 40s and works in publishing.

What made him seek help was a pattern of “rapidly diving into one romantic entanglement after another, sometimes more than one at a time, without getting to know a person,” he said.

Michelle Hooper, the senior vice president for publicity and promotions of Fox Searchlight, the distributor of “Choke,” defended the sex toy handout as “provocative and funny, like the film.” The movie does occasionally nod to the seriousness of sex addiction, especially in a scene at a 12-step meeting where a man, who has been jailed and had his teeth knocked out for stalking, testifies that the program helped him stop and save his life.

The fact that pop culture is making jokes about sex addicts is a sign that awareness of the condition is percolating in mass consciousness, Dr. Carnes said. Some films are taking it seriously, such as “Love Sick: Secrets of a Sex Addict,” which was shown in April on the USA network.

Not that everyone is ready for a sober look at sex addiction.

“A commenter on the Web site who was dissatisfied with “Love Sick” griped “I expected there to be more sex scenes in a movie about sex.”

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