Recent local stories - of a financial aid director abusing his power against women, of a serial child molester, of an alleged rapist - have the disturbing sex offender in mind. We're told such behavior generally repeats itself; are these offenders addicts? Does it matter?
Labeling people as "monsters" is easy. Do we care about the root of their behaviors? Regardless of the answer, North Idaho expert and counselor Ed Dudding says it's important to distinguish between sex offenders - who may be addicted to sex (71 percent of child molesters and 55 percent of other sex offenders are addicts, according to Psychcentral.com's Dr. Michael Herkov), and sex addicts - who rarely commit sex offenses (less than 20 percent). In fact, violence can be a "rule-out" when diagnosing sexual addiction.
To start try separating the word "sex" from the offender and addict to understand the difference; removing that word takes with it the associated prurience and fear, both which drive errors and stereotypes. Next, consider the key distinguisher from a professional's standpoint: Consent. An offender is someone who exerts power over another person without consent, who seeks to harm another person.
An offender's intent is to harm others, whereas an addict harms himself. The addictive behavior may be with multiple partners or strangers, take the form of exhibitionism or voyeurism, or be alone (computer images, etc.), but always it is excessive to the point of harm, and sought for unhealthy reasons.
What reasons? According to data in "The Making of a Sex Addict" by nationally renowned expert Dr. Patrick Carnes, 97 percent of addicts experienced emotional abuse, 81 percent sexual abuse, and 72 percent physical abuse in childhood. Eighty-seven percent have family members with addictions (any type). Many also have second addictions, including chemical dependency (42 percent), eating disorders (38 percent), and compulsive working or spending (28 and 26 percent, respectively).
Like any other addiction, this one works in a vicious cycle of compulsion and withdrawal, is obsessive and gets progressively worse. The addict wants to feel numb, takes more over time to achieve the same result, and ruins lives and livelihoods. As with other behavioral addiction (gambling, kleptomania, etc.) the addict will continue the behavior despite increasingly negative consequences, loss, even arrest. A sex addict does not enjoy or experience intimacy as a healthy person does.
Dudding points out that this addiction - present in under 10 percent of the population - is not simply a higher-than-average drive, which can be normal. An addict is not in control, feels and feeds self-loathing with it. The experience feels bad, not good, but they can't stop.
What makes it an addiction, and not simply a behavior choice, as the drinker might argue against the accusation of alcoholism, the serial dater against the accusation of sex addiction? While only a professional should answer, psychiatrists Kenneth Rosenberg and Laura Feder in "Behavior Addictions" put it this way: A healthy behavior, or mere enthusiasm for an act, adds to life, whereas addiction takes away from it. This can be quite literal with dangerous behavior; as 70 percent or more of sex addicts have suicide obsessions, exposure to STDs, and severe marital problems. Is it a net plus or a minus, for the addict as well as their loved ones who also experience traumatic effects?
As much as this addiction has in common with others, there is one key difference. Unlike alcohol, gambling, or drugs, sex is necessary for survival and part of a healthy life. That also makes it more complicated, less uniform, and perhaps harder to identify and distinguish from situations which don't rise to the level of addiction. Unlike recovering alcoholics, removing the object of this addiction from life is generally not the best option.
"Sexual addiction treatment should never be sex negative," explains Dudding. "Sex is good; it brings well-being. Sexual addiction disrupts that well-being [by] dismantling intimacy and safety."
What does a sex addict look like? Is there a public persona? There is no socioeconomic profile, and the signs are often kept secret. In his book "Out of the Shadows," Carnes writes: "Sex addicts come from all walks of life - they may be ministers, physicians, homemakers, factory workers, salespersons, secretaries, clerks, accountants, therapists, dentists, politicians, or executives, to name just a few examples."
Dudding, who completed Dr. Carnes's training, says with specialized counseling there is ample hope for recovery. Look for the letters "CSAT" (certified sex addiction therapist) and "CMAT" (multiple addiction therapist); both require ongoing education. A 12-step style support group called SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) may also help addicts and their families - firstname.lastname@example.org.
A screening test is available at Recoveryzone.com. For more information see Sexualrecovery.com or Cdacounseling.com.
Sholeh Patrick, J.D., is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.