Chances are you've known someone, maybe even someone in your own family, who's struggled with an addiction to cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. But what about an addiction to sex? A growing number of medical experts are saying compulsive sexual behavior is a very real disorder that an estimated 16 million Americans, both men and women, are fighting.
“Daily, I sit down with people who look back at the wreckage in their life and say, knowing all along, ‘Why would I do this stuff?’" says Dr. Patrick Carnes, director of sexual disorders services at , which first coined the term "sexual addiction."
Carnes says the same way that people can become addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling, they can become addicted to sex, anything from Internet sex to obsessive masturbation to affairs.
What makes a sex addict?
How do experts tell what makes a person a sex addict as opposed to someone who just likes sex?
“You look for the obvious things, like bad things happening, knowing that you are doing something that is going to hurt you so you make efforts to stop that don't work,” says Carnes. “Obviously, you’ve got a problem.”
“There was that selfish needy, lonely, angry part of myself that didn't want to stop and saw that sex was my solution to other things,” says Mark Laaser, who had an insatiable need for secret sex. To anyone who knew him, it would have seemed incomprehensible. Laaser, a minister and counselor, was married with children and an icon of respect. But that wasn't enough.
Mark says that early on he felt an emptiness, a loneliness that sex seemed to fill. “It was just an excitement, a raw excitement -- kind of like what a drug addict would describe,” he says. “It was just a high.”
It was a high Laaser started experiencing at a young age. When he was 11, he says he discovered pictures -- what he'd call soft porn now.
“And some of that is not abnormal for a person seeing that for the first time,” he says. “Of course when it becomes abnormal is how preoccupied you get with it.”
Laaser was so fixated by what he saw, he started stealing Playboy magazines from the local drugstore.
“And then also for me, I started crossing moral boundaries almost right away … Stealing magazines -- and I’m a preacher's kid, a minister's son,” says Laaser. “So I knew that stealing was bad. But I was willing to go ahead with it because the high was so fantastic of what I was experiencing.”
'I wanted to act it out'
In high school, Laaser hoped his behavior might stop when he met Debbie, the girl he thought could change him.
“There was a part of myself that she just didn't know because I wasn't revealing it to her or anybody for that matter,” says Laaser. He wasn't revealing that he was now doing more than looking at magazines. He was watching porn videos and masturbating daily. Debbie, unaware of Mark's double life, trusted him and they got married. Mark hoped that married life would bring an end to a life preoccupied by sex.
“All this crazy stuff in the past, that will be over now. I’m getting married. I'll have a regular sexual partner and so forth,” says Laaser. “But I was amazed early on, even in the first year of marriage, that my temptation to masturbate and look at pornography returned rather quickly.”
A lot of people think human beings are preoccupied by sex a lot of time, so what could be so unusual about his feelings?
“The part that was unusual was where my mind tended to go with it,” says Laaser. “I wanted to experience it. I wanted to act it out. Eventually I had a lot of preoccupation with planning or doing or thinking what it would be like.”
Laaser soon was no longer planning, but doing, paying monthly visits to massage parlors, having sex with so-called "masseuses,” all the while hiding it from his wife Debbie, whom Laaser says he still loved deeply.
“I was always completely attracted to her,” says Laaser. “There was just something so much deeper in me that cannot be satisfied by sex.”
He says something deeply emotional was missing, and he wondered why he couldn't just stop.
'Wracked with shame'
“I was wracked with shame and tried time and time again to stop,” says Marnie Ferree, who like Laaser, knows what it's like to be out of control of her sexual feelings. For Ferree, it wasn't so much about sex itself, but about the relationships she thought she could have by engaging in sex with acquaintances and friends.
“The sexual part was pleasurable and it was a nice byproduct for me, but that wasn't the most important thing,” says Ferree. “I was trying to get non-sexual needs met sexually and that was the only way I knew how to meet those needs.”
Ferree says that as a child, she was sexually abused by a family friend, a common precursor to later addiction. Ferree’s promiscuity lasted from her teen years through two marriages, with numerous affairs in between. She felt an emotional void that she says sex filled -- at least initially.
“At the time there is an incredible adrenaline rush,” says Ferree. “It’s a connection that I found I couldn't replicate anywhere else. But immediately after that experience is over, I mean driving back home, there is this incredible let down and you're just in a wash of shame.”
That shame that worsened after Ferree was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The cause, she was told, was HPV, a sexually transmitted disease.
“That was the lowest point,” says Ferree. “I experienced three surgeries in a year as treatment of that cervical cancer. Had a major hemorrhaging after one of those surgeries. I mean my life was literally in danger and I found still that I could not stop.”
Thoughts of suicide
Ferree was sick, married and a mother, yet none of those things could make her change, even though she was horrified by what she was doing.
“It's about feeling rotten,” says Ferree. “I want to feel better. What way am I going through a ritual to feel better? I’m connecting with someone, I’m going to act out sexually. I feel horrible after that and the whole cycle starts over again.”
Ferree was desperate. Sex with her husband was not enough, and she believed the only way to stop having sex outside her marriage was to end her life.
“I had really strong suicidal thoughts,” says Ferree. “But I knew I couldn't keep on living but I was too afraid to die.”
Another woman, who calls herself “Karen,” was also overtaken by sexual addiction and by her own shame, so raw that she asked Dateline NBC to hide her face and use a different name.
“It’s just this 24-hour distraction,” she says. “Like the shame that it causes, I feel like it just stole my soul.”
Karen is in her '30s, single, and for almost as long as she can remember she's been preoccupied with finding love. For years, she says, this meant having sex several times a week with strangers she would pick up in bars, frequently putting herself in dangerous situations.
“I ended up going home with a group of guys like 10 years younger than me,” says Karen, “and I figured I would have sex with one of them and maybe have a relationship. But I ended up having sex or doing sexual things with several of them. And that was a new low … Absolutely humiliated. What horrified me the most about it is that these guys were graffiti writers and they wrote on my body and that's what made me feel like, oh my God, I was just completely used as an object.”
Karen even found herself contemplating prostitution. “That actually seemed like a logical thing to do since I found myself having sex with people I didn't know anyway,” she says. “And I kind of became obsessed with some ads in the back of a free newspaper for escort services and I went on a couple of interviews.”
'I was frightened, incredibly frightened'
Laaser was also building toward behavior he would never have thought was possible for him.
He had degrees in religion and divinity, had attended seminary school, was a deeply committed Christian and had been ordained as a minister. “There was that good side. There was that moral side. There was that caring side,” says Laaser.
And yet, he'd escape, feeling furtive and guilty, to feed his sexual addiction. At the same time, he was working on getting his Ph.D. in, of all things, psychology.
“Now I’m the Rev. Dr. Laaser,” he says, “and there are people that are going to be attracted to that and I actually wound up becoming sexual with some of my clients at that time. … It happened multiple times over a 10-year period. … [I was] frightened, incredibly frightened … I think for years I felt totally worthless. I can’t describe to you the times I would sit in church, even preaching on a Sunday morning, thinking God's grace was for everybody else but certainly not for me.”
Laaser was preaching redemption, but for him, redemption might be more difficult. He betrayed parishioners, colleagues and clients. It was a trust that was about to be shattered.
“One of the people I was involved in with had reported (our affair). Yes, the very thing I was afraid of actually happened. Eight very angry people called me in, canceled my appointments for that day,” says Laaser.
He says he didn’t even realize what they knew “until the first one opened his mouth and started talking. Then it all came crashing in on me.”
Laaser’s colleagues at the center where he was a counselor angrily confronted and fired him. They would help him get treatment for his sexual misbehavior, but first, they said, he had to tell his wife Debbie everything.
“I was totally blindsided,” says Debbie. “I had no idea that this man I had been living with for 15 years -- married to for 15 years -- could possible have been doing all these things. And I'll never forget the look on Mark's face. Actually he was sitting in a chair across from me and I guess today what I know is brokenness in a person … I think there were times truthfully when I questioned whether I would stay. There were times I know when I felt so extremely sad, that I wasn't sure we would ever be able to have happiness in our life again.”
And then, in the midst of all that pain, her husband felt something else.
“This pent up secret that is now over 30 years old is now all of a sudden out of the bag,” says Laaser. “I don’t have to protect the secret anymore. So I think mixed up with fear, sadness and confusion there was a sense of relief.”
Is sex addiction really about the sex?
So is sex addiction really about the sex?
“No,” says Carnes, “but that's the mistake people often make. It's really about pain … or escaping or anxiety reduction. It's a solution.”
Ferree thought sex was her solution to painful feelings, but it was a solution that was not working. After years of failing to will herself to stop having sex with acquaintances, she was ready to take her own life. And then, at last, she confided in someone.
“I picked up the phone and called a dear friend and poured out this awful saga of my life and said I need help,” says Ferree.
She did get help help. A therapist helped her learn to deal with the childhood sexual abuse that contributed to her many affairs. Her second marriage survived and is, she says, better.
Ferree was surprised to find she wasn't alone. About a third of sex addicts are female, which is why, Ferree says, she decided she wanted to do something to help other women. She went back to school to get a degree in counseling.
“I didn't choose sex addiction,” says Ferree. “Sex addiction chose me and this field chose me.”
She now runs a counseling program for sexually addicted women, called .
“Women are afraid to talk about it,” says Ferree. “We're afraid of being labeled as whores. It's kind of guys will be guys, men will be men. But for a woman to be out of control in her sexual behavior, there is just a whole other level of shame.”
Karen, awash in that same shame, one day found herself surfing the Internet to see if she was the only woman in the world who suffered in this way, when she ran across Web sites for sexual addiction. She entered a 12-step program and has been dealing with sex appropriately for a year.
“The real problem for most sex addicts, they would say to you, I wouldn't know healthy sexuality if it hit me over the head. So how do I know when I am in my craziness and when what I'm doing is a normal healthy reaction to have. And that's part of what recovery teaches,” says Carnes.
Laaser has been in recovery for over a decade. He say's it's a continuing process. After his sexual misbehavior was exposed, Laser entered a sex addiction treatment center for a month where he received psychotherapy. He now runs a program called . He still occasionally goes for counseling and relies on the support of those around him, such as his wife Debbie who stayed by his side through it all.
“I never had these real feelings of just running and leaving,” says Debbie. “I wasn't aware that running would solve anything necessarily.”
Their relationship eventually strengthened. They dealt with some of the loneliness Laaser felt and both found comfort in their religious faith.
“Now that Debbie and I are more spiritually intimate, sex in our relationship is totally satisfying,” says Laaser.
His work has also helped him. He is again counseling others -- including men with problems like his.
Why can't people just stop?
So why can’t people just stop these behaviors? If there's no drug or chemical involved, how is sex addiction like drug addiction or smoking?
“When you have a compulsive gambler,” says Carnes, “you’re not taking a chemical. ... In other words, we produce chemicals in our brain whether we use an outside chemical or not.”
New studies, like one at Vanderbilt University, are being conducted to determine if brains of sex addicts are somehow different, and if sex addiction is a true, measurable disorder. Yet despite growing interest in such research, there are still some who do not believe it is a true addiction. The American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual, for example, does not list sex addiction as a disorder.
“That book is always changing,” says Carnes, “and a consensus is starting to build. People who work in the addiction realm are starting to get a common agreement about how to start describing this.”
But, however the scientific debate works itself out, people like Ferree, Karen and Laaser want to help other people suffering from the same compulsions. They want people to know how to recognize the problem and discover that there is hope.