"Obsession with sex. Total obsession with sex." That's how Klaus* describes all of his adult years. "It was the main focus in my life. My main bottom line behavior was other women, I had more women than you could shake a stick at," he admits. "But I did everything, the masturbation, the videos. Everything."
Klaus is an admitted sex addict, now in recovery. Before you make the judgement that you have nothing in common with him, read more about the signs and symptoms of addictive behavior ("red flags") that therapists look for.
"That can be exhibitionism, they do some exposing and find that gets them a lot of attention, so they use that attention," says Linda Hudson, an addiction specialist with 15 years experience. Other red flags are voyeurism, obsession with pornography, anonymous sex and just about any kind of illegal sexual behavior.
There are key emotional issues to watch for, too, like an obsession with one person, or lying about your sexual activities. "They will not keep commitments, they'll lie, they'll skirt around issues," says Alex Katehakis, a marriage family therapist intern. "If somebody considers that what they're doing is secretive, shaming or abusive in regards to their sexuality, then generally they have a problem. It's a pathological relationship to sex, meaning damaging."
Figuring out who is an addict is a start. "You're not going to find anyone who's going to raise their hand who's going to say 'Hi, I'm a sex addict,'" admits Katehakis. Several national organizations like Sexaholics Anonymous and Sex Addicts Anonymous feature a list of questions for people to ask themselves. They concentrate on certain themes, like whether sex takes them places they wouldn't normally go or whether the sex involves risk. Another theme -- whether people feel shame after sex.
"It also is about power," says addiction specialist Linda Hudson, "If I don't feel good about how I look, about how I feel and I can get you to have sex with me, if I can seduce you, it makes me feel better about myself. If I can't, it makes me feel worse."
"Shame is part of the addictive cycle. Generally after the person obsesses about acting out, ritualizes it and acts out, they go into a shame spiral," says Katehakis. "When does it start to be about pain, hurt and loss? That's when you have a problem." But it's also a key to self-diagnosis.
"Something bothered me," says Les*, a recovering addict in New York. "Maybe I just felt out of place. I felt out of place no matter where I was, whether other people were having fun and I wasn't, or nobody was laughing at my jokes."
Les says that's what led him to start using sex as a drug, a way to make himself forget the pain for a while. "I went to porno movies and said 'This is stupid, women wouldn't do that.' Then I went back. I would get angry and I would leave, then I'd go back to another one." Les says his pattern started when he was in his 20s. Klaus began in his teens. That puts college students at a prime age for falling into addictive cycles.
"Oh yeah, you know it shows up a lot," says Mary Andres, a doctor of psychology at the University of Southern California. "My definition of an addiction is when behavior causes a disruption in basic life areas," says the clinical psychologist. "You're not studying, you're not getting enough sleep, you're not keeping up with your daily activities." The USC counselor says sexually compulsive students get so wrapped in relationships or other sexual obsessions that their grades and relationships suffer.
"I'll do a full evaluation of all their life areas and they might be struggling in other areas and they'll say 'Well that doesn't really even matter because only she matters,'" adds Dr. Andres. "I think the healthiest relationships are the relationships where there is a balance between yours, mine and ours."
She illustrates it this way. "When I see people get into those dependent kind of relationships, I remind them of being on an airplane. When the stewardess shows you, if you have a child, [you should] put your mask on first then take care of the child. You have to take care of yourself first."
Still, Andres and others say it's hard to pinpoint who is a sex addict on a college campus. "We're at a college with a huge residential population. For the first time at 17 or 18 they don't have a curfew. Many of them have to do a pendulum swing to find out what's right for them."
Katehakis agrees. "You know it's a little tricky when you're dealing with college-aged people because you're partying and really figuring out how to be independent from your parents -- really knocking yourself out -- so it's hard to differentiate that from addiction. If you don't experiment with sex and drugs and alcohol in college, you're not gonna wake up at thirty and do this."
Dr. Andres points out another issue unique to students. "Some of them have only been sexually active for nine months, maybe some for four years. So it's not as entrenched as someone who's been hitting the bars for years. If you think of it like a bad habit, maybe even someone who's been smoking cigarettes for ten months rather than ten years, it's not as entrenched."
There are ways to find out whether a student is enmeshed in the addiction cycle. "I put them on a celibacy contract for 30 days," says Hudson. "If they can't be non-sexual for 30 days then they really need to look at it." Hudson, who works at the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, says she also sees other signs of addiction in students. "You start to pick up on sexual humor, sexual conversations, and kids pick up that that's a driving force for that person."
"There is help," offers Klaus, "Sex Addicts Anonymous is a 12-step program of recovery in the style of alcoholics anonymous. ...I've been two years in the program now, and I have two years of sobriety."
SAA and other recovery groups offer all kinds of help online. They'll help students figure out if they're addicted to sex and show them where they can go for help -- like the location of meetings where other addicts share their stories.
Although the Internet can be a source of recovery for addicts, it can also cause problems. "The biggest risk to kids now is the computer because it's got so much power and has so many sources," says Hudson. Most students today have free access to the Web without much supervision and, Hudson adds, "That's a real spider web because before you know it, it just really sucks you in and you get into some pretty serious behavior."
Another problem for collegians and teens is pornography. A national organization, Men Against Porn, says it's easier to get adult material now more than ever before. In fact, a CPNet Poll done in December shows two-thirds of students say that viewing pornography in their dorm rooms is an acceptable activity.
Whether an addict is diagnosed in college or years later, it's never too late for recovery. "The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop the behavior," SAA's Klaus reminds us. "I knew that most of the time, but I couldn't stop it. My life has become unmanageable and I have no control over it. That's the first step. You have to admit that, but if you work it, it works."
*Name withheld to protect anonymity.