December 25, 2009 | by David J. Hoffman
Clinic to tackle sex addiction

“It was a constant circle, I was caught in a loop and I couldn’t get out of it,” declared one man of the tight compulsive grip of sex addiction in his life.

“You just have to have it, you just have to hunt it, no matter where, and no matter how many times I had it that night, I thought I’ve just got to have it again,” said another.

But then “it’s hard to even recognize sexually addictive behavior in the gay community,” said a third, “because it’s all so sexualized,” as others agreed, chiming in, “our culture is a very sexually charged culture” and “the gay lifestyle has so much to do with sex” and “look at the straight world where there’s no bathhouses.”

Each of these men were among those at a Whitman-Walker Center lecture held on Dec. 15 by Alexandria-based gay psychotherapist David C. Bissette, who warned the nearly 20 men that while cessation of sexually compulsive acts — for example, excessive time spent online searching for sex or looking at pornography, acting out sexually in public and risking arrest, engaging in unsafe sexual practices such as barebacking — was best, at a minimum steps to reduce harmful effects from such behavior was imperative for continuing such behavior can court disaster.

But the very label of “sexual addiction” is problematic for clinical professionals, some of whom accept it — such as the man who coined the term itself in 1983, Patrick Carnes, with a doctorate in counseling who now heads the Gentle Path program, a treatment for what he terms “sexually addictive disorder” at the Pine Grove Behavioral Center in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Carnes’ approach is spelled out in detail at his web site, sexhelp.com, where he offers an online screening test titled “Am I a sex addict?”

Other experts are doubtful that such a condition can actually be defined, and the term isn’t yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of therapists everywhere. Along with other controversial diagnoses, however, such as those relating to certain gender identity issues, sexual addiction (or SA for short) is now being debated for a future revision of the DSM.

For Dr. Bissette, however, the condition exists and he offers treatment for it, as will the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which will offer two services: one a sexual compulsion psychotherapy group run by Clinic staffer Randy Pumphrey and the other a peer-led support group, run something akin to a 12-step program.

But critics charge that the label of SA is often just a dodge invented to shield people like Tiger Woods from the full consequences of his marital misdeeds or that it is a lip-smacker packaged for TV voyeur-viewers and offered for prurient delectation such as on VH1’s recent show “Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew.” Dr. Drew Pinsky that just ended the show’s first season last Sunday night.

Some critics of the diagnosis also link it to traditionalist Christian groups that seek to promote conversion of people from gay to straight sexual orientations, and groups such as James Dobson’s Focus on the Family often conflate homosexuality itself with SA. But another point of view in this “contested terrain” of diagnosis and treatment is found at the Sexual Recovery Institute, which clearly states that it does not view homosexual relationships as a sign of SA.

And one observer has pointed out that “healthy sex” is subjective, so the diagnosis of SA typically relies on the patient simply feeling ashamed of his or her behavior. The diagnosis is incidentally overwhelmingly male in its application. In one observer’s view, everyone is apt to feel ashamed at times in a world pockmarked with taboos and guilt. If we’re afraid of lust, in other words, and being discovered to be sexually abnormal, does that mean that we really are?

Bissette can be reached at his Alexandria office at 703-705-6161 or at HealthyMind.com. Dr. Pumphrey can be reached at the Whitman-Walker Clinic at 202-939-7679 or at rpumphrey@wwc.org. To learn more about the peer-led support group, contact Whitman-Walker Center staffer Steve Geishecker, a licensed social worker, at 202-939-7674 or at sgeishecker@wwc.org.

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