Does Rehab for Sex Addiction Really Work?
The wave of Hollywood sexual misconduct scandals has put sex addiction in the spotlight —along with the treatment programs that address it.
Following accusations of sexual assault and harassment, Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey have both acknowledged they are in treatment. Though neither man has specified what he’s being treated for, they’ve both been linked to a facility offering treatment for a wide range of addictions and disorders that has a special program for sex addicts. (Weinstein, who’s getting treatment while staying at an Arizona hotel, has apologized for behavior with colleagues “that has caused a lot of pain,” but denied any nonconsensual sex. A Spacey rep has said the actor is “taking the time necessary to seek evaluation and treatment.”)
But what is sex addiction, and is the term even relevant to these men’s alleged predatory behavior? We asked experts to weigh in on the controversial topic.
Is sex addiction taken seriously in the medical field?
The short answer: it depends on who you talk to.
Sex addiction is not an “official” disorder recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s reference guide, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
David Glass, an L.A.-based family law attorney who also holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, says sex addiction isn’t considered in the same category as alcoholism, drug addiction or gambling addiction (all DSM-5-listed addictions) by medical professionals because “the science just isn’t there yet.”
Still, plenty of doctors and facilities use the term as they treat people struggling with sexual compulsions they feel are out of control and causing negative consequences. Gary Fisher, executive director of Cirque Lodge treatment facility in Utah, says clients often seek help for both chemical dependencies and sexual addiction at the same time.
“Certainly people who continue to pursue [sexual behavior] or drugs in the face of obvious consequences would qualify as addicts in our book,” he says.
Glass also notes that there are important differences between people who claim to be sex addicts and people who are sexual predators.
“Sexual predators don’t have a lot to do with sex. There are sex acts and forced sex acts, but it’s not the same sort of motivation,” Glass says. “The sexual predator is all about control, controlling someone in a humiliating way and getting them to do something they would ordinarily never do. The same way you differentiate between rape and consensual sex.”
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How is sex addiction treated?
Sex addiction is treated very similarly to drug and alcohol addiction, according to experts. Success depends on a patient’s personal motivation and commitment to getting better.
As Glass explains it, the first step in treatment is figuring out how motivated a person is to be in treatment and if he or she wants to make a change. The second is “getting them to identify the triggers, the environmental stimuli that get them thinking about whatever their addictive behavior is. Is it feeling unimportant? Is it feeling insignificant?”
The third step, says Glass, “is getting the person to recognize when those triggers come along” so he can stop the behavior.
Sex addiction and predatory behavioral issues often involve substance abuse, as well as other factors, says marriage and family therapist Ari Labowitz, founder and director of Peace by Piece Treatment Center.
“It goes back to that root of discovering if it’s a learned behavior or it’s genetic,” he explains. “What are the reasons it’s occurring? Oftentimes with adults preying upon younger people, underage people, generally they themselves have been a victim of that type of predatory behavior, so it becomes a learned behavior.”
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How successful are treatments for sex addiction?
Results all depend on “the person’s willingness to put in the time and effort to figure out and recognize what they’re doing is wrong and hurts other people,” says Glass.
“It’s the old joke about ‘How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.’ That’s what it all comes down to with anyone going into treatment, but especially with behavioral treatment for an addictive behavior.”
Glass adds that wealthy individuals or those in positions of power can struggle with acknowledging their bad behavior.
“People who have a lot of money and houses and boats and cars, they still have a bunch of people running around servicing them, handling their appointments and everything else, it’s hard for them to ever feel like they’ve hit rock bottom,” says Glass. “‘I’ll lay low for 60-90 days and I’ll be back running my company again.'”
Family, friends and even public opinion can also help with a person’s recovery, says L.A.-based attorney Irwin Feinberg.
“They need the support of the people they interact with and to a lesser extent they need the support of the public,” he says.
Is there a ‘cure’ for sex addiction?
“Not yet,” says Fisher. “The best we have been able to do to date is just manage it. For many of our clients and for many people worldwide, recovery has enhanced their lives.”
Most experts use the language they would use about other addictions: You can be in recovery, but “you are a recovering addict so long as you’re doing what it takes to stay in that recovery,” Feinberg says. “Addicts can always slip back into that addiction.”
Are celebrities going to treatment for legal or PR reasons?
“It’s less of a legal strategy and more of a practical public relations strategy,” says Feinberg. “If they are under scrutiny and attention for any kind of behavior that can be labeled addictive behavior — whether it’s drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling — the first step in trying to resuscitate their public image is to admit and commit to correcting the problem.”
Checking into rehab is a good way to “demonstrate to the public” that they have an issue and are “willing to take steps to address it,” says Feinberg, who adds that “showing remorse and awareness of the problem” can also help in criminal or civil cases.
Labowitz says he can tell a patient’s motivation within “minutes” of meeting them. He says that even if a client doesn’t at first seem remorseful, “it doesn’t mean they’re not going to have success” with treatment.
“Although a lot of [the sexually predatory behavior] is narcissistic behavior, I would find it hard to believe that somebody can go through these types of behaviors, get called out on them and not recognize at some point that there is something wrong about the behavior,” he says.