Gay Men and ‘Sex Addiction’

muscled manby Niclas Ericsson.

Have you ever wondered if you are addicted to sex? Or have you had anxiety because you could not seem to stop surfing porn despite trying? In this case you are not alone. It is not uncommon for gay men to seek help for what they perceive as sex or porn addiction.

Maybe it was the Hollywood actor Michael Douglas who first gave sex addiction a face. When his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones came under strain and she accused him openly of being sex addicted, Douglas enrolled in a clinic for treatment and the tabloid press revelled in the details.

Since then, numerous celebrities, mainly in the United States, have identified themselves as sex addicts. Best known is perhaps the golfer Tiger Woods, whose recent affairs caused his Swedish wife Elin to seek divorce – despite the fact that Woods also enrolled in a rehabilitation centre to treat his “sex addiction”.

In the wake of celebrity scandals and media interest in the phenomenon, sex addiction appears to have become almost popular. Tabloids offer checklists to “test if you are a sex addict” featuring questions such as “Have you had sex with someone even though you did not want it?” and “How many partners have you had?”

If you Google sex addiction and treatment you will find a few million hits. CBT – cognitive behavioural therapy – and medication are standard treatments in conventional care. Others choose to go through a twelve-step program for addiction, like the model Alcoholics Anonymous uses.

There are also therapists who specialize in issues concerning sex and sex addiction. One of them is Ash Rehn, who has 20 years experience working with counselling and therapy with gay men. He practices online through webcam and instant message and has clients across the world.

“I estimate that 30 per cent of my clients, straight and gay, turn to me to talk about sex addiction or porn addiction. But that is to do with the fact I specialize in it,” says Rehn.

The term sex addiction is quite problematic, he says – not least for gay men.

“Gay men often have a lot of negative feelings to overcome in order to feel comfortable with their sexuality. Most have been exposed to many years of implicit messages telling them they are not as good as heterosexual men. Or they have been told that the sex they like is ‘wrong’ or ‘unnatural’ in some way.”

Rehn says that when he grew up in Brisbane Australia, homosexual acts were still prohibited by law and could lead to 14 years in prison. And although there is now legislation to protect gay rights in many countries, he believes that young people growing up today are still influenced by the idea that homosexuality is lower status than heterosexuality.

“There is a strong tendency to condemn gay men, and this can become like a judgmental voice they hear in their head if they compare themselves with norms or have more sexual partners than the average heterosexual person.”

“Sex is not a problem in itself. But if something we are doing is getting in the way of our intentions and hopes for our life, then it may be a problem for us.”

According to Rehn, there are many gay men who reject the concept of sex addiction or laugh at it. And what we mean by addicted in this context is actually unclear. In strict medical sense, people cannot become addicted to sex in the same way as, for example, heroin.

“Is it about biochemical reactions in the brain? Or is it about behavioural patterns? Or is it just something that is difficult to stop? Even the idea of sex addiction is very confusing,” explains Rehn. “Sex addiction or porn addiction can easily become labels we paste on people, but they do not really say much about the nature of the problem.”

“The differences from person to person are much greater than the similarities. The shared experience might be that it is hard to stop watching porn. But the unique experience might be a man who is trying to finish his masters’ degree and not getting the work done because he keeps looking at porn. Or it could be a man whose boyfriend refuses to let him look at porn, so he does it in secret and then feels guilty about having lied to his partner. Someone else might feel that looking at porn is taking away from making a connection with other ‘real’ men. And this man might want that connection more than anything else in life. Yet another man might see nothing wrong with porn but live in a country where he could face the death penalty if he is caught watching it. So there are many completely different stories.”

Rehn is interested in the way people transform their life stories and make meaning of the events in their lives.

We make sense of our lives through the stories we tell ourselves and others. Say you meet someone you’re interested in. You might tell yourself a story like I’m not good enough for him, but I’ll still try to get him to like me. Or you might say to yourself This is the man I’ve been waiting for my whole lifetime.”

“Sometimes we construct meanings of failure or shortcomings, sometimes meanings of courage, or success. But they are always stories we construct so we can also deconstruct them and rebuild different stories.”

One of the significant aspects of Rehn’s approach is to avoid seeing a problem as located within a person.

“If we see the problem as part of the person, that often leads to very negative feelings when that person blames himself. In addition, a man might feel that he really is stuck with this problem, because it’s part of him. So how can he change the situation?”

Rehn’s way to work is to externalize the problem, so that a person can have a relationship with it.

“In my experience, therapeutic conversations take a different turn when we start talking about what these men really want in life instead of what they don’t want. Often I ask them after a few sessions ‘by the way, how’s the porn addiction?’ and then they can say ‘it’s weird, because I have not even watched any porn recently’.”

Are there some criteria for when a person’s sexual behaviour really becomes a problem?

“Good question. For me as a therapist something is a problem when the person who contacts me sees it as a problem. I do not make diagnoses or tell people that they have – or don’t have – a problem. Instead I ask them why this is a problem for them. The way I see it those who turn to me are the experts in their own lives. My role is to help them investigate the problem, rather than just pasting a label onto them that says ‘addict’. That doesn’t actually say very much. Another problem with the label ‘addiction’ is that it can lead to feelings of shame that paralyses a person or has them denying responsibility with reasoning such as ‘I can’t help it, I am addicted’.”

So what about someone who wonders whether his Internet habits and sexual behaviour are a problem or not? How should someone proceed if they are not sure?

“I might say this: ‘Do you think this is becoming a problem for you? Can you tell me more about why this is a problem?’ Or I might ask: ‘Has something happened recently that made you think that this is a problem?’ I let people call things what they want. So if someone contacts me and wants to talk about his ‘sex addiction’ we use those words.”

Rehn does not think problems related to sex or pornography are a new thing. What is new is the idea of a ‘sex addiction’. It has become increasingly prevalent in the media especially the last five years.

Why is it that that we are so happy to accept such concepts if they are not really telling us so much?

“I think partly it is about media and that we have a tendency to want to put labels on things. We live in an age where ‘normal’ has become the new god. We monitor ourselves all the time so that we do not move too far away from the ‘normal’.”

“There is also always an alternative story,” says Rehn. “Those who have problems with sex or porn have always tried to do something about it. They have really tried to quit. Often it has been a very difficult time and they have felt really bad. So putting a label on the problem can be a relief. Having a label may be an explanation for them. It’s just that the label cannot provide the solution to the problem.”

The question whether sex addiction exists or not is perhaps not so important after all. It is up to each individual to define what he thinks is a problem in his own life. And there seem to be many forms of assistance and therapy for those who feel that sexual behaviour or surfing porn has begun to take over too much of life.

(This article originally appeared in Swedish on the website www.sentry.nu in September 2010)

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About Forward Therapy

Ash Rehn is a counsellor and narrative therapist with over 20 years experience. He specialises in therapeutic conversations and collaborative therapy for anxiety, burnout, depression, midlife crisis, sex and relationship issues, pornography use problems and counselling for lesbians and gay men.
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