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ATLANTA -- To anyone who wonders why men repeatedly run around on beautiful women, experts say this: Sexual addiction is not about the sex.
News on Thursday that actress Halle Berry had separated from her second husband, Eric Benet, raised an inevitable flood of "why" questions.
While the couple didn't cite a reason for the separation, talk that Benet had been unfaithful to Berry _ repeatedly _ had circulated for as long as the couple had been married. A report last year in Essence magazine said that Benet had sought treatment for sexual addiction.
And while news accounts on Thursday only mentioned that the couple had separated, the news brought out discussion on the disorder, which is fast becoming a more frequent malady in a sex-saturated society, experts and researchers said.
Sex addiction causes its victims and those who care about them immeasurable pain.
"I think it's one of the most destructive disorders I work with," said Linda Hudson, an Atlanta therapist who has worked with sex addicts for about 20 years. '`They treat people as objects to be used, not as people to be related to. It's never about the sex. It's about power, and how do I feel better.''
Sexual addiction, or ``problematic hypersexuality'' as researchers call it, is a disorder in which thoughts of sex or sex itself so preoccupy a person that his or her behavior becomes destructive. A cycle starts with the preoccupation, which then becomes obsessive, overtaking most of the person's waking thoughts.
It's about using sex as an emotional need,'' said Richard Blankenship, an Atlanta therapist.It's an intimacy disorder.''
Blankenship said it's one that can come with a heavy pricetag, not only in emotional carnage.
Blankenship said he has a client who has spent as much as $75,000 a month on Internet pornography. Another spent a quarter of a million dollars over a few years on prostitutes. Several have been arrested, and some have had the FBI show up on their doorsteps, investigating whether their porn habit is leading to child pornography.
``I've had many people tell me that they will be in church, fantasizing about pornography,'' Blankenship said.
The person will then seek sexual release ranging from masturbation to risky sexual encounters with married people or prostitutes. In extreme cases, as when a desperate alcoholic will drink rubbing alcohol, addicts have been known to have unprotected sex with diseased partners, risking the spread of AIDS. The act itself does not matter, the therapists said. The ``fix'' is the high.
But as in all addictions, coming down is the payback. In sex addicts' cases, they are so overcome with shame that they will start the cycle all over again, sometimes immediately going on the prowl, on the Internet, looking for a new challenge.
A businessman who requested anonymity described his dangerous liaisons with pornography on his computer as an easy high.
``I'm basically a shy person, but on the Internet, with the computer, I can go into a chat room. It makes it easy. It's tailor-made to bring out the worst in you.''
The man said he has never been faithful to a woman. After divorcing his first wife, he remarried. The Internet and its easy access to pornography was a perfect opening for a private life he created on the side so he could maintain a clean image.
He would visit the sites, masturbate and all would be well, until the shame sank in. He'd be back soon for relief to cover the shame.
His wife began to catch him, and he began going to group therapy, where he met many other men just like him. But while they all promised not to have sex and visit their illicit sexual partners or Web sites, he said he lied.
He bottomed out just recently, when he walked into a room where he found his 16-year-old son online. The boy was downloading pornography.
It made me sick,'' he said.I realized my sin had been passed on to my son.''
He began intensive counseling at an out-of-town facility where he learned to look for triggers and to examine why he is doing what he does.
``This whole addiction _ it leaves you feeling empty. You're looking for something that doesn't exist,'' he said.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville are trying to find out what happens in the brains of sex addicts.
``It is a significant problem in this culture,'' said Dr. Reid Finlayson, assistant professor in addiction studies at Vanderbilt.
Finlayson and co-researchers Dr. Mitchell Parks and Dr. Peter Martin are using magnetic resonance imaging to study how non-sex addicts and the addicts respond to sexually provocative photographs.
When a sexually healthy person is around, ``there's a somewhat orderly pattern of activation in the areas of the brain that deal with executive function,'' Finlayson said. The team is looking at the responses of sex addicts to determine the differences in hopes of finding out whether the disorder has a biological component.
The inappropriate and destructive behavior of sex addiction can range from sexual harassment, which could cost someone a job, to the antics of high-profile politicians and celebrities who suffer public humiliation. Therapists cite the example of actor Hugh Grant, caught years ago with a prostitute, to a president who would risk his place in history for an illicit thrill, as did Bill Clinton, as behavior that could indicate sexual addiction.
Hudson noted that she has seen many more women addicts in recent years and that the number of men addicted to pornographic Web sites has grown dramatically.
The prevalence and ease of Internet pornography makes it especially difficult to stay sexually sober, the experts said. Regardless of the pitfalls to recovery, the experts agreed resoundingly that the disorder is one of a failing at intimacy and never a sign of a healthy sexuality.
It doesn't matter if you're married to Miss August or Miss America,'' said Blankenship.If you're an addict, you will not be satisfied.''
Virginia Anderson writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cox News Service