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Sex 'Addiction' Is Real But Exaggerated

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TORONTO-- ''Sex addiction'' is a genuine, treatable mental disorder that is sending an increasing number of adults into therapy, but it's not nearly as common as portrayed on daytime TV, experts on sexual behavior said during the weekend.

''People make mistakes, and sometimes they get caught. It's like driving while intoxicated. But 'sexual addiction' is a trendy, overused term,'' says psychologist Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis. He spoke at the American Psychological Association meeting here.

About 3% to 5% of U.S. adults have the disorder, studies suggest. They're not pedophiles or otherwise deviant in their sexual practices, Coleman says. They're straight or gay people with intense, recurrent sexual fantasies who are uncontrollably driven to compulsive sexual acts that cause them trouble. Also, true sex addiction can't be chalked up to drug or alcohol abuse or any medical condition, he says.

Addicts often have been abused -- sexually, physically or emotionally -- as children, Coleman says, and that could change how their brains function.

Many patients are helped by the SSRI type of antidepressants, such as Prozac, that increase serotonin and other ''feel good'' brain chemicals. These drugs tend to quench libido and the capacity for or-gasms, so some have suggested that's why they help sex addicts. But newer antidepressants that are unlikely to affect sexual function, such as Serzone and Wellbutrin, also are effective, Coleman says.

Preliminary brain-scan studies point to possible differences in the brains of sex-addicted and normal adults, says psychologist Michael Miner of the University of Minnesota. But more research is needed to spell out and prove the differences, he says.

More sex addicts than ever, mostly heterosexual men, are seeking help, Coleman says. He says more women are affected than is known, ''but they're less likely to admit it because of the double standard.''

Gays are vulnerable too. In a study of 183 gay men who felt that their sex lives were out of control, an addictive pattern surfaced, says study author Jeffrey Parsons of City University of New York.

Adds study co-author Jon Morgenstern of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York: ''They're really suffering. Their lives are being destroyed.''

Therapy is virtually always needed, even if a patient takes medication, says Philadelphia psychologist Steve Eichel, who treats many sex addicts. ''A lot of them are very successful professionally, but they're in trouble -- in trouble with their wives, in legal trouble around prostitutes.''

Group therapy with other addicts works well, as does cognitive behavior therapy that teaches patients how to avoid and deal with situations that are likely to cause trouble, Eichel says.

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