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Valerie realized that sex was wrecking her life right around the time her second marriage disintegrated. At 30, and employed as a human-resources administrator in Phoenix, she had serially cheated on both her husbands—often with their subordinates and co-workers—logging anonymous hookups in fast-food-restaurant bathrooms, affairs with married men, and one-night stands too numerous to count. But Valerie couldn’t stop. Not even after one man’s wife aimed a shotgun at her head while catching them in flagrante delicto. Valerie called phone-sex chat lines and pored over online pornography, masturbating so compulsively that it wasn’t uncommon for her to choose her vibrator over going to work. She craved public exhibitionism, too, particularly at strip clubs, and even accepted money in exchange for sex—not out of financial necessity but for the illicit rush such acts gave her.

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Reliable figures for the number of diagnosed sex addicts are difficult to come by, but the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, an education and sex-addiction treatment organization, estimates that between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population—or more than 9 million people—could meet the criteria for addiction. Some 1,500 sex therapists treating compulsive behavior are practicing today, up from fewer than 100 a decade ago, say several researchers and clinicians, while dozens of rehabilitation centers now advertise treatment programs, up from just five or six in the same period. The demographics are changing, too. “Where it used to be 40- to 50-year-old men seeking treatment, now there are more females, adolescents, and senior citizens,” says Tami VerHelst, vice president of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals. “Grandfathers getting caught with porn on their computers by grandkids, and grandkids sexting at 12.”

If discussion of sex addiction can seem like an exclusive domain of men, that’s because, according to sex therapists, the overwhelming majority of self-identifying addicts—about 90 percent—are male. Women are more often categorized as “love addicts,” with a compulsive tendency to fall into dependent relationships and form unrealistic bonds with partners. That’s partly because women are more apt than men to be stigmatized by association with sex addiction, says Anna Valenti-Anderson, a sex-addiction therapist in Phoenix. “We live in a society where there’s still a lot more internalized shame for women and there’s a lot more for them to lose,” Valenti-Anderson says. “People will say, ‘She’s a bad mom’ for doing these sexual things. As opposed to, ‘She’s sick and has a disorder.’ But very slowly, women are starting to be more willing to come into treatment.”

Addicts and therapists alike say they hope a greater awareness of the disease will eventually help addicts of all genders and ages come forward and seek treatment. Many are likely to find that “sex addiction isn’t really about sex,” as Weiss puts it; it’s about “being wanted.”

X3LA’s Steven Luff says, “Sex is the perfect match for that. ‘I matter right now. In this moment, I am loved.’ In that sense, an entire culture, an entire nation is looking for meaning.”

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