Imagine what life would be like as an alcoholic bartender. Or a gourmet chef with an eating disorder. Or a pharmacist with an amphetamine habit. For people with virtually unlimited access to their "poison," conquering an addiction might seem next to impossible.
The same can be said for the sex addict who compulsively engages in dangerous, abusive, costly or even illegal sexual activity. In some respects, sex is more insidious than other addictions because the human sex drive is a powerful, natural urge and there's literally no escaping the instrument: one's own body. The problem is compounded by a society steeped in sexual imagery.
A sex-addiction expert in Barre is making it easier for men to escape their compulsion, while also helping them rebuild their lives. Ron Shepard is a personal development specialist, or "life coach," with a speciality in sexual disorders. Unlike other therapists who look to a patient's history as a means of unearthing the experiences and traumas that led to the addiction, Shepard says he works with clients to identify strengths and skills they can use to change their behavior and move their lives in a new direction.
Shepard treats only male sex addicts, but no court-mandated sex offenders, in a small, third-floor office in downtown Barre -- conveniently located across the street from the basement-level strip club Planet Rock and accompanying adult-video store. "I ask them, 'Where is the gap between where you are now and where you want to be?'" he explains. "That's what coaching is. It's all about building that bridge." He uses the same strategy when helping professionals to change careers or couples to improve their relationships.
Shepard works with men both individually and in groups of eight to 10. Asked "How do I know if I'm having 'normal' sex?" he says he can't answer that question for his clients. Identifying an unhealthy sexual lifestyle isn't about moralizing or passing judgment on specific activities or their frequency, he tells them. It's about identifying what triggers compulsive behaviors and their destructive consequences.
"The fact that someone likes to look at pornography is not necessarily an addiction," Shepard says. Rather, the problem is defined by "what's behind it and what comes after it."
For example, a man may masturbate five times a day simply because he's a highly sexual person. Then again, he may masturbate five times a day as an attempt to cope with unhealthy stress in his life. Afterward, he may feel shame, remorse, isolation or despair, thereby increasing his anxiety and perpetuating the cycle. Shepard may identify such an individual as a sex addict.
How common is sex addiction? Dr. Patrick Carnes, a nationally recognized author and speaker and editor of the journal Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, estimates that between 3 to 6 percent of the American population engages in some form of compulsive sexual behavior.
But, unlike other addictions widely recognized as "illnesses" with treatment and support networks, sex addiction is only beginning to gain legitimacy through groups like Sexaholics Anonymous and Sexual Addicts Anony- mous. More often, a sex addict keeps his or her activities secret for fear of being labeled a deviant, pervert or criminal. Even using the word "addiction" to describe compulsive sex elicits heated arguments in some professional circles, and is the subject of ongoing debate in scientific and academic journals.
What isn't a matter of contention is the explosive growth of the sex industry in the United States over the last three decades. Sex was a $5 million business in 1970, according to government reports in Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness, Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. Today, Americans spend an estimated $8 to $10 billion per year on adult entertainment, including hard-core videos and DVDs, Internet and satellite porn, phone sex, live peep shows, pornographic magazines and books. As Schlosser notes, "Americans now spend more money at strip clubs than at Broadway shows, regional and nonprofit theaters and symphony orchestra performances -- combined."
Shepard may identify sex addiction in a man who has come to him for help with another compulsive behavior, such as gambling or overeating -- in fact, there's a high correlation between sex addiction and cocaine abuse.
Again, Shepard emphasizes that having an active libido or a hearty appetite for erotica doesn't necessarily suggest there's a problem. Sex is different from, say, heroin or alcohol, in that one cannot overdose from excessive masturbation or overly prolonged phone sex. That said, one indicator of sex addiction is the tendency to engage in increasingly risky activities. Although the consequences of sex addiction are rarely lethal, they can be just as destructive as those from a chemical dependency, resulting in financial troubles, failed marriages, ruined careers and tarnished reputations.
Shepard also points out that no sexual orientation predicts addiction more than another; he's treated clients of all persuasions. Sex addiction also appears to cut across age and economic boundaries. It seems to be more common among people who grew up in households where sexuality wasn't openly discussed or where sexual awareness was awakened too early. Shepard cautions against trying to draw any correlations between sex addiction and any specific religious or political persuasions.
Not surprisingly, more men than women are identified as sex addicts. Shepard believes this has a lot to do with prevalent cultural notions of male identity and its link to promiscuity. Shepard often hears his clients say that when they were young, they learned that a man's worth is measured by his sexual conquests.
Shepard, 58, came to this field relatively late in his career. For 30 years, he worked as a comptroller in the business world, where co-workers and friends often approached him for advice on their careers and personal lives. At 50, Shepard decided to get a Bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology and his Master's degree in masculine psychology. He then took a job working with troubled teens at the Lamoille Family Center in Morrisville.
Shepard quickly discovered that many of the teenage boys he worked with were sexually active, with few, if any, behaviorial boundaries. They were often left alone at home, where they'd spend hours watching Internet porn. Shepard sees a link between sex addiction and poor role models, especially for boys and young men. As a client once remarked to him, "We don't raise boys to be men. We raise them to not be women." When kids feel isolated or abandoned, he says, they seek comfort wherever they can find it, and sex is often a cheap, easy and available "fix."
Shepard is currently teaching a "nurturing fathers program" designed to make men better role models for their children. "I have men come up to me and say, 'Why didn't we learn this in high school?'" he says. "'Why didn't I learn this from my parent?'" The desired result? Reduction in sex addiction, and well as other social ills such as domestic violence and sexual abuse. In the end, he suggests, respect for oneself and others are prerequisites for understanding what healthy love is all about.