Note: This article is also available in Romanian.
One of my favorite sayings has always been “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” A similar philosophy applies to the treatment of sexual problems. The label of “sex addiction” is a big, lucrative hammer, and every sexual problem is just asking to be “nailed.” For the past year, I’ve been working on a new book, The Myth of Sex Addiction, and one of the things I found extremely concerning was just how much this field is driven by profit motives.
The finances that lie behind the concept of sex addiction are a significant concern. Treatment for sex addiction is not cheap. A month’s treatment at some residential sex addiction treatment programs can cost over $37,000. Sex addiction is big business. All the celebrity attention to sex addiction has driven many more people into the offices of sex addiction therapists nationwide. Alexandra Katehakis, a sex addiction therapist with a practice in California, says that “celebrities have been the greatest evangelists for treatment. My practice wouldn’t exist without them.”
And it’s not just therapeutic business now. Sex addiction treatment is business in the entertainment industry as well. The Logo Channel has a reality show called Sex Rx, focusing on the therapy needs of a group of LGBT clients treated by Christopher Donaghue, a self-proclaimed specialist in sex addiction treatment. The VH1 channel previously had Sex Rehab, with celebrity physician Dr. Drew, which delved into the sexual issues of celebrities and focused on sexual addiction. According to the Sex Rehab show’s website, 6% of the American population is afflicted with sex addiction, though no reference is given to shed light on this number. Further, according to the show’s description, “nobody is immune to” sex addiction. In an amusing irony, the sponsored advertisement links on the show’s website are all for methods to either delay the male orgasm or treat erectile dysfunction. It sends an odd message—”Sex is dangerous and scary, you need to watch out and control it! And by the way, if you can’t have sex, here’s a link to buy a pill that will fix you up so you can have sex, which is dangerous and scary by the way!”
The New Life Ministries of Laguna Beach, California, runs a three-day seminar for men who say their sexual addiction is threatening their lives and marriages. Paying $1,400 for the seminar (not including hotel room), the men who attend what the church calls their “Every Man’s Battle” workshops are there to wage a battle against shame and fear, and the problem of pornography. The Every Man’s Battle website sells kits, books, compact discs, DVDs, and self-study resources for adolescents, families, wives, and men of all ages. There is even a kit for soldiers, shipped in a camouflage box, and apparently designed to help men resist sexual urges while deployed in the military. In 2009, according to tax forms posted on the Guidestar website, this organization made nearly $4 million just from selling their educational materials and almost $2.5 million from the seminars and workshops they conduct. In 2009, they reported nearly $8.5 million in gross revenues, according to the tax return documents they filed with the IRS, and since 2003, they have averaged around $8 or $9 million a year in revenue. Stephen Arterburn, the Christian counselor who heads the organization and is the central figure in most of the educational materials, was paid $180,000 a year in salary alone by the organization, a figure that almost certainly doesn’t include his speaking fees and royalties.
In the Arizona desert, about an hour from Phoenix, is The Meadows, an elite treatment center where you can go if you are struggling with addiction to drugs, alcohol, or sex and can afford the steep price tag. For a little over $1,000 a day, you get intense treatment designed to address issues that affected you in your childhood, as well as any traumas that continue to impact your adult life. You do so in a facility with an extremely talented gourmet chef, granite bathrooms, and beautiful fountains, art, and sculpture all around the campus. Notably, there are also saguaro cacti all around the facility, giant plants that resemble penises and sex toys so much that they are hard to ignore.
The staff there are dedicated and seem to be good people, genuinely interested in helping people make changes in their lives. But this facility generates close to $2 million a month for the for-profit investment firm that owns the facility. Some sexual addicts choose to stay in their facility long-term for treatment, sometimes as long as six months. And all of this is paid for by cash—this program doesn’t bill insurance for their treatment.
The Meadows Rehab, where actor David Duchovny has reportedly gone for sexual addiction treatment, is the “ground zero” for the movement to treat sex addiction. The Meadows’ senior fellows are Pia Mellody, author of Facing Love Addiction and Breaking Free; Claudia Black, author of It Will Never Happen to Me and Changing Course; and Patrick Carnes, author of Out of the Shadows and The Betrayal Bond. These authors have all written bestselling books on addiction, sex addiction, and codependency. As one critic argues in reference to these senior Meadows fellows, “Sex addiction was invented by a self-help group aided by popular books. It is trying now to move over into a medical condition.”
The concept of sexual addiction is driven by economic factors. The professionals who feed the media’s need for psychological and biological explanations of sexual behaviors are the same professionals who make very good livings providing treatment services to individuals who self-identify with sexual addiction after hearing these doctors and therapists on television. The proselytizing of sex addictionologists is a form of disease-mongering, where they are using the media, hype, and fear to create a disorder where none truly exists.