Writing in his 2007 autobiography, My Booky Wook, Russell Brand wrote about an episode that, in his words, “defined my relationship with women”.
He was 17 and on holiday in Hong Kong with his father, whose third marriage had just ended. On their first night, father and son took three prostitutes back to their hotel room. While his father had sex with two of the women in one of the twin beds, the teenage Russell had sex with the third in the other bed. For the rest of the holiday, Brand writes, he “had sex with loads more prostitutes”. On the way home, his father told him: “I went away with a boy and came back with a man.”
Brand claimed the trip caused his sexuality to go from “bewildered innocence into something more complex and rapacious”. What followed was a sexual appetite that saw him winning the Sun’s Shagger of the Year and his eventual treatment for sex addiction at a clinic in Philadelphia in 2005. “I was on the brink of becoming sufficiently well-known for my carnal overindulgences… to cause me professional difficulties,” he explained.
The irony of that line won’t be lost on him today, as he is accused of rape, sexual assault and emotional abuse against four women between 2006 and 2013. He has denied all the allegations against him.
Of his own sex addiction, Brand has said in the past that like any addiction it is a compulsive behaviour that “you cannot control or relinquish, in spite of its destructive consequences”.
However, Johan Sorensen, an addiction therapist and founder of Portobello Behavioural Health, says that consent always trumps addiction: “Even if you have sex addiction, consent trumps it. That’s paramount. We don’t let off drunk drivers if they’re alcoholics. In the eyes of the law they’re still held responsible.”
Sex addiction, according to Sorensen, is a very real addiction, much like one to alcohol or drugs. It affects both men and women from all walks of life, although he says: “The current best thinking around it is that it’s sexually compulsive behaviour, rather than addiction.” He explains that this is because you can become physically dependent on alcohol or drugs and experience withdrawal symptoms when you come off both, which doesn’t necessarily apply to sex addiction. “Although there is some academic debate around this,” he adds.
In 2019, researchers from the University of Minnesota found that sex addiction was more common than previously thought, with 10 per cent of men and seven per cent of women struggling to control their sexual thoughts and urges. Something the study author, Dr Janna Dickenson, believed could be down to greater “accessibility to sexual imagery and casual sex through the internet, software applications, and social media”.
The term first hit headlines in 1992, when Hollywood star Michael Douglas entered rehab for what was at the time widely reported to be sex addiction. However, Douglas denied this and said he was actually treated for alcohol abuse.
Meanwhile, in his 2011 autobiography Stories I Only Tell My Friends, the actor Rob Lowe spoke openly about his battles with alcohol and sex addiction, which he says contributed to the sex tape he made when he was 21 with a 16-year-old girl. It leaked in 1989 and caused his career to crash.
Sex addiction hit the news again in 2010 when the golfer Tiger Woods reportedly checked into the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioural & Health Addiction Services in Mississippi to treat the sex addiction that was believed to have led to him to be serially unfaithful to his then-wife, Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children. David Duchovny has also been treated for sex addiction, and Jada Pinkett Smith revealed on her podcast in 2021 that, along with alcohol, she’s also been addicted to sex: “I am a binger, and I always have to watch myself and how I can get obsessed with things,” she said. “I thought everything could be fixed by sex.”
The idea of sex addiction was first introduced in 1983 when an American psychologist, Patrick Carnes, published the book, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. It’s still met with derision or disbelief by some, and according to the NHS website experts still disagree whether it’s actually possible to be addicted to sex.
However, research published by a team of psychologists at the University of California in 2012 found it to be a legitimate mental-health disorder. The researchers said symptoms include a recurring pattern of sexual fantasies, urges and behaviours lasting six months or longer that can ruin careers and relationships.
“Symptoms include repeated and compulsive sexual behaviour despite its negative consequences,” says Sorensen. “For a lot of people this takes the form of affairs, sex workers, or the compulsive viewing of pornography.
“The current thinking is that it’s mostly caused by some sort of trauma. Mostly, but not universally, you will often find some form of trauma in a client’s background. Their sex addiction has become a way of soothing that trauma or a form of trauma repetition. For example, repeating a pattern of trauma or abuse they may have experienced in their past. There is plenty of treatment to help – some free via your GP, or some that you can pay for. There are books, clinics, websites and therapists who can help pinpoint the cause and help you find the right treatment, which can take the form of therapy, trauma resolution work, and self-help groups.”
Sorensen says he believes there is still a lot of shame attached to sex addiction: “Most of the people who sit in front of me with it – many of them regular people trying to go about their lives – feel a huge amount of shame. The consequences I see include marriage breakdowns, debt and losing jobs. It can also escalate into substance abuse and addiction as a way of medicating, and suicide attempts and depression. They know they have a problem, and they want to get help.”
But how do you unpick the thorny issue of whether sex addiction can also be used as a reason to excuse bad behaviour? “Take Tiger Woods, for example,” says Sorensen. “He went to treatment and talked about feeling ashamed of his behaviour.”
And then, he says, you have Harvey Weinstein, the 71-year-old disgraced film producer who was convicted of rape and sexual assault in 2021 and is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence. In 2017, when he was first accused of his crimes, he reportedly flew to a rehab centre in Europe to address his sex addiction. While, in the wake of the first accusations against him, the New York Times reported he was treated at the Gentle Path at the Meadows, an hour outside of Arizona, which is an in-patient rehab for men with sex-addiction issues.
Whether Weinstein is a sex addict or not, Sorensen says: “With Weinstein, the violent coercive element [of his crimes] starts looking as much about exerting power and control as it does about sex. There didn’t seem to be any sense of remorse or self-reflection on his part. For some people you can tell they feel no remorse for their behaviour, and from a clinical point of view those people are very difficult to treat. Usually there is shame around sexual addiction, but Weinstein was in a different category.
“When people become famous, rich and powerful, whether they have an addiction or not, they have more opportunity than most and they often don’t get called out for their behaviour. But regardless of whether you have a sex addiction or not, you’re always fully accountable for your actions.”