Some experts believe it's more addictive than drugs, more destructive than alcohol and more misunderstood than other addictions. What's destroying thousands of lives and relationships across the country? Sex.
Dr. Drew Pinsky, an addiction specialist and host of the VH1 reality series Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, says sex addiction is the most hidden, most shameful disease in America. "It is one of the problems of our time," he says. "We've just been through a period of history where sexuality was viewed as a revolution and [people thought] it's okay to do whatever you're into, but the fact is, sexuality has become a drug in our culture."
Sex addiction isn't as simple as promiscuity. Dr. Drew defines the disease as an intimacy disorder. People who are addicted to sex may be afraid or unfamiliar with intimacy, so they substitute sex for real human closeness.
"Sexuality is something that should make you feel good about yourself," Dr. Drew says. "[When you're a sex addict], you've lost control of your sexuality."
Men and women who experience negative consequences from sex, yet continue the same behavior, are considered addicts. "The biggest issue is consequences," Dr. Drew says. "Work, school, finances, relationships, health, legal status...those areas of your life are being threatened."
When you hear the term "sex addict," family therapist Jill Vermeire says you may think of a nymphomaniac, slut, whore or pervert...but this disease affects all kinds of people. "In reality, it can be a mom, a dad, a lawyer, a doctor, a priest, the guy at the grocery store," she says. "It could be anybody."
Many sex addicts do have one thing in common. Dr. Drew says 80 to 90 percent suffered trauma as children. "If you have a history of trauma, particularly sexual trauma, in childhood, you want to look very carefully at this behavior," he says.
In fact, Dr. Drew says these terrorizing experiences can influence who you're drawn to as an adult. "The people and places that cause terror in childhood cause attraction in adulthood," he says. "We end up being repetitively attracted to the same kind of person that obliges us by acting out the same behavior over again."
To bring this taboo topic out of the shadows, Dr. Drew and a team of addiction specialists work with self-confessed sex addicts on the VH1 reality series Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew.
Cameras follow along as men and women go through an intense detox program and address intimacy issues.
On day one, the participants are given a set of ground rules: no porn, no sex toys, no touching, no masturbation and absolutely no sex.
Amber Smith, a former Sports Illustrated swimwear model, sought help to get over an unhealthy obsession with men. After beating a drug addiction, Amber says she became intent on meeting men. "I wake up every day, and I go boy hunting to get a hit of the guy," she said. "I feel like I'm falling apart. This is a thousand times more fearful than drug rehab."
Dr. Drew says Amber struggles with another form of sex addiction—love addiction. "In love addiction that experience of: 'Oh my God, I'm in love. ... I feel whole, and I feel like I've known this person forever.' That is a feeling that you have to have all the time," he says. "You become addicted to it."
Dr. Drew says women often start out as love addicts and over time develop into sex addicts. Amber traces her problems back to her childhood. Her father left home when she was 3 years old, and as an adult, she says she became obsessed with men who look just like him.
"I met someone at 19, and we didn't even have a relationship. He basically came over to my house a couple times, and we hooked up. Then, I just stayed very obsessed for 12 years," she says. "The new one is now three years. I can't let go. He is my everything. If he would turn around and love me, I would be happy."
"Or is the truth if he turned around and loved you the way you say you want to be loved, you wouldn't know what to do with it?" Oprah asks.
"I haven't had that happen," she says. "I can't stop because I've never had that guy turn around and say, 'I love you.' I'd probably run. I have no idea." Amber says her obsessions aren't fatal attractions, but when she doesn't see these men, she becomes severely depressed.
It's been six months since Amber left rehab, and though she has the tools to end the cycle, she says it's very hard to stop.
Dr. Drew says women like Amber deserve better. "All women are worth more than that," he says. "[Relationships are] supposed to be about mutuality and closeness, and with addicts and trauma survivors, they can't tolerate closeness. Humans need intimacy. We've destroyed it in our country."
Unlike most sex addicts, rock drummer Phil Varone says he had a happy childhood and supportive parents. Then, as an adult, Phil found himself incapable of holding on to a relationship. "I just can't have a relationship because I'm so like addicted to a woman's body," he said. "I have to have them."
Over the years, Phil estimates that he's had sex with more than 3,000 women, and yet he's afraid of dying alone. "I refer to my alter ego as Hans because he was the rock star. He was the guy who came into the room, you know, pointed a finger and got any woman he wanted," he says. "Phil went to the hotel room alone and just cried on a bed."
When Phil completed Dr. Drew's rehab program six months ago, he says he was scared and confused at first, but now he's starting to care about someone besides himself. "I'm really even more sorry for my old relationships," he says. "The ones that I really hurt are the ones that I truly feel bad about."
Before entering sex rehab, Jennie Ketcham was better known as Penny Flame, a porn star who had no interest in intimacy. "We can have sex, but at the end of the night, I'm probably going to ask you to leave," she said. "It's just sex to me."
During a therapy session with Dr. Drew, Jennie opens up the experiences that made her hide behind a promiscuous character. After suffering through a traumatic childhood, Jennie says she lost her virginity at age 12 and began having sex with boys in her middle school.
"It made me feel powerful over the boys. But, I mean, it totally backfired," she says. "The whole middle school found out that I had a new game to play, and they'd sing songs at lunch. They'd sing, '1, 2, 3, 4, Jennie Ketcham is a whore.'"
Jennie reveals that taking boys' virginity made her feel like a monster.
Since leaving rehab, Jennie says she's left Penny Flame behind. For six months, she's abstained from drinking, pornography and sex. "Rehab really shattered this facade that I've been putting on," she says. "Once those pieces were strewn across the rehab floor, the work that I've done in picking them up and putting them back together has made me feel a lot less like a monster...but there are certainly days."
Before pursuing an intimate relationship with another person, Jennie says she's trying to have one with herself. "I haven't had one up to this point," she says.
Sex addiction doesn't just affect the addict. Many times, spouses and partners are caught in the middle.
After four years of marriage, Elaine says she discovered that her husband, Jonathan, was secretly addicted to porn. His addiction led him into sex chat rooms, and he eventually began having sex with prostitutes.
During this time, Jonathan says he hid his addiction out of shame, and though he felt a release when he had sex, he didn't enjoy these extramarital relationships. "There's the thrill of sex, but it's just so filled with shame and secrecy," he says. "It also brought such feelings of guilt."
When Elaine first found out about Jonathan's addiction, they separated, but they have been back together for 10 years. What advice would Jonathan give other couples facing the same painful admission?
"We always ask people to kind of take a breathing period. There may need to be a separation for a period of time," he says. "We have found that our intimacy in our relationship and our connection is vastly better than we ever imagined it could be. ... There is hope for change."
Dr. Drew says a marriage plagued by sex addiction can survive if both partners are committed to the recovery process. "It can't be a one-way street," he says.
To beat a sex addiction, Dr. Drew says patients must address emotional issues head on.
"We first have them do a timeline of their life and talk about all the major events and traumas," he says. "We're jumping in deeply into the feelings and these things that they've been detached from and avoiding many times their whole lives."
Dr. Drew says this makes sex addiction the most difficult and painful to treat, and for some, recovery takes three to five years. "It is a relationship with the self that is flawed. Parts of the self get literally walled off from them. They can't love them," he says. "They can't even access them."
Oprah says she believes interpersonal and spiritual experiences can help addicts access the parts of themselves that have been walled off for so long. "You cannot survive without a spiritual connection," she says. "When you have a deeper, spiritually grounded love for yourself ... you will no longer allow other people to abuse you. Because you know that you are carrying God's body. You're God's body. You're made in the image of that which is greater than yourself."