It's hard to imagine something like sexual addiction could ever exist except as a male cliché. Men dream of moving in with a sexy nymphomaniac, while women laugh among themselves that all men are addicts, as evidenced by their inability to stop staring at the Dallas Cowgirls or this week's page 3 girl. The idea of "sex addiction" sounds exactly like something the Fundy Bible Belt pastors would come up with.

But a quick look at Yahoo! for the phrase turns up a staggering number of results, including an entire directory under "Health > Diseases and Conditions". There's a legitimate Sexaholics Anonymous group operating in the United States, along with a "National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity". Only a fraction of the Yahoo! listings are Christian-specific. It's astonishing, even if you've lived through addiction yourself, only until you realize that sex, both the orgasm and the emotional lift one gets from simple affection, is the most natural high that there is. It's not physically addictive, but the psychological addiction is easy to recognize. And all you need is a free hand and an x-rated magazine or novel to get your daily fix.

The idea of sexual addiction hadn't come to my mind for a long time until I read a news brief in the daily paper the other day, about a man who saw two children playing in their backyard and was so overcome with the desire to molest them that he went up to their house and demanded entry -- from the still-at-home parents. He was wrestled to the ground and subsequently arrested, but this is just one of the more newsworthy examples. This man wasn't just a pedophile; he was an addict. You'd think he'd at least wait until the parents were gone, or at least farther away, but he couldn't even do that. His impulses completely overrode his common sense.

It's bizarre, really -- not the behavior, but the reactions it brings. Most people don't even think of it as any kind of a problem unless they're staunchly religious or it's causing problems with their marriage. It's difficult, if not impossible, to admit to for two reasons: it's embarassing to say it ("I think I have a problem... I can't stop thinking about sex") and, unlike alcoholism or drug addiction, there's no popular recognition and acceptance of the addiction. It even sounds silly -- we think of alcohol or cocaine as addictive because they're chemical, so how can sex be addictive? (Answer: It's all about the dopamine, baby.)

Why bother with any of this, though? American society has become ridiculously tolerant of eccentric sexual behavior and habits ever since the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, and Europe is far, far more tolerant than American culture is. The reason is because it is an addiction, a compulsion, and if it's controlling you then you need to take control back from it. Reasons such as religious directives and marital vows are important for certain individuals, of course, but the "control your own mind" (and eyes, and groin) argument is universal.

So when is sexual desire an addiction and when it is merely missed? When does a pornography or a romance novel habit go beyond being a habit? The standard definition of "addiction" requires that the behavior be compulsive, that it controls the person rather than vice versa. If you tell yourself you want to stop, you're going to stop, you will stop, and then can't, you have an addiction. One man will find himself logging on to his favorite Web sites during business hours even though he's been caught doing it eight times already. Another woman might be compelled to go to a local pub or singles bar and spend Friday night with a different man every week. It's essentially the same thing. "Sexual addiction" doesn't mean you're a compulsive rapist, addicted just to the act of intercourse. Any marriage therapist will assure you that sex can and does encompass a lot more than that.

A sex addict confronting or confronted with the idea of addiction will find him or herself going through the five stages just like any other addict: denial, anger, fear, bargaining, and acceptance. Overcoming it is not done by getting married or joining the priesthood, despite the fact that far too many people make these life-changing decisions for exactly this reason. One has to expect and prepare for a good dose of counseling, either a twelve-step program or (preferably) one-on-one, and an even bigger dose of will power and self-control. Then come the major changes. An alcoholic may need to make sure they never enter a pub again, and a "sexaholic" will need to cut off the source of their own habit in the same way.

One ready comfort for the confessed addict, though, is this: you're nowhere near alone. Especially in your church.