Thursday, March 4, 2010

If sex is all your teen thinks about ...

Caricature on "The great epidemic of porn...Image via Wikipedia
Sexual addictions are commonly developed during the teenage years

by Eveline Gan

ALEX (not his real name) lives in a four-room HDB flat with his property agent father, housewife mum and younger brother.

The introverted 19-year-old polytechnic student's hobbies include surfing the Internet. In fact, he prefers hanging out with his computer, rather than socialise.

But that had never worried his parents. They knew that most teens spend a lot of time on the Internet. Plus, Alex's online activities had not affected his above-average academic grades.

By all accounts, Alex sounds like any other regular Singaporean teen. But beneath the facade of normalcy, Alex has a secret.

Each time he switches on his computer, Alex cannot help but view pornographic material on it. His exposure to pornography started quite "innocently" when his secondary school mates began sharing them with him.

Then his sexual urges spiralled out of control. Alex became so addicted to pornography that he needed to watch it every day and had difficulty staying away from it. He also began having inappropriate thoughts of peeping at others, which frightened him.

People with compulsive sexual behaviour, like Alex, are not unheard of, said experts Today spoke to. Recently, golfer Tiger Wood's scandal has put the issue of sex addiction, where the person compulsively seeks out sexual gratification, in the spotlight.

There are no official figures on sex addiction cases here. But Associate Professor Munidasa Winslow, a specialist in psychiatry at Raffles Hospital, reckoned that the condition is "pretty common", although not everyone seeks professional help.

Starting young

While doctors tend to see more adult patients, Assoc Prof Winslow said that 80 per cent of them have had the problem since their teenage years, as in Alex's case, and a majority of them are male.

"The teenage years are a time for exploration of feelings and values, and sometimes, if the person is troubled, compulsive behaviour can occur," said Assoc Prof Winslow.

Psychologist Dr Ng Kit Seng, director of The Center for Psychology, said he sees around six to seven of such cases each year. About a third of his patients are under the age of 21.

Over at Nobel Psychological Wellness Clinic, the youngest patient consultant psychologist Dr Marcus Tan has seen for sex addiction is 15 years old.

According to Dr Tan, a sex addict may not only seek excessive sex or has many sexual partners, as in Wood's case.

Sex addiction behaviour varies from person to person, said Dr Tan. They may occur in the form of compulsive masturbation, indulging in pornography, high-risk sexual activities, exhibitionism or voyeurism.

"It usually begins with an excessive preoccupation with sexual thoughts and fantasies, which are recurrent, intense and, at times, distressing. A pattern of out-of-control sexual behaviour then ensues and this often results in feelings of guilt, shame and despair.

"Despite these, the person often still experiences a need for sexual experiences that are increasingly risky, intense or deviant," said Dr Tan.

Teenagers tend to have different ways of seeking sexual gratification from adults - they are more likely to "draw upon more readily available resources such as Internet pornography and cyber sex to gratify their sexual urges".

Dr Daniel Fung, senior consultant and chief of the child and adolescent psychiatry department in the Institute of Mental Health, said recurrent exposure to pornographic material can be especially devastating to teenagers, as it could result in a higher likelihood of them developing sexual disorders.

Dr Fung, who authored a book titled Living with Sexuality Issues, explained that this is because porn distorts the perception of sex and makes it seem more exciting than it should be.

"Over time, the person can become desensitised to softcore porn and move on to more hardcore material to maintain the level of sexual gratification," warned Dr Tan.

However, Dr Fung added that it is important to differentiate between curiosity and sexual addiction.

"Most teenagers would have had exposure to some form of pornography, and they may be curious, but that doesn't mean that all of them become addicted to it. That's why it is important for parents to educate their children on what healthy sexuality is all about," he said.

Breaking the addiction

With teenage sex addicts, it is particularly important to nip the problem in the bud as quickly as possible, said Dr Ng. This is because compulsive sexual behaviour can take a toll on the person's life.

"If the problem develops during the teenage years, the person won't have the time and energy to develop proper life and social skills," said Dr Ng.

Treatment typically involves using psychological approaches, medication or a combination of both. Dr Ng said support groups are also helpful as addictions are "a disease of isolation", and sharing experiences and coping strategies in a group will help addicts feel less isolated.

More importantly, said Dr Tan, treatment will help the person develop a healthier perspective towards sexuality.

Help came to Alex, after his mother discovered his secret stash of pornographic material. Today, he is beginning to understand his problem better after undergoing counselling and group therapy. Alex hopes that one day, he'll be able to finally break free of his addiction.

From TODAY, Tuesday, 02-Mar-2010