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Sex addiction requires careful consideration

WLJ photo illustration by Kevin Harnack

WLJ photo illustration by Kevin Harnack

Family practitioners increasingly find themselves facing a new issue in custody and divorce cases: an accusation of sexual addiction.

Any addiction can have a devastating effect on one’s life. But sexual addiction can be even worse, said Shari Cohn, a Madison psychotherapist and Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, because it is extremely misunderstood and negatively perceived.

The increase in these cases isn’t surprising to Cohn, who said sexual addiction has always existed. However, the Internet has fueled its rise.

“For people who are vulnerable, the Internet has made it much easier for them to go down that path,” said Cohn.

In fact, more than 70 percent of sex addicts report having problematic online sexual behavior. Those who start in the online behavior may quickly start to act out in new ways, off-line.

Attorney Thomas Walsh of Walsh & Walsh in De Pere said he’s handled more cases involving sexual addiction recently, both representing parents and as a guardian ad litem.

“Technology has enabled people to nail down this addiction more easily than they may have in the past,” said Walsh. “I think there will be more cases as technology improves.”

Not all sexual addicts are pedophiles or sex offenders; in fact, those groups are a small subset of sexual addicts.

Rather, indirect harm is the most common danger facing children of sexual addicts, said Cohn. It might be from neglect because a parent is online excessively; children may accidentally come across the pornographic websites that a parent visited; or perhaps the addict surrounds him- or herself with people who present a threat to children.

Although it’s becoming a more common issue, handling sexual addiction in family law cases is still a challenge without clearly defined best practices. The following tips can help:

1. Defining the problem

When the prospective divorce client mentions that the soon-to-be-ex has a sexual addiction, proceed with caution.

One of Walsh’s recent files culminated in violence – and while the odds might seem slim, there is potential for great harm.

Listen closely to how the client defines the addiction. Brookfield attorney Karyn Gimbel Youso said when the client describes a spouse who looks at “Hustler”- type magazines or other materials that might exceed the boundaries of normal tastes, there might be a genuine concern.

“I find that most spouses are a little sensitive to the issue of pornography – divorcing wives don’t really like when men troll for porn online, or even look at magazines,” Youso said. “But really, most of what they complain about sounds harmless and within reason to me.”

Ask if the parents can agree about protecting the children regarding the Internet and the presence of pornography in the home, Cohn said. She’s observed that many people who struggle with problematic sexual behaviors describe early exposure to pornography as a significant factor in their compulsive sexual behavior. Internet filters can be helpful, along with parents talking openly to children about these issues.

Northwestern Wisconsin solo practitioner James C.W. Bock has represented a handful of divorcing spouses with alleged sexual addictions over the past two years. For his part, Bock said the majority of those cases settled. GALs were involved in all of them.

2. Getting educated

Go to Dr. Patrick Carnes’ website at, which contains an online Sexual Addiction Screening Test. Carnes, long considered the nation’s leading researcher on sexual addiction, now serves as executive director of the Gentle Path Program of the Pine Grove Behavioral Center in Hattiesburg, Miss.

As for educating yourself on the law, Bock, who serves on the State Bar of Wisconsin Family Law Section Board and reports on cases for section members, said there’s no on-point case in Wisconsin, or anywhere in the U.S. yet, to the best of his knowledge. There are cases on custody and placement where a parent’s sexual proclivities were at issue, but none of them directly deals with sexual addiction.

The lack of precedent on the topic is understandable, he said. Sexual addiction cases are the kind of cases judges don’t want to hear and decide, nor do parents want to air these concerns in court.

3. Proving it

Electronic discovery might be necessary. Bock said in one of his cases, opposing counsel obtained a copy of his client’s hard drive, at his client’s expense.

Cohn said a psychosexual evaluation by a therapist trained in assessing and treating sexual addiction is best. It will likely include obtaining input from significant others in the person’s life, especially if he or she is in denial, but it’s not perfect.

“It’s a difficult diagnosis,” Walsh said, “and some members of the psychological community are very reluctant to make it.”

That might be, in part, because the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders doesn’t list sexual addiction – although, according to Cohn, it has listed it previously.

Among the proposed terms suggested for the next version of the DSM V, to be published in 2013, are Sexual Addiction, Compulsive Sexual Behaviors and Hypersexual Disorder. Theorists who don’t call it an addiction nonetheless list many of the same behaviors that Carnes identified in his research.

4. Treating the addict

Treatment in an inpatient facility, which then continues outpatient, is rarely used because it’s costly and insurance might not cover it, plus patients need to be able to leave their jobs and families for several weeks.

There are hybrid models where patients seek all-day, intensive treatment for one or two weeks, staying in nearby lodging where they’re removed from some of the temptations of their regular environments. It’s also followed up by outpatient treatment.

Participation in recovery 12-Step Programs such as Sex Addicts Anonymous or Sexaholics Anonymous often complements the treatment. Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous are both free, and have chapters internationally and in every U.S. state. The former meets in 13 cities across Wisconsin; the latter has six. Teleconference attendance is possible for both.

Medications also might help. Because sexual addiction is frequently accompanied by other addictions as well as depression, anxiety or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anti-depressants and/or other medications prescribed to treat addictions are effective for some.

5. Ensuring compliance

Making sure the client is doing what they’re supposed to isn’t easy.

“You’d almost rather be dealing with a crack addict,” said Walsh, because random drug testing can objectively ascertain whether someone is abstaining.

A court can require someone to attend therapy or support groups – but even that’s imperfect, Walsh said, because if the addict doesn’t want the help being offered, he or she won’t benefit.

For her part, Cohn said that the majority of her clients come to treatment not because they realize they have a problem, but because their spouses have insisted they get treatment or get divorced. Many clients are resistant at first, but in therapy they recognize the problem and start to engage actively in recovery.

Jane Pribek can be reached at [email protected].

Things to know about sexual addiction

Most sexual addicts were abused as children – sexually, physically, and/or emotionally.

The majority grew up in families where addiction already flourished, including alcoholism, compulsive eating and compulsive gambling.

Most grapple with other addictions as well, but they find sexual addiction the most difficult to stop.

Sexual addicts are led back into a normal, healthy sex life much in the way those suffering from eating disorders must relearn healthy eating     patterns.

Like other types of addicts, some sexual addicts may never be “cured.” Sexual addicts achieve a state of recovery, but maintaining  that recovery can be a lifelong, day-by-day process.


On the Web:

Dr. Patrick Carnes:

Shari Cohn:

The Sexual Addiction Screening Test:

To find a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist:

Sex Addicts Anonymous:

Sexaholics Anonymous:

Support for people whose lives have been affected by sexual addicts:


S-Anon International:


  1. The majority of Sex Addicts became Sex Addicts via early exposure to their parents collection of porn. Giving Sex Addicts custody of their minor children increases the chances of them passing on their “disease” of sexual addiction to the next generation. When will The Family Courts wake up to this fact?

  2. I have stayed in an unhealthy marriage with a sex addict for several years out of fear that if we divorced he would have unrestricted access to our child because the courts do not protect children from this legacy to continue. Family courts need to take this seriously and protect children from the influences of a hypersexual upbringing and exposure to highly sexualized environments, which often lead to subsequent generations of this debilitating disease.

  3. Ann… How have the visitations gone so far? I’m only at the start of this process and I too worry myself sick about the exposure. I’m in Texas and have no clue how they might help me protect them.

  4. Sara – I’m at the beginning of the divorce process with a sex addict and two young boys and we are in Texas. How is yours going?

  5. I am also in the start of the process with a sex addicted husband and two young boys in Texas! Any help would be appreciated! I’m alone here!

  6. This site lost all credibility when Patrick Carnes was identified as a “leading researcher on sexual addiction.” Carnes’s theories amount to nothing more than victim-blaming, have no basis in scientific fact, and have been completely discredited. Researchers such as Omar Minwalla and Barbara Steffens are now considered the “leading researchers” on sex addiction. Their theories ARE based on scientific data, and they rightly place the blame for the addiction where it belongs: squarely on the shoulders of the “sex addict.” (I put “sex addict” in quotes, since the latest research indicates that it isn’t an addiction, at all; it’s a form of abuse perpetrated by someone with narcissistic and/or sociopathic tendencies, and cannot ever be cured).

  7. I’ve been in a ridiculous ongoing divorce battle with my sex addicted husband. I was always willing to work through everything privately and have repeatedly asked him to cooperate. But his denial, and “need” to blame me/the marriage, so that he can justify his additive behavior has been his goal. You probably won’t understand unless you too are married to someone as ill as my husband.
    The courts turn a blind eye to all of it, they simply do not care, and make their decisions as if they’re protecting the “rights” and freedoms of an average Joe, regardless of the “rights” and freedoms they are taking from me by doing so.
    It’s 2022, and sex addiction I’ve heard will be going into the next edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. I’ve been searching everywhere for a bridge in the gap between victims of abuse from the mentally ill/medicine and family law. No-one on either side has an answer for me. I’m obligated medically to report what I know about his behavior (due to his profession) and I’m legally prohibited from doing anything that could have an affect on his job.
    So, he remains untreated, for the first time in 5 years. He has cut off my access to the doctors I used to call for help, by using HIPPA laws and removing permissions. And slowly but surely he has taken my entire life from me; to the amazement of family and friends who know about his “issues”. I was abandoned, he forced the sale of our home by lying to the court, and I’m literally homeless as a result; all while his addiction soars ! They have turned him into a monster and I warned everyone very early on what would happen if he was allowed to refuse contact. There is nothing worse than permitting an addict the “right” not to communicate. My husband lives in fantasy and delusion. The courts have done nothing but assure that the consequences supposedly suffered by an addict, were promptly shifted to me. He has repeatedly been told to go to inpatient treatment by his therapists and doctor, he was fired from his last job due to reasons caused by his addiction, and he was arrested for assault because rage comes with his regressions. But nothing has done to protect me, and everything was done to protect him.
    Something is very wrong ! I do not live in Wisconsin, and hope that the laws are better there.

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