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 Op-ed: Sex Rehab Gets Sexier on TV

 Op-ed: Sex Rehab Gets Sexier on TV


It's where you go when your sex life depletes your bank account, infuriates your partner, or simply whiles away all your waking hours -- sex rehab. Plenty of celebs check themselves in (oh, Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, Anthony Weiner, and Jesse James, for starters). But what really happens behind the scenes?

Bad Sex, a new series on Logo premiering tonight at 9 p.m., lets us tag along for the treatment of 10 sexually-troubled individuals.

The first episode follows Ryan, a gay 35-year-old with a bad case of sex addiction. He counts 1,500 sexual partners, and fights urges to "jump over that fence and run to sex." His lust puts a nice-sized dent in his productivity at work. He's unable to have romantic relationships, per se, and he even jilted his only solid friendship after necking with his best friend's boyfriend. But really, he couldn't help himself: her boyfriend was straight, and straight men are Ryan's special delicacy.

"You're a sexual predator on straight men." Those are the words of Ryan's self-proclaimed "sex specialist," Chris Donaghue. A less sensational title would be registered therapist intern (he's a social work intern, to be specific, but that tidbit is only found in the smallest of print at the show's end). Donaghue's in training, and not a licensed mental health professional, although he may have more experience in this field than your average licensee. Still, it's odd: Typcially, interns adhere to ridgid rules set by the state that dictate how they can refer to themselves -- to call one's self a "sex specialist" while running individual and group therapy, well, let's just say it's a little creative. Let's hope he consulted a lawyer before the show airs.

Donaghue is textbook when it comes to his detached, reserved, "neutral" presence that certainly screams "therapist." Donaghue's outfit screams something else. He wears skin-tight shirts that reveal both his nipples and enormous bare biceps, which themselves sport gorgeous tattoos. It's a great look, and I am a fan. However, it's an unusual choice. Shrinks make a point of dressing conservatively, not because we don't like feeling sexy, but because of the theory that clients will inevitably have sexual feelings for their therapist, as part of the therapy. We shrinks try not to prematurely evoke those feelings with Lycra and massive muscles.

Donaghue explains that he's "sex positive" and maybe that's part of why being sexy won out over any therapist's moral dilemma. In Los Angeles, our two sex addiction rehab centers are split: Robert Weiss, founder of The Sexual Recovery Institute, allegedly instructs his therapists to cover up, while Alexandra Katehakis, director of The Center for Healthy Sex, is rumored to be of the mind that sex addicts need to buck up and sweat it out when therapists dress provocatively. Donaghue has logged time at both places, and by the look of it, he's of the mind of Katehakis -- less is more, when less is your shirt.

Tattooed guns aside, the sex addicts (and virgins, non-monogamists, compulsive cheaters, and internet-porn addicts) steal this show. Ryan in particular is so funny, so smart that it's hard to remember his charisma is what got him into this mess. The man chugs booze out of a breast-shaped funnel at his "Sex Addiction Going Away Party." He trades witty sexual innuendo with a straight friend who tolerates him. He films himself post-trick and cries the next morning. He persuades a member of our esteemed Armed Forces to be part of a four-way (risky behavior, more on that later). Throughout it all, he complains passionately that therapy sucks, and his therapist doesn't understand him one bit.

As an intern therapist myself, watching clients bad-mouth their therapist is a special pleasure. Therapists know their clients despise them, at least some of the time. Yes, Ryan, your therapist sucks. Although, technically, all therapists suck when they tell you to stop fucking horny, wasted straight military dudes. Of course, your therapist just doesn't want you to end up beaten to death when your hook-up sobers up. We can all understand that, right? As Donaghue puts it: "'re're getting these men drunk and might be traumatizing that man!"

This part of the show is funny -- for a therapist. No, it's not funny that Ryan's life is in danger, and I agree with Donaghue that it is. But telling an addict he's flirting with death is about as effective as stuffing one's own ears full of cotton, maybe less so. If that tactic worked, Ryan wouldn't be a sex addict. It's not as if friends and family haven't already pointed out his bizarre little habit of subordinating everyone in his circle and even his own life to his all-important need to get laid -- they clearly have. That's why it's an addiction, people.

Still, Donaghue has some success, it can be argued, because Ryan makes an effort. He stops the constant sex, and immediately becomes depressed and moody. He moans pitiously that therapy has sucked all the joy out of life, and now his days are "just a waste of time."

Oh, Ryan. Welcome to the sad paradox of sanity. Chucking an addiction does not deliver joy, ecstacy, or other goodies. Addiction covers up some pretty nasty emotions. Take it away -- whether "it" is going down on straight dudes, red wine, Internet shopping, gambling, Words With Friends -- and get ready to meet the unfortunate "You" underneath it all, which is probably depressed, moody, and irritable. Duh. That's why you need the addiction.

And that's where Donaghue gets it wrong. He insists that Ryan cut off the sex, but doesn't explain that all that nasty depression that emerges is one big positive in disguise. Now that Ryan is depressed, he can actually grow up. Mature. The psychological word is develop. And that could be a big deal. He can have a life he chooses, rather than a life consumed with choosing who to have sex with next. Instead, Donaghue himself gets worried, and offers to lock Ryan up in an in-patient facility, an idea that Ryan quickly squashes.

Ryan comes to the rescue, thankfully. He asks for an extra session, and, crying, explains that he's so compulsive because of the untimely death of a friend. Well, not everyone responds to a friend's death by finding 1,500 BJ-partners, but Ryan's on to something that Donaghue's not: trauma. If the source isn't this trauma, there are others to pick from. Ryan mentions that his first sexual experience was with a married friend of his father's (hmm, could that be relevant?). The fact that Ryan's toying with death-by-angry-straight-man also makes me wonder if there's some internalized homophobia operating here that he could think about. In other words, the issue's not the sex, it's what the sex helps him handle.

Ryan sums this up beautifully, exhorting that over the eight-month treatment he "wasn't working on the inside. All the work was on the outside, on the shell." Donaghue's oblivious, and interrupts Ryan with some psycho-babble.

To be fair, my position as an armchair therapist is only a trillion times simpler than trying to shrink heads on national TV. Yet, if Donaghue's dealing with the deep issues at the core of sex addiction (and other sex-related issues), it's just not clear. A more experienced therapist might make that clear; she or he might also come across as more human, more emphatic, and might even be less likely to ramble when a client makes an insightful criticism (although, I wouldn't bet on it). Still the clients feel real, and the show is spectacular. Hey, Donaghue: your show is a success. I can't wait for the next one.

ATHENA BREWER is a registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern in the Culver City, California, who has facilitated group therapy for clients with sex addictions.

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