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Like many addicts, Zahedi functioned well in everyday life. In 1990 he even finished his first feature-length movie, A Little Stiff, although, like many of his fellow students, he needed a small push from the UCLA administration in order to graduate (he'd been there longer than the allotted three years).
Zahedi says he hit rock bottom in 1991, when he toured European festivals with A Little Stiff, which had gotten raves at Sundance. He traveled with his then-girlfriend, who'd told him she had no problem with his need for prostitutes and porn. "I was trying to stop," he recalls, "but I thought maybe if I got her to watch, it would become this joint thing and wouldn't be a thing I was doing in secret apart from her. If I didn't feel guilty, I wouldn't want to do it anymore."
He took his girlfriend to a brothel in Germany, but the night didn't go as planned. According to Zahedi, the woman got raging drunk and caused a scene. "We broke up very soon after," he says. "I just felt like I was never going to be able to be in a relationship with anyone, and I felt like I would be alone all my life." But in thinking about the woman's drinking, he saw a connection between her need for alcohol and his need for sex. When he returned to Los Angeles, his latest therapist suggested that he go to a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. "It was really eye-opening. I totally related to everything everyone said, and I had a big shift in perspective in that meeting."
In fact, Zahedi felt so liberated that he decided to write a screenplay about his newly named addiction. His first move? Hire a prostitute to have sex with him so he could capture it on audiotape. Old habits die hard.
Sex addiction is a relatively new concept, a term coined by Patrick Carnes in his groundbreaking 1983 volume Out of the Shadows (which didn't really take off until Carnes ditched its original title, The Sexual Addiction). In his volume, Carnes explained how and why sex could become destructive -- and how a program based upon the 12-step approach of Alcoholics Anonymous could help to alleviate the problem. The book caused a sensation in therapeutic circles and led to the formation of numerous organizations, including Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Sexual Recovery Anonymous, and Sex Addicts Anonymous. All the programs follow the 12-step guidelines, but some are stricter than others. SA, for instance, discourages both masturbation and homosexual sex, while SLAA focuses on "love addiction," defined as "a pattern of painful or obsessive romantic relationships."
Sex Addicts Anonymous, the program Zahedi joined, takes a more open approach, offering to help anyone -- gay or straight, male or female -- who wants to learn to abstain from "bottom-line behaviors" such as compulsive viewing of Internet porn, obsessive masturbation, peeping, flashing, committing rape, or frequenting prostitutes. What makes SAA different from treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is that attendees are allowed to use the thing that makes them ill. SAA members practice what they call "abstinence," differentiating between what is "bad sex" and what is "good sex" and then abstaining from the former while taking part in the latter. The philosophy has its critics, who compare it to telling an alcoholic he can have a bottle of beer but not a pint of whiskey, but thousands of people swear by it.
Many therapists argue that what SAA commonly refers to as addiction is actually compulsion, an "irresistible urge to perform an irrational sexual act," as Dr. Al Cooper, director of the San Jose Marital Sexuality Centre, puts it. In order for the illness to count as a true addiction -- listed as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of psychological diseases -- doctors would need to show that it causes a permanent chemical change in the body. While there's no current proof that sex addiction causes a biological alteration, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center are engaged in a five-year study of the electrical activity in the brains of self-proclaimed sex addicts to see if there is such a transformation. (Results won't be available for several years.)
Regardless of the controversy, the therapeutic community has embraced the model of sex addiction. There's a peer-reviewed medical journal called Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention; an educational body, the National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, based in Atlanta; and a growing number of in- and outpatient facilities across the country.
But back in 1991, when Zahedi attended his first SAA meeting, sex addiction was still relatively unknown. "What was kind of shocking was that there wasn't any vocabulary for [sex addiction]," he says. "The whole discourse among guys was a discourse of freedom or nature: Guys just need to do this."
Zahedi spent two years writing the script for I Am a Sex Addict, while attending weekly SAA meetings. Eventually, however, his visits grew more infrequent, until he stopped going altogether. "I thought I was cured; I thought I had a handle on it," he says. "The actual reality was the emotional turmoil was more than I could handle."