BEIJING, China - "Sex addiction" is a subject that often prompts ribaldry rather than sympathy, especially if a Hollywood star is involved. For many people it's the butt of crude jokes, but those who feel themselves afflicted are often confused, ashamed, dispirited and horrified.
Shi Bin's aggressive appearance - a fingernail-sized piercing in his left earlobe and a brace of tongue studs - is at odds with his gentle manner.
However, the 21-year-old admitted that his "punk appearance" hinted at "a demon" inside, one he has been reluctant to acknowledge openly - an addiction to sex.
Shi said he's struggling between the frequent urges and the accompanying physical or psychological problems, but he is unable to find help. The exact number of sex addicts in China is unknown because no surveys have ever been conducted on the issue.
Those who believe themselves to be in its thrall say they are ashamed, and few care to speak out or seek medical assistance, even though the condition makes them feel isolated and depressed.
There has not been a great deal of academic study or research into the topic, said Huang Yingying, deputy director of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender at Renmin University of China.
She said it is not a social problem at the moment, but there are no reliable figures in China, because of the difficulty of conducting investigations and surveys into the subject.
Shi has masturbated as often as seven times a day since the age of 15 and has frequently indulged in one-night stands. During his senior high school years, he often had affairs with married women.
He lived with his girlfriend at college and said they made love almost every day, but when the relationship ended earlier this year, the maniac masturbation returned.
"When it (the desire to masturbate) arose, it was just so hard to resist. I always struggled for a couple of hours before surrendering. Then I did it again and again," said Shi in a soft voice.
"I always felt tired and weak for the next few days and found it hard to concentrate at work."
Overwhelming desire to have sex
Sometimes the urge arrived when he was in the office or traveling home.
He didn't literally stop working or get off the train to act on the urge, but often spent 30 minutes or even longer indulging his fantasies.
The physical fatigue resulting from overwhelming lust arrives and recedes, but the shame and guilt never stop.
"I believe in Buddhism. It is wrong to be greedy and indulge oneself in sex. I've tried abstaining now and then, but it never lasted long," he said.
"I don't approve of premarital sex, but I failed to abide by that principle as well. I don't know why we (he and his ex-girlfriend) made love again and again. It made me feel the relationship was all about sex, but I didn't know how to start a conversation (to address the situation)."
Shi and his friends sometimes discussed their sex lives and he tried to explain his problem, but no one took him seriously: "They just said jokingly, 'Brother, you are a superman!' What could I say?"
Sexual chat rooms
He found people who claimed to be in a similar situation online. But a lot of the chat groups just turned out to be forums for arranging single encounters and even group sex.
Shi insisted that he never succumbed to the temptation, although the groups made it easy to find people with similar impulses.
In the chat rooms, people shared their various sexual experiences and their hunger for more sex, topics that are rarely broached in public.
Most of those who claimed to be sex addicts had one-night stands with strangers. Some felt guilty about their desires or experiences with people they didn't love.
However, many admitted their sense of wrongdoing derived from uncomfortable physical conditions, such as back pain, fatigue and an inability to concentrate, rather than psychological promptings.
Online chat rooms and social networking sites provide an outlet for many who claim sex addiction.
Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like site, has dozens of users with pseudonyms such as "Sex Addict" or "Sex Addiction".
'I made love to 5 different people in 1 night'
5 men, 1 night
"I'm a sex addict", wrote one 25-year-old woman, who claimed she has been addicted for three or four years. After breaking up with her boyfriend during her sophomore year at college, she felt a much stronger sexual desire than before.
"I had sex with many men after that, including a friend who is also addicted to sex," she wrote. "I cannot stop having sex with other people and I felt guilty after I found a boyfriend a few months ago. If I can't even control my desires and remain loyal to the one I love, I'm just an animal."
She is not alone, apparently. Many other Chinese appear to be concerned about their overt sexual urges.
Almost every social networking chat group with a name such as "Sex Addicts" or variants on the theme consists of around 40 or 50 members, with most saying that they have "excessive" sexual desires, but still feel guilty after one-night stands.
"I sometimes have to make love with different people five times a night, or even more. In the end it isn't a good feeling, but I can't stop until I am physically exhausted," wrote one chat room visitor, under the name "Poor man with too much sex".
Shi appears to have an addictive personality. He is a heavy smoker, who sometimes gets through 30 cigarettes a day.
"I know it's bad for my health. But at least it doesn't eat me up inside every day," he said.
Compared with his sexual desires, the addiction to cigarettes makes him feel less guilty because smokers display their addiction in public.
"People talk about smoking and sometimes criticise smokers, but the discussions are often lighthearted and make me feel better," he said.
Hu Peicheng, director of medical psychology at Peking University Health Science Center, warned that excessive sexual activity can affect the reproductive organs, cardiovascular function, and even, in the view of practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, the kidneys.
Shi said he wants a "normal sex life", but is ashamed to seek medical help, which is difficult to find on the Chinese mainland, anyway.
"I want to quit this addiction and have pondered the causes many times," he said. His parents divorced when he was aged 6 and his memories of childhood are dominated by repeated home moves.
"I had no close friends or a real home before I was 18. The dark side of humanity filled my mind," he said, suggesting that his childhood experiences could be one of the reasons behind his problem.
Lack of recognition
To cure a "disease" that isn't even defined as a medical condition is hard for those who believe themselves to be sex addicts.
The condition is not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in China, which chronicles the entire gamut of recognised mental health issues in the country.
Despite a plethora of "cases" involving Hollywood stars, even the American Psychiatric Association does not recognise sex addiction as a genuine affliction. Therefore, no official diagnostic criteria exist.
The association does, however, provide classifications that are helpful to those seeking to understand sexual behaviour disorders, called paraphilias - stimulation by individuals, situations and even objects that are not normally considered arousing.
Huang from the Institute of Sexuality and Gender said that the concept of sex addiction might soon be discredited anyway, as the medical profession reconsiders what can be defined as a disease, and clears some from the catalog.
In 2001, homosexuality was deleted from the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in China, and the World Health Organisation has also deleted the definition from its catalog of mental illnesses.
"Sex addiction is not recognised as a disease. That's not only in China, but in other countries as well," said Fang Gang, director of Institute of Sexuality and Gender Studies at the Beijing Forestry University.
In his opinion, sex addiction is a concept created by factions such as the extreme right wing or religious groups, as a means of discrediting sex and promoting abstinence.
Fang compared sex addiction with other passions, such as an overwhelming interest in food or autos.
"Every day people want to indulge their passion and do something that has no negative affect on society. The desire to normalize the condition has resulted in those who believe themselves afflicted feeling the need to classify it as a disease and search for a, largely nonexistent, 'cure'," he said.
Friends with 'benefits'
Friends with 'benefits'
In the eyes of her female friends, Peng Xuanxuan, 26, has a very open attitude toward sex.
In the past three years, while she was studying at graduate school, she maintained a number of relationships with "benefit" friends. The benefit in question being sex lots of it.
Sometimes, she also engaged in one-night stands. Whenever she finished her study assignments, the first idea that came into her mind was hooking up.
She admitted that she was sexually very conservative before arriving at college. "I was very serious about my virginity at that time, but my boyfriend made the experience joyful and romantic." Sex - with her boyfriend, a "benefit" friend or via a one-night stand - made her feel good and gave her bags of energy, she said.
"If we both feel good, I don't think sex bothers anyone. And there's nothing wrong with frequent sex, or as, we say, so-called sex addiction," she said. "It's just like eating; some people eat a little, while others eat more. If sex makes you feel good, loved and energetic, why attribute blame?"
Peng's attitude was echoed by Marty Klein, who has spent 30 years as a certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Palo Alto, California.
In an article called You're Addicted to What? - published in the July/August issue of The Humanist magazine - Klein argued that "sex addiction" is simply a concept utilised by groups such as the religious right to combat perceived liberalism, to refute science and ignite fear.
He said he would never diagnose a patient as suffering from sex addiction, because he doesn't recognise it as a condition.
Instead, Klein believes that the claims derive from people who regret the sexual choices they've made and want to change their lifestyles.
"But since they don't want to stop feeling powerful, attractive or loved, they can't seem to stop the repetitive sex, clumsily designed to replicate those feelings," he said.