Millions of Americans are so addicted to sex that it interferes with their lives and in some cases leads to depression and suicide attempts, a psychologist said Wednesday.

The psychologist, Patrick Carnes, said sexual addiction affects 3 percent to 6 percent of Americans and can involve multiple partners, one-night stands, compulsive masturbation, exhibitionism, pornography, child abuse and visiting prostitutes."It has more to do with an obsession than actual sex," said Carnes, who is a consultant to the Sexual Dependency Unit, Golden Valley Health Center in Minnesota.

"This addiction kills in many ways," Carnes said, citing severe depression and suicide attempts.

So far, investigators of the disorder have identified 115 distinct behaviors of sex addicts, Carnes said. He compares the addiction to anorexia, which is an aversion to food and obsession with weight loss; bulemia; and compulsive eating.

Carnes is one of several experts in the treatment of addictive diseases addressing the Southeastern Conference on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, which began Wednesday. He said that like any mood-altering experience or chemical, sexual dependency is a way for the individual to deal with pain, anger and low self-esteem.

In addition to sexual addiction, the conference will deal with other types of addiction, such as alcohol, cocaine, nicotine and caffeine dependency.

The concept of sexual addiction apparently has generated some controversy. In news releases sent out by the conference sponsor, the Charter Medical Corp., two sociologists, Martin P. Levine and Richard Troiden, debunked the idea.

Levine was quoted as saying "there's no such disease as sexual addiction or sexual compulsion. It doesn't exist. You can't be addicted to sex. Addiction is a physiological dependency on a substance."

Carnes termed the disorder as more of an obsession than an addiction and said it was characterized by a pattern of binging and purging similar to that found in cases of anorexia and bulemia, "a movement from sexual activity to celibacy and back."

In about half the cases reported, the addiction begins in childhood, the result of sexual abuse. It sometimes is triggered by living in an alcoholic home, Carnes said.

Dr. Janet Johnson, associate medical director of the adolescent chemical dependency component at Charter Lakeside Hospital, Memphis, Tenn., said victims of the disorder never experience normal, pleasurable sex.

"In a healthy adult relationship there's caring, and the sexual aspect of that relationship may be a healing, life-giving element," Johnson said. "Pleasurable sex can be creative, like a rebirth, in a caring adult relationship."

She said the opposite occurs in addictive sexual behavior, with more insecurity and lower self-esteem.

Carnes said sexual addiction is more difficult to treat than chemical dependency.

"An alcoholic gives up alcohol, but you can't give up sex. You can't cut it out of your lives. It's like an eating disorder. You relearn behaviors while getting your sexuality back."

He said many treatment centers dealing with sexual addiction rely on the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous and include the partner in the therapy.

The conference also will take a look at the nicotine addiction of cigarette smokers, which the Surgeon General's office has termed as habit-forming as heroin and cocaine.