The Sex Addiction ‘Excuse?’

If you’re not aware of the sexting practices of NYC’s mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner, you live in a box. In the woods. Far from civilization. Most of us know more about Weiner’s private behaviors than we ever hoped to know, and short of that, we’re vaguely more informed as to the reality that it probably isn’t safe to send nude pictures to strangers over the Internet. Weiner has admitted that he continued to do so even after his first public apology, and now women are stepping forward to talk.

While the congressman says that this time he is seeking help for his “sexting behavior,” he doesn’t go so far as to say that he has sexual addiction, though others are certainly calling it that.

Kelly Bourdet of Motherboard writes, “Since the diagnosis [of sex addiction] has come into fashion—and I do mean fashion—we’ve watched a vaguely ashamed procession of celebrities (David Duchovney, Tiger Woods) give sheepish press conferences and then retreat to the safety of sex addiction treatment centers. Most later return to their understanding partners.” Is this an accurate depiction, however? Does sex addiction treatment feel “safe” to the addict? Can partners, even the Huma Abedins of the world, really be thought of as “understanding,” or is this too a simplification made by a public which understands little about the problem of sexual addiction and its impact on people’s lives?

It may be that sexual addiction itself is partly the cause of these misunderstandings; in a culture that is paradoxically obsessed with sex and suppressive of it, it’s a largely unsympathetic illness to be sure. While alcoholics and drug addicts certainly face degrees of stigma, the addiction community itself refers to sex addiction as “the addiction of shame.” Unlike drug and alcohol abuse, however, there are those who deny that sex addiction is real. A recent brain imaging study was widely reported to have debunked sex addiction entirely. But the study had some admitted flaws—for example, only heterosexual pornography was shown when not all subjects were straight, and none of the subjects had officially been diagnosed with sex addiction due to ethical concerns. For those people whose lives are ruined by compulsive sexual behaviors, no study claiming to deny the reality of sexual addiction can erase the trauma of broken relationships, ruined careers or a lifelong pathology in establishing emotional intimacy, which is suspected to be at the base of sex addiction.

The Social Mores Question

Those who deny the reality of sexual addiction call it a convenient excuse. Rather than the possibility of sex as addiction, they say, the problem may simply be one of high sex drive—very high—in a culture that looks down on certain sexual practices. If we weren’t so concerned about or judgmental of others’ libidos or kinks, they say, “sexual addiction” as a label would not exist. Weiner, for example, would be free to engage his constituents without care of a scandal breaking out over his private proclivities. And perhaps there is something to this. What one person does in the bedroom, or over social media, so long as it is among consenting adults, should perhaps be of no consequence to another.

Still, this does little to explain away those ruined lives. And what about the active and perhaps legitimate frustration of people in recovery for sexual addiction who are harmed by others who use the illness as a cop out for bad behavior? The first step of recovery involves personal accountability; ownership is the opposite of excuse.

Not a Celebrity

Andy manages an Internet company from Atlanta, Georgia. Like, Weiner, he was caught sending and receiving nude photos by phone and over the Internet with women he’d met in chat rooms. He was spending several hundred dollars per month on webcam girls, but had never met any of these women in person. When his wife of eight years filed for divorce and full custody of their 5-year-old daughter, Andy was taken completely by surprise. At the time, he contended that what he was doing was not cheating and amounted to nothing more than looking at pornography, something his wife had never had a problem with. But when three subsequent relationships were ruined as a result of his activities, and when Andy’s house went into foreclosure over his poor financial condition (as a result of the money he spent online), he recognized his behaviors had been at the expense of intimacy and his sanity. He decided to get help. He says about Anthony Weiner that no one viewing from afar can really judge whether or not he has a problem, but that it hurts all of us when stories like Weiner’s are used to delegitimize the problem of sexual addiction.

Again, Kelly Bourdet: “Is it best to understand sexual compulsion as a legitimate addiction, similar to the cycle so often seen in drug addicts? Or is it a cop out, the latest socially acceptable excuse for behavior?” The answer might just depend on the person.

There is still hope.

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