In 2011, former Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned in disgrace from Congress after it was revealed he sexted revealing photos of himself with several women. Then again during his attempt to reenter politics during the 2013 New York City mayoral race, more such photos came out that quashed his campaign, and just recently he was again found to have been sexting, which caused his wife to announce she was separating from him.
There is, as usual, the rush by the media and some therapists to label Weiner a “sex addict,” but there are several major problems with this.
The first and most important is this: the mental health field does not formally recognize the diagnosis “sex addiction.”
Well, you say, it probably should, and will in time. Perhaps, but it certainly is not there now, and there are good reasons for this, which I’ll address here. But this brings us to another, more important problem with this label. It is what my colleagues Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito, authors of, Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction, rightly call “premature evaluation.” They say that it would be like a man going to a doctor and saying, “I think I have cancer,” and the doctor saying, “Well, ok then, we’ll just begin some radiation treatments … problem diagnosed and cure on the way.”
But there’s a human being here. We need to slow down this rush to judgment and this pathologizing and, instead, understand him.
If someone like Weiner was discovered sexting and labeled a sex addict, his sexual behavior would be pronounced as pathology and overly focused on. He would immediately go into a 12-Step program, where he would be expected to admit he was a sex addict, and likely enter an expensive 30-day residential treatment program to explore his pathological behavior. He would not receive information on healthy sexuality that includes non-normative sexual expressions because most therapists–even sex addiction therapists in the united states are not required to be trained in sexual health. Of course, he probably will be willing to do whatever he is told to make it all go away.
However, this is potentially harmful to Weiner and others who are subjected to this sort of label-him, get-him-into-generalized-treatment, and go-on-about-our-business model. Why? Because it lacks an understanding of sexuality. The truth is, probably millions of people are sexting as we speak, but will never face the kind of scrutiny as Weiner. Are they all unhealthy or sex addicts?
The sexual addiction label is a simplistic answer, but human sexuality is anything but simplistic, and most of us have never had to really look at or try to understand our own sexual impulses. The sex addiction 12-Step approach, in which the person admits he is a sex addict, will always be one, and is told he must kill his undesirable behaviors and his sexual impulses, is moralistic and judgmental, automatically putting the person at war with his own sexuality and trying to fit into someone else’s version of what healthy sexuality is or should be.
However, sexuality is individualized, a multilayered phenomenon. What is really required is taking the time to look at it from a perspective of what the person is trying to express sexually, but hasn’t figured out a healthy way to express. This changes everything.
We don’t really know why Weiner or others in a high-risk (in the public eye) situation, would continue to be subject to such impulses.
Instead of slut-shaming these men as we do some women we should be trying to understand them from a holistic point of view, as a therapist should and must. The therapist must discover if he:
- has unresolved sex abuse in his past
- is an exhibitionist and has shame around liking to expose himself, and has not been able to talk to his spouse or therapist about it
- has some cognitive belief about not deserving success, and is unconsciously trying to prove it
- is really not monogamous by nature, thinks he should be, and can’t face this about himself
- is ashamed of his interest, which clouds his judgment
- has a mood disorder such as untreated depression or anxiety that causes him to be impulsive and have out-of-control sexual behaviors
- he may have trouble regulating his affect and emotions finding himself self-soothing with sexual behaviors
- harbors a destructive belief system (It has been shown that whatever we believe about ourselves, we become)
The point here is, there is nothing inherently wrong with sexting, but there is something very wrong within the context in which Weiner allegedly did it. Calling it an addiction does not get to the root of the problem.
The truth is that we have all had sexual transgressions and have done things we are not proud of—often more than once! But that doesn’t automatically make someone a “sex addict” and in need of intensive treatment. It doesn’t mean that Weiner is off the hook. He should examine his sexuality and his decisions and make better ones.
As a therapist what try to do is to help my clients manage their sexual behaviors rather than having their sexual behaviors manage them. The goal is not to pathologize or eradicate their sexual behaviors, rather it is to recognize it is coming from a part of them and try to understand it.
And on a deeper level, labeling a public figure like Weiner—or anyone else, for that matter—with the simplistic label of “sex addict” reinforces all of our eagerness to turn away from examining the mysteries of our own sexuality.
This post was originally published on Psychology Today and is republished here with the author’s permission.
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