Anthony Weiner claims that he has had therapy, his wife has forgiven him, he has changed, and he does not have a sexual addiction. The reactions in the media are varied. Some condemn the moral failure while others consider people’s private lives to be irrelevant to their professional roles and are outraged by the scrutiny. In late-night talk shows, the revelations are a source for jokes. In some instances, news reporting is a thinly-veiled excuse for sexploitation, attracting readers by focusing on the lurid details of the sexual behavior.
Sexual misconduct by a public figure results in an intense focus by the media, but one that is short-lived. This week it’s Anthony Weiner. Last week, it was the mayor of San Diego, before that it was former governor of North Carolina, and before that it was Levi Strauss-Kahn.
Unfortunately, despite the intense focus, what does not receive attention is the underlying serious problem of people whose lives are destroyed by out-of-control, compulsive, destructive sexual behavior, a problem that impacts more and more people, one that appears to becoming an epidemic.
In all of this furor, an opportunity is lost, the opportunity to educate the public about the problem and what one needs to do about it. Magic Johnson did that with regard to HIV; Michael Fox did that for Parkinson’s disease; Angelina Jolie did that for breast cancer; Betty Ford did that for alcoholism.
In contemporary society, the problem of sexual addiction is viewed in the same way that alcoholism was viewed decades ago. In most instances, problems were ignored or denied. When the problems were so severe they could not be ignored, those suffering from addiction were viewed as less-than-human, as failures to be condemned for their failings or the subject of cruel jokes.
Today, there is increasing recognition that alcoholism is a disease, one that results in changes to the brain that make it very difficult to stop, but one that can be overcome with that intense and ongoing treatment.
Sexuality is part of healthy and normal human life and experience. However, for some people, their sexual behavior (or their behaviors with regard to work, money, food, and similar activities of daily life) becomes out-of-balance. They use these behaviors as a form of self-medication to mange distress. Their brains, like the brains of those addicted to alcohol or other substances are changed and damaged. They have difficulty with impulse control and cannot stop even if they want to do so. Their cognitive functioning is impaired and distorted: they deny or minimize the reality of their situation. They lie to themselves and others. They isolate themselves.
There is a legitimate concern that the claim of sexual addiction will be used as an excuse to avoid being accountable for one’s behavior. A diagnosis of sexual addiction is not an excuse. A diagnosis of sexual addiction is a basis for commitment to comprehensive and effective treatment in the same way that diagnosis of a disease such as diabetes requires active, ongoing commitment by the patient to a program of exercise, diet, monitoring, and medical care.
A program of effective treatment usually requires 3-5 years of therapy. Ongoing participation in a 12-step support group for sexual addiction is also important so that the addict has an environment in which he/she can be honest and have support of others who are facing the same challenge.
A politician who claims he is not an addict despite repeatedly engaging in destructive behaviors or who claims he is cured because he has had two weeks of treatment should legitimately be challenged. However, that is only a first step. The media have the responsibility to use the news of the latest scandals, not to sensationalize, rant, moralize or excuse, but to use the events of the day as a basis for education. It is time to focus on understanding of the disease and its treatment and to offer not only stories of misconduct and denial, but also stories of people who have recognized they have a problem, have fully committed themselves to programs of treatment, who have maintained long-term abstinence from problematic sexual behaviors, and who have healed themselves, rebuilt trust in their relationships, and live full and productive lives.
You can also take a free, brief, online, anonymous questionnaire for self-assessment , the SAST (Sexual Addiction Screening Test) as well as other assessments at recoveryzone.com
You may also find it beneficial to contact one of the 12-step programs for sex addiction: Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) – www.slaanei.org; Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) www.sa.org or 617/499-9450; Recovering Couple’s Anonymous (RCA) www.recovering-couples.org. For more information, or to contact a clinician who is trained in diagnosis and treatment of sexual addiction, visit the website of the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH) at http://www.sash.net, or the website sponsored by the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) at sexhelp.com.
Joel Ziff, Ed.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Watertown, Massachusetts, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist Supervisor (CSAT-S) and a senior lecturer at Cambridge College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is also the principal investigator in a recently published preliminary study of men who have successfully maintained long-term abstinence from paying for sex. Dr. Ziff works with individuals and couples, provides consultation to medical and mental health professionals as well as to employers, and conducts seminars and workshops on issues related to the diagnosis and treatment of sex addiction. For further information, view his website at ziffgroup.com. You may also contact him by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone to 617-965-3932.