Image Credit: Flickr/Katjusa Cisar
Content notice: sexual addiction
Anthony Weiner just can’t help himself. We’ve all seen the fallout of his latest texting scandal, the third in a series that has cost him his reputation, his career, and now his family. The latest leaked photos include an additional gasp factor — his young son is included in one of the photographs, a thoughtlessly inappropriate action by Weiner that pushes our boundaries of understanding.
But if you’re one of those people wondering, truly wondering, why Weiner just can’t stop, then you probably don’t have experience with sex addiction. I do.
For me, sex addiction started early, with a pubescent attraction to strange and disturbing pornography that escalated to sexual conversations and dalliances with adult men online. As I grew older, the Internet continued to be an outlet for my low feelings of self-worth and unexamined trauma.
I eventually graduated to Craigslist Casual Encounters, where the ease of sexual access doused my addiction with gasoline. The act of setting up a tryst became trancelike - I would lose a whole day to click-refresh-type-refresh, having graphic conversations with men who objectified me as much as I objectified them. I wouldn’t shower, or eat, or move from the spot in front of my laptop until found a satisfying and available partner.
My fantasies and behaviors escalated — I needed more risk, more danger to feel the same thrill.
I met multiple men in one day, enacted extreme sexual scenarios, took chances with my health and personal safety. I broke the law. I was repeatedly blackmailed by men who threatened to use my personal information to destroy my life, who demanded graphic photos in payment. And I still went back and repeated the same behaviors anyway. I would act out on my lunch break, use even my work computer to find partners.
Sometimes the rush wouldn’t come, or it would wear off so quickly that I would be back on my computer posting another ad not an hour after meeting someone. I did all this without regard for its effect on my relationships, my job, or my physical and emotional well-being.
Sex addiction isn’t just enjoying having a lot of sex. It’s being sexual when you don’t really want to be. It’s trying to treat internal feelings of emptiness or loneliness with an external solution.
Sex addicts repeatedly behave in compulsive ways at the risk of great personal consequence. The consequences of Weiner's behavior look sadly familiar to me - they are what happen, generally, to sex addicts.
They get caught. They lose it all. They relapse.
Even Weiner's inclusion of his child in a photo rings familiar. I was lucky enough to get help before becoming a parent, but addiction pushes our boundaries, causes us to violate our own value system, reorders our perceptions to the point where shocking acts seem commonplace. Addiction compromises our judgment.
I can’t diagnose Anthony Weiner. I’m not a medical professional and I don’t know him. But as his case has rapidly become a blank wall for everyone to project their own ideas about addiction and compulsivity, it does provide a helpful example of what we mean when we talk about sex addiction.
Sex addiction isn’t just enjoying having a lot of sex. It’s being sexual when you don’t really want to be. It’s trying to treat internal feelings of emptiness or loneliness with an external solution. It’s using other people as substances, eventually turning your world into a dark, soulless, transactional place.
Of all the addictions that I’ve struggled with (and I’m seven years sober from drugs and alcohol), my sexually compulsive behavior was the darkest, the most deeply rooted, and the one that I felt most powerless against.
Since Weiner’s faux-pas, I’ve seen the usual spate of articles trumpeting that sex addiction is “not a thing.” To be honest, as a recovering sex addict, I’m pretty tired of having this conversation with people who have no experience with the issue but have still smugly decided that THEY are the ones qualified to discount other people’s experiences because it just doesn’t ring true to THEM.
To a lot of people, it’s an issue of semantics — sex addiction isn’t real because you’re not ingesting a physical substance into your body. To which I say, so what? I didn’t suffer a physical withdrawal from drugs and alcohol when I got sober, but I couldn’t manage my life without them.
Anything that creates a dopamine rush in the body can be addictive. Research shows that ”there is a high degree of overlap between brain regions involved in processing natural rewards and drugs of abuse.” When someone plays video games for ten hours a day, defecates in a diaper, and neglects their work and family responsibilities, we call them a video game addict. It’s the same with sex (and compulsive shopping, eating, exercising, gambling, and so on).
Which goes to show how uncomfortable we still are with sex. Nobody is up on their soapbox discounting the existence of gambling addiction, but when it comes to sex, they’re so afraid that somebody is using addiction as a “loophole” to “get away with something” as un-American as enjoying sex.
An otherwise fantastic article posits that Weiner isn’t addicted to sex, he’s addicted to attention. The problem is that an addiction to sexual attention is still sex addiction. The range of sexual behaviors addicts become compulsive about is large, and it’s not at all unusual for men, especially married men, to become addicted to the somewhat “safer” behaviors of porn use, Internet affairs, phone sex lines, even flirtations or “intriguing” with women they know.
The Internet creates both an easy way to engage and a false sense of anonymity. Acting out online can feel like playing the world’s most exciting video game — it’s real, but not real.
The men and women struggling with sex addiction, however, are entirely real. I have held hands with them in meetings, seen them cry because they can’t stop acting out multiple times a day with Internet strangers, spending all of their money on prostitutes or dominatrixes, or having sex for money themselves. I have seen them lose everything, get it back, then lose it all again.
Even those who are in treatment because their wives caught them acting out sexually are not trying to “get away with something.” Most of the time they’re desperately trying to change in time to save the families they love. Mostly they’re wracked with guilt over the terrible pain they’ve caused their loved ones. With the Band-aid of compulsive sexual behavior ripped off, they’re feeling their actual naked emotions for the first time, the deep-seated sense of unworthiness they’ve been avoiding, and they may become suicidal. They are not having a good time.
Yes, in some ways, sex addicts are making the choice to act out sexually, the same way a drug addict is making the choice to score crack fresh out of rehab. But at the same time, who would want to do these things? Who would want to lose a family and a career they love in exchange for a hand-job massage? We’re responsible for our actions, but they don’t make sense unless you understand addiction.
According to the study I quoted previously, “Like drug addiction, non-drug addictions manifest in symptoms including craving, impaired control over the behavior, tolerance, withdrawal, and high rates of relapse. “
I’m not saying Weiner’s not a dick. Most addicts are dicks. When active in our addictions, we discount everything that matters in favor of our next fix. We hurt people.
You’ve probably heard the old joke: How do you know when a junkie’s lying? His lips are moving.
I entered sex addiction treatment because I was terrified for my life. My behavior was totally out of control and I was scared I was going to be murdered by one of the strangers I put myself into intimate contact with, contract a fatal disease, or kill myself out of sheer misery.
You can hate Anthony Weiner, what he’s done and what he stands for. But please don’t use his situation as an excuse to poke fun at the “ridiculous” notion of sex addiction. People are in pain, and it’s not a joke to them. Or me.