Author: Richard A. Isenberg, MD, CSAT-C
Executive Director, American Foundation for Addiction Research
The cyber-world and media are buzzing with news of former congressman Anthony Weiner’s lurid texts: he has again been discovered sexting outside his marriage, becoming the object of broad ridicule and disdain. His compulsive behavior echoes that of 2011 when he resigned from Congress amidst a sexting scandal, and 2013 when his New York Mayoral race was torpedoed by more of the same. This time he may have lost his marriage and risked a child abuse investigation.
It’s big news — big enough to grab headlines from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
What is missing, beyond the public shaming and the jokes from late-night TV hosts, is the acknowledgement that this is not an isolated, peculiar phenomenon affecting one reprehensible individual. In our society, there are thousands of Anthony Weiner’s engaged in covert out-of-control sexual behaviors every day – compulsively sexting, spending hours upon hours watching porn, hooking up for affairs or anonymous sex — all wreaking havoc on their own lives as well as the lives of loved-ones, including children. These are people in great pain, worthy of some compassion, needing help.
I’ve never met or examined Anthony Weiner, so I cannot say whether or not he is a sex addict. He does, however, exhibit behaviors consistent with sexual addiction. His story is one of out-of-control sexual behavior, many failed attempts to stop, and persistence in the behavior despite obvious enormous consequences.
Addiction is a biological brain disorder, not a moral failing.
Increasingly we are coming to understand, through sophisticated neurobiological studies, that all the addictions share a common pathway. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, food, shopping, sex — it’s likely all the same. The brain’s reward system gets hijacked in a progressive, self-perpetuating way. The behavior or substance takes on a life of its own and is pursued at all costs. And underneath it all is probably serious unresolved trauma shrouded in shame.
Just as an alcoholic’s relationship with alcohol becomes more important than any human relationship or material possession, the sex addict develops a distorted, mood-altering relationship with sex that becomes central to his or her life. The desperate secret life eclipses everything else. Underneath the facade of their exterior lives, the sexual behaviors become as unmanageable and disastrous as the drink does to the alcoholic. And it’s not about sex; it’s about giving the hijacked brain the dopamine hit its craving.
There is a cybersex tsunami coming.
For our society, Weiner’s sexting is just the tip of the iceberg. We are raising a generation of young people with extraordinary access to an unprecedented world of sexual stimulation and cyber-connectivity. The accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of the internet is a perfect breeding ground for sexual addiction. There are infinite opportunities to get the addictive hit of dopamine over and over.
Our children are starting to watch porn as early as age 7. For our young people, graphic, violent, hardcore videos are just a click away. Virtual reality porn and virtual sex have arrived in their bedrooms. Tinder, Grindr and thousands of other hook-up apps are in the palm of their hands. We have a whole generation at risk of being lost to sexual addiction.
Addiction leaves great wreckage in its wake.
Anthony Weiner is not alone in his misery; his spouse and children are suffering enormously. Betrayal, humiliation, abandonment — the emotional impact on family is huge and enduring. Imagine the effect that one sext Weiner sent — himself almost naked lying alongside his son — will have on that child as he grows up. That image on the internet will never, ever go away.
My hope is that Anthony Weiner gets help. For Weiner and thousands of others, there is hope. Effective treatment is available. There are 12-Step groups, treatment centers and therapists specializing in sex addiction in every part of the country. Mr. Weiner can get his life back. His family can heal from the trauma.
The next time headlines scream about compulsive sexual behavior by another celebrity, or a comedian makes jokes about someone’s sick, mood-altering relationship with sex, know that on the other end is a person in great pain, filled with enormous shame and in need of help for a brain disorder. Have some compassion.
If you know of someone you think may have a sexual addiction (and you probably do), know that the affliction is real — that their addiction cripples them and everyone around them–and that they can recover.
Help them get help before their addiction drives them further into the abyss.