Politics

07.24.13

Is Anthony Weiner a Sex Addict, or Is There No Such Thing?

Anthony Weiner once promised he would seek professional help, but he continued to sext for more than a year after his resignation. Is he a sex addict in denial—and is sex addiction even real? Caroline Linton investigates.

Anthony Weiner promised when he resigned from Congress in June 2011 that he would seek “professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” Fast-forward two years, when Weiner announced he was running for mayor: he said he sought treatment at the Gabbard Center in Houston for three days, explaining, “It wasn’t an addiction thing ... It was just a place to get away and to meet people ... who might be able to help.”

Those three days, Weiner said, were the beginning of a “journey,” and he emerged a “new man.” In a New York Times Magazine profile in April, Weiner copped to seeing a therapist regularly since the scandal broke, but said his therapist doesn’t call him a “sex addict” and that solving his type of problem is not “easy stuff.”

That much is clear, because here we are again: Weiner admitted Tuesday to engaging in racy communications with women for up to a year after he resigned from office.

“He would be the poster boy for sex-addiction therapy if he does get it,” said Dr. Douglas Weiss, Ph.D., president of the American Association for Sex Addiction Therapy. Weiss said Weiner’s behavior “makes total sense if he’s a sex addict”—and especially one who has yet to hit rock bottom.

So are Weiner’s claims about seeking help bogus—or is there really just no such thing as sex addiction, let alone therapy for it?

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After Anthony Weiner's Tuesday press conference, the media had a lot of fun at his expense.

To start with, sex addiction, formerly known as hypersexual disorder, is not labeled as a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM. The phrase “sexual addiction” first showed up in the DSM in 1980, but was removed in 1994 due to lack of research. The phrase makes an appearance in the DSM-V, the edition released in 2012, but gets this description: “research suggests that sexual response is not always linear; uniform process and that distinction between certain phases (e.g. desire and arousal) may be artificial.”

Last week scientists from UCLA published a study positing that sex addiction may not be similar to alcohol and drug addiction. Using 52 adults (13 women, 39 men), the scientists used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the participants’ brain responses. Addicts have been found to have an increase in their P300 responses, or the brain waves in the first 300 milliseconds, when shown an image of their drug of choice. P300 has generally been used as a marker of addiction in the brain, so the UCLA scientists showed the participants pornographic images and measured their P300 responses—and the response found was related to high how their level of desire was but not the three measures of hypersexuality.

“This suggests that their brains aren’t responding to the brains of other addicts, or cues of other addiction,” one of the study’s authors, UCLA scientist Nicole Prause, told The Daily Beast. “It’s mostly questioning the addiction model.”

Prause was careful to point out that the study, the first of its kind, only measured a small sample, and it doesn’t completely disprove sex addiction. But “this certainly questions it,” she said.

He would be the poster boy for sex-addiction therapy if he does get it.

“It raises questions again if they are seeking treatment, what is the best approach for treating them,” Prause said. “I do think people deserve treatments that are effective to them if they are paying for them, but I don’t know if we know yet what treatments are effective to this problem.”

Sex-addiction therapy, sometimes known as sex rehab, is generally similar to Alcoholics Anonymous or drug rehab. There is generally a period of intense therapy, and then recovering addicts spend go through a 12-step program.

For Dr. Cory Schortzman, who says he is a recovering sex addict himself, there is no question that sex addiction is a real disorder—and the therapy used treats it effectively.

“I know it’s real, and the men and women who struggle with it know it’s real,” Schortzman, of the Transformed Hearts Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, told The Daily Beast.

Schortzman says he uses five indicators of addiction—something that gets in the way of relationships, career, legal status, health, and money—and he points to how hypersexuality can affect all of those. “What is addiction? Basically an addiction is ‘I can’t stop, I tried to stop, I need more of that substance to get the original high and I need to go it more often,’” he said.

As for Weiner, Schortzman says the mayoral candidate strikes him as “somebody in denial, ” noting in particular Weiner’s short stay at the Gabbard Center, where the former congressman says he went for treatment. The facility did not return calls for comment, but its website says it specializes in three-day outpatient psychiatric evaluation.

Although Weiner said he came back a changed man, Schortzman says there is no such thing as “cured” and that any recovering addict is just one bad decision away from hitting rock bottom again.

“I’m further down the road in my recovery, but I’m just as close to a ditch as a guy in day one ... I’ll always be one choice away,” he said.

Weiss, a sex-addiction therapist with more than 20 years in the field, said three to five days in an outpatient clinic are usually used to evaluate how much therapy and tools are needed and don’t represent the whole course of treatment. At Weiss’s center, addicts also receive a polygraph test in their evaluation, so if Weiner had sought treatment there, he would have been subject to a polygraph test about whether he was still sexting.

“I don’t know what he got there [as treatment], but obviously it didn’t take,” Weiss said. “Obviously he didn’t follow through or didn’t get the adequate information or care that he needs to know what’s going on with him, which I hope he does. He seems like a person who wants to help, who wants to serve, but his addiction is robbing him of his dreams. So I would hope he gets better help this time.”