Anthony Weiner has been caught sexting again -- here's what 'sex addiction' actually is

Anthony weinerJoe Raedle/Getty ImagesAnthony Weiner at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Anthony Weiner has been caught sexting a woman who is not his wife again.

It’s a lurid, fascinating story — the kind that’s hard not to obsess over, even if you’d prefer not to. A once-ascendant figure in the Democratic Party smashed to the ground because of his own refusal or inability to stop sending pictures of his penis to strangers on Twitter.

The same aspect of the story that makes it fascinating also makes it tempting to pathologize him: He keeps retreading the same foolish, destructive path. Even when it ends his career in Congress. Even when it wrecks his comeback mayoral campaign. Even when his wife leaves him.

It’s hard not to call him an addict. “Sex addict” has a ring to it. “Sext addict” is even better. From our armchairs it feels right. It’s also wrong.

Is ‘sex addiction’ even a thing?

The idea of “sex addiction” is about thirty years old.

Writing for the Journal of Social Work, sex researcher D J Williams traces the term to the 1983 book “Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction.” But, Williams writes, in all that time no one has managed to pin down a good definition of the illness. (The notion of “pornography addiction” appears to suffer from the same problem.) And many of the tools doctors use to diagnose the disease might just pick up anyone with a high libido.

At the same time, some people really do seem to engage in compulsive, destructive sexual behaviours beyond their ability to control. And some psychologists argue that those people experience something closer to a drug addiction than an out-of-control bad habit.

But the momentum in the science runs in the other direction. Studies have shown that so-called “sex addicts” don’t respond any differently to sexual images from non-“addicts.” And “addicts” don’t seem to have any more trouble controlling their emotions about sex — supposedly a key feature of the disease — than the general population.

Of course, Williams writes, some people might find themselves stuck in harmful sexual habits that social workers and psychologists can help them control. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they suffer from addictions.

It’s irresponsible to call Anthony Weiner a sex addict

Putting aside the ongoing debate over whether or not sex addiction is a real thing, it’s still irresponsible to claim that Anthony Weiner suffers from it.

The American Psychiatric Association bans its members from publicly speculating about the mental health of public figures. And there’s a good reason for it. A mental illness or addiction is a diagnosis; it’s something that a doctor can investigate in a confidential setting with a patient. It takes a tremendous amount of expertise and individual knowledge to deliver.

We have three data points about Anthony Weiner, spread out over five years. That’s enough for us to conclude he’s foolish, probably, and to develop some empathy for his family. But it’s nowhere near what we’d need to make claims about his mental health. It’s irresponsible for anyone, including psychologists who’ve never met him, to pretend otherwise.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped a closet industry from springing up hawking claims about the diseased minds of celebrities and politicians. But the stories spun in that world are much closer to fan fiction than science.

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