Anthony Weiner May Have 'A Sickness,' But It's Probably Not Sex Addiction

"Addiction" has a clear and specific meaning and sex doesn't meet the standard, neuroscientists say.

Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) on Friday joined a group of public figures many may label sex addicts ― actor David Duchovny and golf champion Tiger Woods, among others, have sought treatment for sex addiction. Weiner’s transgression involved sexting with a minor, a 15-year-old girl, and for that he will likely serve jail time.

“I have a sickness but I do not have an excuse,” Weiner said as he sobbed and pleaded guilty to a federal obscenity charge. He also accepted his status as a sex offender and agreed to give up his cell phone. Last October, the estranged husband of top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin checked himself into a Tennessee sex addiction rehabilitation center after the sexting story broke.

But people who study the nature of addiction don’t support the idea that sexual addiction is a diagnosable disorder.

The American Psychiatric Association in late 2012 removed mention of sex addiction from the DSM-V, considered the definitive resource on mental disorders, including for insurance companies when determining reimbursements. Even a milder version ― labeled hypersexuality ― was dismissed from consideration, with the association citing a lack of empirical evidence to warrant its inclusion.

The American Association for Family and Marriage Therapy, which previously reported that as many as 12 million Americans had an addiction to sex, has removed that information from its website because they no longer support that number, a spokeswoman for the group told HuffPost.

As Joye Swan, chair of psychology at California’s Woodbury University, wrote last September in Psychology Today, “Anthony Weiner is not a sex addict; neither is anyone else.”

Former Rep. Anthony Weiner exits federal court Friday after pleading guilty to one count of sending obscene messages to a minor.
Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner exits federal court Friday after pleading guilty to one count of sending obscene messages to a minor.

Swan acknowledged that people are certainly capable of and do destroy their lives because of impulsive and risky sexual behavior. But, she said, addiction has a real meaning and a real clinical definition ― and such actions aren’t that.

Neuroscience agrees. In recent years, scientists have been able to view the brains of addicts. When those addicted to drugs, alcohol, smoking, and gambling were shown pictures of their drug of choice by UCLA researchers, Swan wrote, there was a “clear and uniform response in their P300 brain waves, which are usually activated when we see something of particular interest or desire, as well as increased late positive potential (LPP) response, which measures the intensity of the brain’s response to a specific thing at a given moment.”

The UCLA researchers also studied the response to viewing sexually explicit images in people who said they couldn’t control how much pornography they watched. The results showed their brain metrics were no different from anyone else’s. The researchers also found no evidence that even difficulties with sexual regulation fit the definition of addiction as defined by brain response.

One of the studies’ authors, Nicole Prause, said that “sex addiction” misses another major hallmark of addiction: a person’s response to the addictive object over time. People with addictions initially show high levels of response in the pleasure centers of the brain. But over time, these parts of the brain no longer light up.

“In other words,” wrote Swan, “one of the hallmarks of true addiction is that the pleasure received from the object of the addiction wanes over time as the person no longer wants the object but, rather, needs the object. In contrast, even people who report very strong ‘addiction’ to sex continue to show activation of the pleasure centers of the brain when viewing sexually explicit images.”

So if Weiner is not a sex addict, what is he? Most likely a man with a lot of regrets right now. The underlying behavior for most people who identify as sex addicts may just be a higher-than-average sex drive combined with an inability to self-regulate, according to Swan.

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