Disgraced ex-congressman and former New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner has been caught up in another sexting scandal. Only this time, his wife is leaving him for good, his career has been shot dead and his young son will never be able to disown the photos sent round the world of himself and his sexually aroused father.
Mr. Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, has now publicly committed to divorcing him and said she was "furious" and "sickened" when she saw the sexually explicit image her husband sent to a girlfriend after his child ran in and curled up in the same bed, next to him.
Upon reflection, the disgraced politician is surely also sickened by his decisions, but in that moment, while desperately sexting to a woman the New York Post referred to as "a busty brunette out West," nothing appeared more important to Mr. Weiner than getting her to demonstrate just how much he turned her on. Whether he considers himself to be troubled is another question. We'll get to that in a moment.
Mr. Weiner is not the politician who got us talking about sex addiction -- Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards and a whole host of famous names shoved open the door to that problem. But he just might be the man (due to this, his third and most public, incomprehensible and frightening incident of sexual acting out revealed to date) to bring people around to understanding the public face of sexual addiction. If nothing else, perhaps Mr. Weiner and his sad escapades could offer us insight into these kinds of problems, ones that are both "immoral" and clearly "unthinking," but also ones deserving of useful intervention and proper psychosexual treatment where possible.
People have been asking me over the last few days (and in the recent past), "Could you really feel sympathy for this man? Considering what he did with his own son in the room? I mean, how could you? This is about as useless a person as I can imagine." And I get that. We all tend to demonize the bad guy, especially the one with "sexual issues" and, for sure, no one wants to be that guy. But what about him? How can he live with himself? How does he live with what he has done to himself and all those he loves?
Although we've not met, I will guess that Mr. Weiner (as thick-skinned as he appears to be) is not likely a man (similarly to many I've treated) who intended to ruin his career, his family and his reputation multiple times in such a brutal public way. I know that many will simply see him as a self-destructive, masochistic narcissist, and that may be true gauging from everything we have heard in public. But it also may be true that this man is, in addition to whatever character flaws he may exhibit, a sex addict. This means that he is someone whose entire life and sense of self have become wrapped up in finding sexual and romantic validation at any cost -- even to the detriment of everything he likely holds dear. And he doesn't seem to be able to stop himself. Thus, I can't help but feel empathy for his self-created losses.
Clearly this man's life and behavior are out of control. This is likely a man who due to compulsive sexual behavior will never live in a home again with this wife and child, nor will he likely ever again practice a political career he spent a lifetime building. And many will say "good riddance." I understand that, too. And yet, despite the fact that he brought all of this upon himself and his family, adult actions for which he is fully accountable, I wonder where is the line between "sleazy/disgusting" and "deeply psychologically troubled?"
Others knowing my professional role routinely ask me, "Is he a sex addict? I mean everything about him seems to tell that story." Not having assessed Mr. Weiner, that is a question I cannot accurately answer. However, I can definitively say that Mr. Weiner's over-the-top sexual behavior, brazenly and repeatedly acted out over the past several years, appears to be a tragic textbook example of sexual addiction, either poorly treated or not treated at all. So whether Mr. Weiner is a pure narcissist or a profoundly emotionally wounded sex addict, I can say that the way his story has played out in front of us all is very clearly the face of sex addiction as I know it.
The Compulsion Comes First
A common way to identify all addictions (both substance and behavioral) involves the following three components:
- An inability to maintain control or choice over the drinking, drug use or addictive behavior (eating, gambling, gaming, sex, etc.), even when the person has previously said that they are not going to return to it.
From an addiction perspective, I can liken Mr. Weiner's most recently publicized behavior to that of the actively alcoholic parent who gets drunk before picking up their kid from school. Now that parent is not likely intending to cause their child harm, and intellectually he or she knows that this is not a good idea, but for alcoholics, the alcohol comes first. And as degrading and violating a scenario as it might appear in the tabloids, sexual addicts, when sexting and texting and hot-romancing in bed, might, in a similar way, see their kid coming into the room during their actions and instead of rejecting the child, actually work him into the scenario as a form of verbal seduction. "Hey look at me, hot woman. I'm not just a sexually desirable guy, but I'm also a dad with a really cute kid. Now you've got to really want/desire me."
As a professional who oversees and manages a large treatment center for men who have addictive and compulsive sexual problems (non-offending), I can likely tell you why Mr. Weiner is in trouble again after having been to "therapy and counseling" before. In 2011, when these issues first appeared on the national scene, did he check himself in for long-term assessment, family healing and treatment? No. He went to a three-day "evaluation" and then home for "counseling." Well I don't think anyone would be surprised to hear that people who struggle with sexual issues of this nature can take not days, but months and years of intensive residential and outpatient treatment to heal. But that's not the route Mr. Weiner chose. "It wasn't an addiction thing," he told New York's Daily News. "I mean, it was just a place to get away and to meet people ... who might be able to help." And I say, "great start" but three days?
Treatment for compulsive behavioral disorders like sexual or gambling addictions involves intensive interventions, structure, discipline, accountability and ongoing life changes in both the short and long term. And we haven't seen any of that from Mr. Weiner. Especially not from someone who ran for mayor less than two years after his first public sexual humiliation. I can assure you that no client of mine would be doing something like running for mayor two years after that kind of public implosion. More likely, the treatment process would ask them to stay out of the limelight and maintain a strong focus on family, on self-care and on healing their emotional injuries. As it can take months in long-term residential treatment to address the emotional challenges that lead people like Mr. Weiner to act out in these ways, they need to devote as much time and effort into getting better -- if not more -- than they ever put into their career or educational process. I mean, you can't put a laser focus on healing and run for public office at the same time, nor should you. Thus, we all saw this week's events coming from a long way away. Sad, but no surprise.
Sex Addiction? Call It What You Will
So maybe you don't believe sex addiction is real. Perhaps it's just an excuse for bad behavior, you say, or a symptom of narcissism. Well quite honestly, it doesn't matter to me what we call it. Be it sexual compulsion, hypersexual disorder or sex addiction, what really lies in a name? What matters is that this type of addictive sexual concern leads deeply emotionally wounded men (and women) to be sexually self-destructive, taking their loved ones and careers down with them.
When on "Dr. Drew" this week talking about Mr. Weiner, the host asked for a show of hands of those who felt sorry for this man. Mine was the only hand to go up. And I'm sure some watching thought, "stupid therapists, they make excuses for everyone." Well, make no mistake. What Mr. Weiner did was wrong. Full stop. But what person in their right mind throws away everything they hold dear for the sake of momentary pleasure? And the truth is that Mr. Weiner isn't that different from the thousands of people I've treated with this disorder over the past two and a half decades. Men and women all over the world are dealing with sex (and now sex and tech) addictive disorders. Let's face it, there are kids everywhere who are running into their own parent's porn, sexting and similar online behaviors every day. Can Mr. Weiner really be the only one? I think not.
What will it take for him to stop? Is the damage Mr. Weiner has wrought finally enough for him to seek out genuine help? I hope so, but I don't know the man personally. Maybe he can't be helped. Maybe he's simply and profoundly mentally ill. But rest assured, for most people who are motivated, who don't want the kinds of consequences we are seeing play out in Mr. Weiner's world, treatment works. Motivated people with proper care can and do stop engaging in such behaviors and move on with their lives. I would want the same for the ex-congressman.
But the first step in that process is being willing to see the problem for what it is no matter how painful and to ask for help. Then be ready to enter a process that will change your life beliefs, goals and behaviors. But be aware: This type of change will likely take quite a bit more than a few days to achieve.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs nationwide including The Ranch rehab center in Tennessee. He is the author of several highly regarded books. For more information please visit his website at robertweissmsw.com or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.