The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, June 16, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's blog at The Huffington Post website.
Why Anthony Weiner Is Not a Sex Addict
As the author of "Love and Addiction," I am a frequent go-to person for media to ask, "Is Anthony Weiner addicted to sex?"
My answer? No, he's not.
Women contact me because their husbands spend all night -- night after night -- accessing Internet porn or engaged in online sex. Their own marriage is in tatters; certainly, they have no sex. The men may be further endangering their jobs, their other family relationships (including with children) and even their health.
The definition of addiction (or dependence), according to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual (on which I was an adviser), focuses on the extremity of the negative consequences of a substance involvement. Despite health, family, legal and professional consequences, the addict is still not able to desist. And they try.
Recognizing that their behavior is hurting them, they attempt to quit or to cut back but repeatedly fail at such efforts. Think of people who haunt anonymous sexual meeting places, risking life-endangering infections and public embarrassment. Still, they continue in their addictive pursuit, even as they regret it and may hate themselves for it.
Does this sound like Anthony Weiner? He does not seem to fulfill either the degree of compulsivity or the depth of negative consequences that define addiction. Weiner seems to have been a happy Internet philanderer. (I need to acknowledge here that all of my information is secondhand, and that as a clinician, I cannot diagnose Anthony Weiner.) He didn't seem to let his sexting interfere with his job, his media appearances, even his relationship with his wife -- who was, according to reports, unaware that anything was amiss.
Now let's consider the case of Bill Clinton -- you know, the former president who was alleged to have carried on a many-years-long affair while governor of Arkansas; to have exposed himself to a completely unwitting, and unwilling, sex "partner"; and to have had sex with a 22-year-old intern in the White House! Those are remarkable behaviors.
Do you think Clinton is a sex addict? At a minimum, that discussion has completely faded from public interest; to use addiction terminology, Clinton has seemingly fully recovered.
This is not to say that their behavior didn't have serious negative consequences for each man -- Bill Clinton was impeached, only the second president for which this had happened. And Weiner lost his job and may have endangered his marriage.
But neither man seems to have been entrapped in an all-encompassing, life-altering -- what may even be life-threatening -- compulsion. Weiner was engaged in all-too-risky behavior, it turns out. But it wasn't insanely so. He was managing it, sans mistakes, and I bet there are other congresspeople doing similar things right this moment. (OK, they may let up just a bit in the aftermath of Weiner.)
In fact, the cases of Weiner and Clinton make clear that having crucial purposes in life is an antidote to addiction. Such countervailing life forces first prevent people from sacrificing all to an addiction, and then enable people to escape whatever addictive tendrils have reached out to ensnare them.
In Weiner's case, he would never have allowed his dalliances to endanger his appearances on cable news shows representing progressive positions to the country -- while displaying his sexy, masculine, brilliant, crusading image to Americans across the national airwaves.
And did you notice that no one asked whether Clinton would be able to continue to conduct the presidency after he was acquitted of committing high crimes and misdemeanors with Monica Lewinsky?
Weiner may certainly benefit from therapy and from considering his behavior and what it says about him. But it would be misleading for him, those treating him and those of us considering these questions to label what he did as an addiction.
To do so trivializes addiction, including sex addiction.
And to do so in therapy would miss that what Anthony Weiner needs most now to preserve his emotional well-being going forward is a life purpose.