Diagnosing Anthony Weiner: Sick or Just Plain Stupid?

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I know you've seen it. What did you think?
I know you've seen it. What did you think?

Is Anthony Weiner — as Andrew Sullivan argued this week — a healthy, red-blooded American male, with a normal desire to play digital porn star in his private time? (“Would you let me hold your hair while you gagged on my cock?” he wrote in one of the sexts most recently revealed.) Or does he have a psychological disorder, a sex addiction, the legitimate diagnosis of which might, if he's lucky, elicit in the voting public a smidgeon of sympathy and salvage his misbegotten mayoral candidacy? Or is he, in the simplest sense, just a dumbass? 

What is the difference between a disordered perv and a run-of-the-mill dumbass anyway? This is the fine, semantic point lurking behind all the “what was he thinking” analysis of the former congressman's compulsion to exchange dirty talk and photos with strange women. No therapist who knows Weiner or his wife Huma Abedin has weighed in with an actual diagnosis, though the existence of at least one therapist was confirmed by Abedin earlier this week when she gave her statement of support. “It took a lot of work and a whole lot of therapy to get to a place where I could forgive Anthony,” she said.

But, as luck would have it, I have spent the past several weeks talking with psychologists, psychiatrists, and researchers about the origins of sexual kinks and fetishes for a story in the current issue of New York, and from these conversations, it is possible to extrapolate a number of different, intersecting hypotheses about the foundational nature of Weiner's sexual habits.

He is immature. This much, you might say, is obvious. Playing doctor — furtively showing your genitals to friends in your bedroom while your mother is downstairs cooking dinner — is an age-old pastime among the elementary school set. But in Weiner's case, the compulsion may actually merit a clinical label. In the literature, there's a category of sex offenders said to have “courtship disorders,” which is to say they are “stuck” in the developmental phase that precedes the one where people learn to relate to prospective mates in a romantic, connected, "want to grab a bite?" kind of way. These folks, as I wrote in the magazine piece, tend to have social anxiety disorder; what's exciting for them is to do alone what other people usually do together. They are voyeurs, frotteurs (rubbers), obscene phone callers, and exhibitionists. What Weiner likes to do fits loosely into these last two categories: He gets off texting dirty and showing his junk to women he does not know.

But is he socially anxious? Politicians don't tend to be, as a rule. But sometimes, an ambition for politics is compensation for some other weakness or self-hatred: Just as Theodore Roosevelt was a weakling and George W. Bush was the underachieving brother, perhaps the inner Weiner is a scrawny Jewish kid from Brooklyn with exacting parents, who felt he had to prove his worth with a macho swagger — he played hockey in college — that veiled a more stunted self-image.

He is repressed. This would be the Freudian view. Perhaps someone taught the young Weiner that handling and displaying his dick were verboten, creating in his psyche a deep, unquenchable yearning to handle and display — and talk about and get the country talking about — his dick. So many of an individual's distorted views of sex come from widespread negative reinforcement, the Rutgers psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin told me. “A lot of things are viewed as taboo. And then people feel like they can't own that. Like the more and more secretive it becomes, it becomes darker and darker and you're not allowed to talk about it.” Lakshmin believes that a sexual craving is natural and involuntary, like an appetite for food. So if a person wants to spend a few minutes of a weekday afternoon looking at his phone and jerking off, that's like wanting a little snack — a cupcake, say. But if everyone around him and his inner voices are saying no — no sugar, no fat, cupcakes are bad — then one response is to say, as Lakshmi puts it, “I'm going to fucking eat a huge, ten-pound cake.” It's like a binge and purge cycle: An addiction loop can set in wherein the pleasure centers of the brain learn to be stimulated only by ten pounds of cake — or in Weiner's case, repeated, illicit interactions — instead of with a small, occasional frosted sweet.

He hates women. Ah. This is the most intriguing theory, and it happens to be my own, extrapolated with apologies to Dr. Paul Federoff, a sex researcher in Ottowa. Exhibitionists, Federoff told me, prefer this mode of sexual arousal because it allows them to avoid having to talk with actual, real women who might reject them. Online exhibitionism is a variation on this theme. On the Internet, the exhibitionist can easily find women whose first (and only necessary) virtue is that they will praise the incredible magnificence of his dick. And, if required, will consent to doing anything that the exhibitionist says he wants to do (because that consent, remember, is just pretend). Perhaps this is a banal point, but Weiner doesn't have to work very hard to have his sexual heroicism extolled online.

But it's interesting, isn't it, that the woman Weiner chose to marry is the opposite of all that. She is not just gorgeous by everyone's account, she is also a hard-ass, obviously, and ambitious in her own right, and doesn't likely have time in her busy schedule to tell Weiner how fabulous his genitals look and how compliant she will be when he puts them in her mouth or bends her over a chair and whatnot. Which brings me back to his not liking women: Weiner married someone out of his league, whom he knew would, in some fundamental way, disapprove of him. The people he says he wants to fuck are total strangers and the person he's supposed to share his life with probably doesn't like him very much. Where is the woman in all this whom he actually likes?

Being naughty is the point. One definition of disordered sexual desire is that a person needs to have sex in a certain, particular way to get off. That is, you can only get off sniffing shoes, or wearing women's underwear, or fucking feet. The disorder is a problem only if it hurts someone else or interferes with regular life. So: Where is Weiner's real sex life? Is it on his phone? Or is it in his bed? And: Does what happens on the phone interfere with what happens in bed? (My guess is, at least this week, it does.)

The psychologist James Cantor talks about people who need sex to be taboo for it to be exciting. “If it's not taboo, then it's just not interesting. The arousal is linked to a look of shock on the other person's face.” This, in my unprofessional opinion feels, in the realm of Weiner, intuitively right. He's doing this stuff because it makes him feel naughty, and he likes to feel naughty because it gets him off. This is the point that in all the post-game analysis is lost. Weiner isn't committed to Internet sex in spite of its hazards to his professional life and his marriage and the future of his very young son. He is not making a rational choice. He's committed to his yearning because of its risks. I smoked for 25 years, and the thing that propelled me to buy more cigarettes and to bum them from strangers in bars even after I'd sworn off them (again and again) for good is that they made me feel bad, which is to say rebellious, naughty, self-destructive. People ride motorcycles without helmets and they drive drunk when they know they're not supposed to. They don't see the doctor, they don't take their medicine, they eat crap and do drugs and climb Everest and bungee jump. They risk their lives and the futures of their children all the time for the momentary thrill, the excitement of feeling, for a moment, that their responsibilities don't matter and that the future doesn't exist. Which is an understandable impulse. But if you're doing it again and again, without considering the lives of the people around you, then you're squarely in the dumbass category, if you want to know the truth.