Maybe Don’t Call Anthony Weiner a Sex Addict

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As you’ve likely heard by now, Anthony Weiner has once again messed up his life due to his inability to not sext everyone all the time: His wife, Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman Huma Abedin, is leaving him, and he has lost two of his regular gigs in the wake of his latest sexting scandal, which includes the rather unpleasant revelation that he sent racy texts while lying in bed with his toddler son.

It’s bizarre that someone who had already lost so much as a result of his inability to control himself would engage in the exact same behavior. And it’s inevitable people are going to reach for the most obvious explanation available: Weiner is a sex addict. This is already a well-established trope: In 2013, for example, Vice published an article entitled “I Spoke to Some Sex Addicts About Anthony Weiner.”

But there are good reasons to resist this temptation, according to David Ley, a clinical psychologist whose book, The Myth of Sex Addiction, should give you a sense of how he feels about the idea of sex addiction. (He’s also the author of the forthcoming Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure.)

Ley’s basic argument is that that “sex addiction” isn’t well-defined, is quite scientifically controversial, and in recent decades has been increasingly used to explain a broad range of bad behavior on the part of (mostly) men. But in a sense, this robs men of their agency, of the possibility that they can control their compulsions and put them in a broader, more meaningful psychological context. “Sex addiction,” in this view, is a lazy and easy way out.

To Ley, all this same logic applies to Weiner’s escapades. To him, pushing behavior like Weiner’s under the umbrella of something called “sex addiction” obscures more than it reveals. It strips away a huge amount of the psychological complexity that drives self-destructive human behavior. “Calling Anthony Weiner a sex addict is a distraction from the important issues of personal responsibility and mindful choice,” he said in an email. “It’s also a sad form of slut-shaming.”

Someone like Weiner, Ley explained, could obviously “benefit from learning to be more mindful, conscious, and less impulsive in his sexual behaviors. But those are issues resolved by helping him, and others, to become more mindful, conscious, and intentional in his life as a whole.” When you single out sex addiction as the source of the problem rather than taking this more holistic approach, Ley argued, it “ignores the fact that sex is always a complex, overdetermined behavior and that sex is often used by men to cope with negative feelings. Is Weiner getting the help he needs in his career, personal life, and relationship? Does he have other ways to try to make himself feel attractive and valued? Those are the questions that this latest incident raises. Sadly, calling him a sex addict ignores all of these much more important concerns.”

There are some interesting parallels between this view and the arguments Maia Szalavitz makes in her (excellent) book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Overall, her argument is similar: When we try to figure out why some people have such dysfunctional relationships with certain substances, and make it all about the act of of using drugs use itself rather than the complicated web of factors and associations that can lead to that act, we inevitably go astray: We pass bad laws, moralize behavior people don’t have a great deal of control over, and fail to understand the complex web of associations and incentives that lead people to drugs in the first place, and which cause a small fraction of people to subsequently become addicted to them.

Sexting isn’t exactly the same, of course — it’s not like we have a bunch of nonviolent sexters languishing in prisons and jails around the country. But the central message is the same, and it’s worth keeping in mind during the wave of Weiner think pieces to come.