The strange case of Anthony Weiner: is sex addiction real?

    5 September 2016

    Have you seen the documentary Weiner? If you haven’t, stop reading and go and watch it now. It’s one of the best documentaries in years — an incredible portrait of a man, a marriage and a political campaign in crisis.

    The crisis is one of Anthony Weiner’s own making. In 2011, he was forced to resign his congressional seat after being caught exchanging sexual messages on Twitter. The documentary was filmed two years later during the politician’s run for mayor of New York. With Huma Abedin, his brilliant wife by his side, he seems to have put the sex scandal firmly behind him. He’s leading in the polls and looks for all the world like he is about to sweep back into power.

    That is until, horror of horrors, a woman — calling herself ‘Sydney Leathers‘ — comes out and says Weiner has been sexting her. You sit there and watch as the world falls apart around him. It’s a genuinely tough watch. At one point the documentary director, on catching a hideously cold interaction between Weiner and his wronged wife, asks: ‘Why are you letting me film this?’

    Since the film came out, there’s been another twist in the story. While Weiner’s marriage survived the documentary, it ended last week, as yet another sext-based relationship involving the hapless ex-politician has come to light. So, Anthony Weiner’s inability to stop sexting has cost him his marriage and his public credibility, after it wrecked his political career twice. It raises the question: why couldn’t he stop? As one American talk show host asks him in the film: ‘What’s wrong with you, Anthony Weiner?’

    I’ll be honest — I used to be one of those people who sneered at the very idea of ‘sex addiction’. To me, it seemed like the last refuge of the desperate, charming scoundrel, attempting to explain away their behaviour — the Charlie Sheen cry of ‘it wasn’t me, it was my disease’.

    Weiner’s never claimed to be a sex, porn or sexting addict — in fact, in the documentary he explicitly denies it. It scrambles the definition that Weiner never actually met any of the women – his crimes were entirely online and in fantasy. That’s not stopped all and sundry from coming out and labelling him with the condition, most notably when Pamela Anderson denounced Weiner as a ‘porn addict’ in the Wall Street Journal.

    So is it possible to be addicted to a behaviour like sex or pornography?

    There’s a huge amount of argument about whether ‘sex addiction’ (let alone porn addiction) even exists. This 2015 paper provides a chart that takes on specific criticisms and offers citations that seek to counter them.

    Clinical practitioners who work with people with compulsive sexual behaviours have no doubt though. I spoke to two of Britain’s leaders in the field, and both told me they had treated hundreds of people – not just men – for compulsive sexual behaviours.

    Dr Thaddeus Birchard
    , author of several books on the subject, says that while he ‘tends not to use the term sexual addiction’, he certainly often sees patients who experience what he describes as a ‘compulsive process’ around sexual acts, who ‘continue in these acts despite consequences’ and often land themselves in ‘truly awful situations’.

    He tells me that people exhibiting this behaviour are usually spurred on by deep internal problems, and that compulsive sexual behaviour – like alcoholism or problem gambling – is often done to anaesthetise deeper problems.

    Paula Hall, who runs a London-based treatment centre, said: ‘I call it an addiction simply because that’s how my patients describe it. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a flu or a cold — a literal addiction or a compulsive behaviour.’

    She says the numbers of people coming to see her are exponentially on the rise. As to Weiner himself, while she hasn’t seen the film, she says: ‘The key to this is if people have tried to stop on their own, and been unable to.’

    Of course, what about the partners of addicts in all of this? In the film, Huma Abedin’s visible pain and humiliation is one of the most compelling and tragic aspects. It can only have been compounded by the subsequent scandal, especially as Abedin, a political fixer in her own right, is currently masterminding Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. (If nothing else, the fact that Anthony Weiner is still alive should put to rest any notion that the Clintons actually have people killed.)

    Hall says partners often suffer a ‘huge shock’; she described several horrifying stories of how partners have found out — the most memorable being a woman who discovered hundreds of hours of footage of her husband having sex, all recorded on his phone.

    What should a partner do if they find out? Birchard says: ‘What they should do and what they actually do are completely different things.’ He tells me that, understandably, this behaviour ends a huge number of relationships, but that couples’ therapy often enables sufferers to get over it, with husband and wife ‘working as a team to overcome the addictive processes’.

    So, after watching the film, and dipping into the medical world of sex addiction, I’m convinced that it’s real. For the first time I’m coming round to the idea that the tools of modern sexuality, while safe in the hands of most people, are extremely dangerous for some.

    Whether this means anything for Anthony Weiner, I don’t know. But I sincerely hope he gets help soon.