Weiner and cybersex — a plea for understanding

Weiner and cybersex — a plea for understanding

September 22, 2016

On Sept. 3, 2013 when Anthony Weiner was running for mayor of New York City and evidence of his continued sexting appeared I wrote an op-ed for this newspaper.

Weiner decided to run for mayor and admitted to making a “mistake” and asked for “a second chance.” We don’t know whether he felt the “mistake” was a result of his illness or whether he really felt his mistake was getting caught! What is relevant but perhaps not surprising in this era where ego-driven politicians pretend to never make errors, to have no physical or mental problems and are presumed therefore to be superhuman not merely flawed humans like the rest of us is that Weiner avoided talking about his “sexting.” Rather than face the issue, which resulted in his forced resignation from the House of Representatives, Weiner refused to discuss it.

Things started out well in his race for mayor. Then the accusation came about sexting Weiner did in 2012 after he had left Congress, but before he started running for mayor.

That was the beginning of the end. He was ridiculed by comedians and pundits. Reporters and readers loved stoking the fire, talking about Weiner and making lewd jokes. The public and the media were far less interested in issues such as housing in the Bronx than talking about his “perversion.”

Weiner faced the ultimate challenge that might have saved his marriage if not his race for mayor. Interviewer after interviewer asked him if he was mentally ill and suffering from “sex addiction.” He always declined to answer. Instead he tried to redirect the interview to political issues. The more he avoided the issue the more reporters pressed him on it.

I wonder what would have happened if Weiner had shown the vulnerability and courage to say something like: “Yes, and I am working on it in intensive individual psychotherapy to better understand and solve my problem. I am regularly attending Sexual Addicts Anonymous group meetings, and I am taking medication to suppress my sexual compulsivity.”

In contrast, like many addicts and most politicians, Weiner denied, minimized or trivialized the problem rather than facing and acknowledging it. I wonder if the public might have forgiven him if he had been honest about the situation. They might have stopped making fun of him and perhaps been more willing to listen to what he had to say about the issues. But first, he had to come clean and he never did. Keep in mind that the first step in overcoming any addiction is admitting it exists and is a serious problem.

Had Weiner said anything like that he could have taken a significant step toward reducing the shame and stigma associated with this mental illness (i.e. the illness of compulsive internet-driven sexuality). He might have even used this as a “teachable moment” to inform and educate the public that compulsive internet sexuality is a serious but treatable illness. This would have been analogous to the time in 1977 when Betty Ford left the White House, checked into rehab and later announced to the world that she was struggling with alcohol dependence. In taking that courageous step she enormously helped to change the public image of an alcoholic. Weiner could have begun the process of helping people realize that hundreds of thousands of decent, caring, hard-working married men also have this “Achilles heel” of compulsive internet sexuality which, if denied, ignored or untreated, can destroy their marriages and, in many cases, their lives. That is precisely what happened to Weiner. Continued sexting ended his marriage and his career.

Sexual addiction or compulsion may not have made it into the latest Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual despite a lengthy and passionate debate. However, it remains a real problem for millions of Americans. Specifically, regarding internet sexual addiction, a Stanford University study concluded that there are 9 million internet sex addicts in America and that number is rising.

The progression of the disease based on extensive observation and study is as follows:

These men ultimately experience a tolerance (like other addicts), and find themselves viewing increasingly extreme content, as what was once exciting becomes less interesting. They spend hours on the internet engaged in sexual activity, even when it seriously threatens their relationships. As a result, they become less able to have intimate and satisfying sexual relationships in real life. This becomes a serious issue because cybersex addicts are unable to achieve the same sort of sexual pleasure through physical interactions as they can online, and most will increasingly avoid sexual contact with their partners. Internet sex addiction is progressive, and sex addicts will take greater and greater risks to engage in sexual activity online as their addiction progresses. Many will get caught (as Weiner did) and face severely negative consequences for their inability to control themselves rather than face the truth and seek appropriate treatment.

In testimony before the U.S. Senate, Dr. Jill Manning an expert in this area, reported that her research revealed that 56 percent of divorce cases involved one party having an obsessive interest in pornographic websites. The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, polled 350 divorce attorneys where two-thirds of them reported that the internet played a significant role in the divorces, with excessive interest in online pornography contributing to more than half such cases.

If we can accept that internet sexual addiction or compulsion is a disease with serious implications for the individual, not merely a rational choice of seeking pleasure or a rationalization for infidelity, then perhaps it is not inappropriate to make a plea for compassion for those men suffering with this malady. It is also important to be respectful that, if properly motivated as with any addiction including alcoholism, these men can be successfully treated, and many are able to fully recover and turn their lives around.

Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He has worked in the field of addiction and mood disorders for more than 40 years and has written numerous articles. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/ Weill School of Medicine.