Why Anthony Weiner Can’t Move Past His Past

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From left: New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin attend a news conference in New York, July 23, 2013.

He wants to move on, and believes that he’s moved on, but can Weiner really push past his sexual misconduct? The science isn’t encouraging.

It’s not the first time New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner has been caught with his pants down — in 2011, he resigned from Congress after he admitted to sending lewd pictures of himself to young women. Yesterday’s revelation that, under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger,” he again sent explicit texts and images to young women more than a year after stepping down from political life raises questions the obvious question— can Weiner’s sexual compulsion be controlled?

Weiner himself has not accepted the label of sex addict, but the candidate’s behavior meets a fundamental criterion for addiction: his exhibitionist acts continued despite negative consequences. It’s hard to imagine a better example of compulsive repetition: although he lost his job and put his marriage, family and entire political future at risk, the former Congressman nonetheless engaged again in the exact type of online behavior that brought him to public humiliation.

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Even so, it’s still not clear whether sexual compulsions qualify as an addiction. The latest study argued that they don’t, because hypersexual people process sexual cues just like normal people do— and differently from the way addicts respond to drug cues. But the question is far from resolved.  And whatever you want to call the issue, Weiner still has a problem, since compulsions can be just as disruptive as addictions, and equally difficult to overcome.

Though exact statistics for hypersexual behavior are not known, relapse rates for all compulsive disorders, including gambling and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are high, and they are generally considered chronic, which means they never really go away, but can re-emerge at any time. While he would not comment on Weiner’s case, Rory Reid, research psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles and a leading expert on hypersexuality, says “Relapse is common in recovery work. Rates appear to vary depending on a number of factors such as the severity or longevity of problem, the presence of co-occurring disorders such as depression, ADHD [attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder] and [others] and an individual’s level of motivation to change.”

Treating sexually deviant behavior also involves two challenges that don’t exist with alcohol and other drug addictions. Sexual behavior is one of the strongest forces in biology, and the need to reproduce represents a fundamental motivation. As a result, moderation, rather than abstinence, is generally the only realistic goal.

Research on substance addictions shows that while moderation is successful in less severe cases, it is often more difficult to achieve. With abstinence, there’s only one option to maintain recovery:  just saying no, every time.  But with moderation, the addict or compulsively behaving person has to figure out when it’s OK to say yes and how to deal with the craving that comes from engaging in just a little bit of the problem behavior without losing control. “When people experience problems with dysregulated behaviors such as eating or sex, it can be much more challenging because the goal is to live in harmony with the ‘substance’ rather than abstain from it,” says Reid. That’s why it’s so hard for people to alter their eating habits, since the desire to eat can’t ever be completely turned off.

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And while studies show that the majority of people who suffer from alcohol and substance addictions do recover eventually, usually without formal treatment or even self-help groups, it’s not known if the same is true for sexual compulsions. “There is no published data on long-term recovery rates among hypersexual patients who have received treatment,” Reid says, “This is disconcerting given that rehabs offering treatment for ‘sex addiction’ charge thousands of dollars for their services but have no outcome research to support their claims of being helpful.”

There is also little hope that such research will be forthcoming.  Politicians aren’t eager to fund sex-related research despite the fact that such studies may be the only hope in improving outcomes for not just those with sexual compulsions but for sex offenders as well, who continue to commit sexually related crimes. In the meantime, recovery should be an on-going effort — to be addressed one day at a time — rather than a process with a finite end. Instead of thinking that “This behavior is behind me,” as Weiner said in a press conference admitting to the latest transgressions, he may have to learn to live with, rather than leave behind, his actions.