Harvey Weinstein is reportedly on his way to a treatment facility for sex addiction, but experts disagree on whether sexual behavior really warrants a formal diagnosis.

Sarah Klein
October 11, 2017

With more women coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul is reportedly heading to a treatment facility for sex addiction, according to TMZ.

Although he's not the first high-profile person to have sought treatment for sex addiction, the diagnosis tends to elicit eye rolling and sarcastic reactions ("Right, I'm a sex addict too"). So is this just a convenient cover-up for inappropriate, harmful behavior—or can you really be addicted to sex? 

To some, saying you have a sex addiction is a bit like saying you're addicted to the gym or eating cookies; it's an innocent exaggeration. Many experts aren't convinced sex addiction is a legit diagnosis either—: Sexual addiction is not formally recognized in the bible of psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—.

True, sex may lead to serious relationship-wrecking and life-altering (not in a good way) behavior. But it's not supported by the same hard evidence that backs up drug or alcohol addiction, says Charles O'Brien, MD, the chair of the substance-related disorders work group for the American Psychiatric Association.

"Drugs activate [an addict's] brain's reward system directly, like getting food or water," says Dr. O'Brien, who is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "It could be that there are some similarities in those people who are called 'sex addicts,' but it hasn't been studied or demonstrated."

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Still, sex addiction therapy and rehab programs are booming, and patients swear by their treatment. Despite the debate over the diagnosis, sex addiction counselors say there are distinct differences between the sexually addicted and people who just love sex.

"Individuals who act out sexually are usually doing so because they do not want to feel their feelings," says Maureen Canning, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the clinical consultant for sexual disorders at the Meadows Dakota, a sexual addiction recovery center in Arizona. "They're using this as a way to get high. They use their sexuality as a means of escape."

Research suggests that about 75% to 80% of sex addicts are men. About 25% of those men have experienced overt sexual traumas like sexual abuse or incest during their childhood, says Robert Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker and a certified sex addiction therapist who founded the Sexual Recovery Institute, an intensive outpatient treatment center in Los Angeles. About 75% of female sex addicts have had a similar experience, he adds.

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The addiction is less about sex and more about the obsessive behavior pattern that accompanies it, says Weiss. Sex addiction is similar to gambling, over-exercising, and impulsive spending, which are known as process addictions—where a person is addicted to a set of rituals rather than to a mood-altering substance.

"Neurologically, acting out or thinking about acting out [sexually] releases dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline, creating a chemical cocktail in the brain that is extremely pleasurable," says Canning. "It creates a euphoria."

This euphoria keeps a person coming back for more. "It's a lot more fun to look forward to than the day-to-day stuff that life brings——dealing with the finances or struggling with the kids," says Weiss. "Most [addicts] have difficulty tolerating day-to-day stressors and use fantasy and intense arousal to distract themselves."

Addicts often say they've experienced potentially life-altering—, and even life-threatening, consequences of their behavior, according to SexHelp.com, created by psychologist Patrick Carnes, PhD. Almost 70% of so-called sex addicts have exposed themselves to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and 40% have had unwanted pregnancies. More than 70% have reported thoughts of suicide, and 17% have actually attempted to end their lives. Often the consequences worsen over time as the behaviors continue.

A spouse or partner of a sex addict is likely to notice an emotional distancing, as well as a decrease in sexual intimacy. And people may find their behavior has caused them to lose close friends, compromise their values, lie to those closest to them, or put themselves in serious danger, says Canning. "We [have] them look at where their life is today when they start [treatment] to help them see how much their behavior is encroaching on what they thought was important in their lives," she says. "Often they will start to see that its more of a problem than they thought."

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Although sex addiction is not currently a psychiatric diagnosis like other addictions, Canning says therapists treat it like one by comparing behaviors to the list of criteria used to diagnose chemical dependency. Most treatments follow a typical 12-step model, just like Alcoholics Anonymous. Addicts can attend meetings through Sex Addicts Anonymous, spend time at a rehab facility, or meet with licensed therapists in private practices.

But treatment should not be viewed as a quick fix. "I don't think you come to us and you're never going to do it again," says Weiss. "What we can do is really spoil the behavior for someone, so they will never go see a prostitute or go to a massage parlor and say it was no big deal again. It will never be the innocent fun thing that they think they can get away with."