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Claims of “sex addiction” are a distraction in the Atlanta killings

Here’s the real history of the term.

Mourners leave flowers at the site of a spa targeted in Tuesday evening’s shootings. The suspect told authorities he had a sex addition.
Megan Varner/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

The day after a shooter killed eight people, six of them Asian women, at spas in the Atlanta area, local authorities said they had a potential motive for the crime.

Suspect Robert Aaron Long told police he had a “sex addiction,” officials said at a Wednesday press conference.

The spas were a “temptation he wanted to eliminate,” Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County, Georgia, sheriff’s office said at the conference. “Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” The suspect had visited spas for sexual services in the past, a former roommate told the New York Times, and had been treated for what he described as sex addiction.

Still, the explanation raised a host of questions, like why authorities seemed to take Long at his word that killing people of Asian descent wasn’t “racially motivated.” Or why a mass shooting that left eight people dead was being described as a young white man’s “bad day.” (The investigation into the suspect’s motives is ongoing, authorities said, and they don’t yet know whether the shootings will be classified as a hate crime.) But among these questions was also the issue of sex addiction itself — what does it mean, and why does it seem to come up so often in cases of violence against women?

Sex addiction is “not an officially recognized diagnosis,” Michael Vigorito, a marriage and family therapist and co-author of the book Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior: Rethinking Sex Addiction, told Vox. It’s a colloquial term, much like “nervous breakdown.”

That doesn’t mean people can’t have problems with their sexual feelings or behavior, experts say. But those problems don’t necessarily follow the patterns of other addictions. And sometimes, in cases where someone has committed harassment, assault, or other violence, a claim of sex addiction can be a way of deflecting blame. “If you’ve committed sexually reprehensible actions, it becomes a way of offloading personal responsibility,” Ian Kerner, a marriage and family therapist who often works with patients on sex, told Vox.

“Sex addiction” is not a clinical diagnosis

The term “sex addict” goes back to 1964, when author William Donner published a pulp novel called The Sex Addicts, Vigorito said. But the idea of sex addiction started to gain more attention in the 1980s with the work of Patrick Carnes, a speaker and the author of books like Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction (1983). “While our society is shifting to a more open attitude toward sexual expression, we still view the amount and kind of activity as a matter of personal choice,” Carnes wrote. “For the addict, however, there is no choice. No choice. The addiction is in charge.”

The term became increasingly popular in subsequent years, with an increase in sex addiction clinics and celebrities like David Duchovny entering rehab for sex addiction. Such announcements often come after, or alongside reports of infidelity or other bad press — Tiger Woods, for example, reportedly sought treatment at a sex addiction clinic after public reports that he had cheated on his wife.

When people talk about having sex addiction, they often mean they have “a problematic, a dysregulated relationship with sexuality, so that they feel like sex is something that’s out of control,” Kerner said. They might feel that their use of pornography is causing them problems, for example.

Or they might simply be feeling a conflict between their sexual desires and other aspects of their lives. “They may have an interest in sex outside of their relationship but they’re in a monogamous agreement,” Vigorito said. “They may be interested in a particular sexual behavior that goes against their religious or moral values.”

But guilt or shame around sexuality doesn’t mean someone has a disease. And unlike alcohol-use disorder, for example, “sex addiction” itself isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Although the term can be helpful to some people, it can also create misconceptions, Kerner said. For example, even if people feel out of control around sex, those feelings don’t necessarily behave like other addictions.

While alcohol or other substance addictions can lead to changes to the brain that are visible on scans, there’s no evidence that what’s described as sex addiction leads to such changes, Kerner said. There’s also no evidence that people develop a tolerance for sex the way they do for drugs or alcohol, needing more and more for the same effect. And there’s no evidence that people experience physical withdrawal from sex the way they do from drugs or alcohol. “People die of withdrawal,” Kerner said. “People die from addiction. People do not generally die from what they would call sex addiction.”

That doesn’t mean people experiencing distress around sex can’t benefit from treatment. When patients come to him saying they think they have a sex addiction, “it’s up to me to get curious about what they’re talking about,” Vigorito said. In some cases, people may be self-identifying as sex addicts because of shame around their sexual orientation or desires: “It could be that it’s easier to see myself as a sex addict rather than accepting the sexual interests that I have,” Vigorito said.

In other cases, people can have other mental health issues that affect their sexual behavior, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or ADHD. “Men might be coming in saying they have a sex addiction because they are spending more time masturbating to sexual videos than they would like, and then when I do an evaluation, it terms out they are suffering from depression,” Vigorito said. “If I’m treating the sex addiction, then I’m not treating the depression.”

It’s never an excuse for assault or violence

The term “sex addiction” can be especially problematic when it’s used as an excuse, in the media or elsewhere, for sexual harassment or violence. Producer Harvey Weinstein, for example, reportedly sought treatment for sex addiction after dozens of women publicly reported that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them. It even came up in court — Weinstein’s friend, Paul Feldsher, testified during the producer’s 2020 trial that Weinstein was “a sex addict” who “merited compassion.” But with Weinstein, the claim of sex addiction “became a distraction,” Vigorito said. “It became a defense against accountability.”

In the case of the Atlanta suspect, sex addiction could also be a distraction from other factors at play. For example, the idea has already been used by authorities as a way of dismissing the idea that the attacks, which killed six women of Asian descent, might have been motivated by racism.

“During his interview, he gave no indicators that this was racially motivated,” Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said on Wednesday. “We asked him that specifically and the answer was no.”

But as Vox’s Li Zhou and others have pointed out, the fact that the suspect may have claimed sex addiction does not mean that racism wasn’t a factor. The fact that he apparently targeted the spas as sites of temptation “stems from entrenched tropes about spas and Asian American women, who’ve been framed as hypersexualized beings,” Zhou writes.

Indeed, racist and sexist stereotypes about Asian and Asian American women have been present throughout American history. In 1875, a law banning Chinese women from immigrating to the US was framed as necessary to combat prostitution, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, a film scholar and author of the book The Hypersexuality of Race, told Vox. Popular culture, from Madame Butterfly to Miss Saigon, has also repeatedly presented audiences withthis construction of the Asian woman as a sexually servile being for others,” she added. Throughout history, “there has been this intense racial difference that has been defined through an other and perverted kind of sexuality that’s been attributed to Asian women.”

The Atlanta shootings and their motivation have to be understood in the context of that larger history. “When you say that you have a sex addiction and you efface the racial significance or the racialization of sex, it erases what Asian American women have had to face in history and our society,” Shimizu said.

Overall, experts say there’s nothing wrong with a person identifying as a sex addict if it helps them get treatment. But when sex addiction is used as an explanation for a crime — especially something like the Atlanta shootings — it can mask what’s really going on.

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