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The Sex Addict Defense

More than ever, when a man or woman in a relationship is caught cheating, they play the sex addiction card. But is that a good enough excuse?

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Ben Maisani's loose lips photo via

By Scott Alexander Hess

10/07/12

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It was a short-lived but juicy item of gossip this summer. No sooner had CNN news personality Anderson Cooper publicly confirmed the open secret that he was gay than he faced a “cheating boyfriend” scandal in the tabloid press. Britain’s Daily Mail splashed photos of Cooper’s beau, the predictably tall, dark and handsome Ben Maisani, smooching an unidentified man in New York’s Central Park.

The story went viral, got replayed by our glut of celebrity press, and thereby become a “fact.” (Never mind that there was no proof that the photograph had been taken since the two men got involved. Or that their relationship may be open—and cheating allowed.) During the days that it took for the story to disappear, I couldn’t help watching Cooper’s delivery on his news show with a certain giddy fascination. (For one thing, the show is called Keeping Them Honest.)

I also couldn’t help thinking how it may have played out if Maisani had instantly admitted to being a sex addict.

Maisani could have checked into the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services rehab—the spot where many boldface names have fled amidst infidelity dramas—and, more important, be reported to have checked in. Whether amends would be necessary is nobody’s business but Anderson and Maisani’s, who have kept their relationship as private as possible—Anderson being a journalist and all. But the treatment-for-sex-addiction would erase the appearance of a public stain, and that would be that.

That the two men refused to comment on any aspect of the story no doubt encouraged the tabloids to return their attention to Lindsay Lohan and other reliable train wrecks. But the dustup begs the question, when celebs (or anyone in a relationship, for that matter) pull the sex addict card when caught in a carnal indiscretion, can we believe it, and is it reason for forgiveness?

“The treatment of sex addiction has become an industry. To maintain growth there have to be ‘sexual addicts’ to treat."

Disclaimer alert: This is not to discount the often-lifesaving effects of recovery, whether through 12-step programs or an alternative. It’s about exploring the exploding trend of the sex-addiction label as an excuse for what our grandparents would have simply called bad behavior and a lack of character. In addition, if the cheater is in fact a sex addict, receives treatment and pursues recovery, what are the chances that this path will lead to healthy sexuality, monogamy and his relationship's survival? 

If an alcoholic is honestly sober, that typically means that they do not touch the sauce. Ever. Period.

But sex-addiction sobriety does not necessarily mean chastity—or even not having lots of sex with lots of people (although this is a controversial matter). A key part of the sex addict’s 12-step recovery is creating a healthy “sex” plan, and one size definitely does not fit all. Healthy sex is generally viewed as intimate, “connected” sex, an experience that promiscuity does not exactly promote (unless you are polygamous, perhaps). But it is possible that for some addicts, at some points in recovery, a healthy sex plan veers from monogamy.

Sex addiction, rather than being black-and-white, is, say, 50 shades of gray. This allows cheaters plenty of wiggle room.

“Claiming to be a sex addict and hoping not to ‘get in trouble’ is a pretty lousy way to escape the consequences of a very hurtful behavior,” said Jeff Schultz, a sex addiction counselor and founder of the Sonoran Healing Center in Phoenix. “Odds are good that they'd end up in treatment anyway and could even uncover evidence of a real sex addiction.”

Whether or not the sex-addiction fallback will fly depends partly on the validity of the diagnosis itself. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is debating whether sex addiction should be added to the DSMV-5, due out next year. The addition of what the APA is calling “hypersexual disorder” would legitimize the label as an addiction. A partner having secret hook-ups on the side could then proclaim themselves a patient rather than a cad. But would the overuse or the misuse of the label (for example, to get out of a jam) tarnish its growing validity?

Absolutely, said Cathy Meyer, a certified marriage educator who writes for The New York Times and the Huffington Post. And she blames treatment providers—and what she calls the sex-addiction industry—for the cheating’s facelift. “There is a rush to diagnose immoral sexual behavior as an addiction,” Meyer said. “The treatment of sexual addiction has become an industry in our country. To maintain growth in that industry there have to be ‘sexual addicts’ to treat.”

Some 10 years ago, there were fewer than 100 certified sex therapists in the nation; today there are over 1,500. “Has that number increased out of need? Or is the need being created due to the increase in folks who are choosing that specialty?” she asks. “I believe there are those who are sexual addicts. Some folks choose to deal with stress by engaging in unhealthy behaviors,” she said by way of answering her own question. “In my opinion most are not viewing porn or sleeping around because it relieves stress. They do so because it feels good and is fun. What better excuse when caught than ‘I'm a sex addict?’”

I was recently queried by a producer of True Entertainment’s show Unfaithful, a reality series that puts relationships rocked by cheating in the spotlight. The producer was hunting stories where couples experienced infidelity as a result of a fetish, a kink scene or a sexual addiction. The problem he faced was finding couples who would speak publicly about infidelity.

I let him know that I was having the same problem for this story. The shame associated with sexual issues may be stronger than that relating to drugs, alcohol and the other behavioral addictions that harm relationships. The men and the couples I spoke to were adamant about anonymity.

Additionally, those I spoke to were not celebrity cheaters (like Tiger Woods, Jesse James or David Duchovny)—they were not even celebrities by association (like Ben Maisani)—so did not face glaring media exposure. While most self-identified as sex addicts and so the label was not exactly an “excuse,” they did choose to keep cheating—or its lure—a secret. Their reason? Because their nonaddict partner “would not understand” what one man referred to as “the complexity of my journey.”

Several men said they were unable to create a dialogue with their partners about how this brand of addiction could make monogamy very difficult for them, so instead agreed to monogamy—and hoped for the best.

One recently married gay man from Maine who attended occasional 12-step meetings for his sex addition told me that prior to tying the knot, he had reluctantly promised his hubby-to-be that he would be monogamous (his own pre-marriage sex plan, as part of his 12-step work, allowed for casual flings as long as the sex was safe). His partner had made fidelity a deal-breaking stipulation before they walked down the aisle. He confessed to me, however, that he had great reservations about whether he could fulfill this promise over the long haul.

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