Is Anthony Weiner an Addict or Just an Ass?

By Susan Cheever 06/08/11

Make all the jokes you want, but the implosion of New York's golden-boy is no laughing matter. The remarkable risks he took despite his promising life and career suggest that he's not just another pervy politician, but an addict in dire need of help.

Tears for Fears: Weiner's weepy press conference on Monday

Oftentimes after a long night and painfully hungover morning, A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson penned remorseful pledges in the family Bible promising he would never drink again. He meant it…until the next night when he would be back at the bar. Addicts have always presented those around them with a frustrating, fascinating and heart-breaking mystery. Why would a man who has everything—an inspired career, a loving wife, and glorious prospects—risk it all for a moment of selfish, short-lived release? Why would someone with everything to lose seem so intent on losing it? This seemingly irrational behavior on the part of very rational men and women is at the heart of addiction—and at the heart of the case of onetime rising star Anthony Weiner, the New York congressman whose bizarre twitter escapades have made world wide news. When first confronted about the allegations, he indignantly insisted that his twitter account had been hacked. When the press refused to let up, he acknowledged during a tearful news conference last Monday that he had sent “hundreds” of suggestive photographs and messages to at least six women he had met online, and then repeatedly lied to cover up his actions. Though he claimed no physical contact ever took place, he did not deny having had phone sex with some of the women. The digital dalliances took place both before and after Weiner's recent marriage to Huma Abdin, a notably beautiful close confidant of Hillary Clinton’s. (Ironically, none other than Bill Clinton officiated at the couple’s wedding last July.)

As a result, in less than a week, the unfortunately named representative—his friend Jon Stewart declared a moratorium on “Weiner” puns, dismissing them as too easy—had descended from representing the stolid citizens of New York’s Ninth District to representing the growing epidemic of male sexual idiocy that’s been gripping our nation’s capital of late. But despite the reams of press and clever headlines devoted to the matter, few have pondered the possibility that Weiner might not be just a political perv but an undiagnosed sex addict in dire need of treatment. Even though  Weinergate, as the press has giddily dubbed the scandal, has the classic symptoms of addictive behavior—from the compulsive lies to the abject apologies. 

Even more mysterious than addiction is the public’s failure to understand it. Certainly, Weiner isn’t the only politician to get caught with his pants down (literally and figuratively). Last year alone, over 35 local and national politicians of both parties were embroiled in sex scandals of some kind. Their shamelessness and heedless indiscretions are widely viewed as the time-honored spoils of power—until they get caught. Certainly not all of them were sex addicts. Some are simply old-fashioned adulterers trapped in the glare of the media. But for those whose behavior appears both compulsive and inexplicable, where the risks far outweigh the benefits, a diagnosis of sex addiction is a good bet. So why aren't these men getting help before hitting bottom? There are now many ways to treat addiction; they are not perfect but millions have found them helpful.

According to the DSM, the bible of psychiatry, Weiner displays all the classic symptoms of addictive behavior—from the compulsive lies to the abject apologies to his inability to curb his actions even when they bring on damage to himself. Unfortunately, when there is no diagnosis, there can be no treatment. A few days ago, Weiner announced that he was going to seek treatment for his problem, thugh he stoutly continued to insist that he was no addict. But before his recent announcement, more than a few  reporters hailed the Congressman for not hiding behind a story of addiction and heading for rehab—as if to suggest that all addiction were simply media hype. Doubtlessly, there are many who use addiction as an excuse for bad behavior. But Weiner doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy. In fact, when a reporter at Monday’s press conference put the sex addict question directly to him, Weiner responded with yet another evasion, saying, “This is not something that can be treated away. It is a deep weakness of mine, and it is a mistake.” Men who are unable to control their sexual urges at any cost need help, just like drug addicts and alcoholics.

One thing about addictions of all kinds is fairly certain: Apologies don’t work. Public shame and remorse, even when genuine, have no effect on an addict’s tendency to relapse. When the need takes over,  almost before the addict knows it has happened, he has done it again. That’s how addiction feels; that’s how addiction works.

Fighting addiction is often akin to playing a maddening game of  whack-a-mole. Food addicts who have their stomachs surgically minimized will sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol, just as alcoholics can blunt their alcoholism by abusing sex, food and money. The dopamine rush the addict gets by using—scientists call the addictive brain synapses the hedonistic highway—is more or less the same, whether the substance is gin, smack or Twitter.

Unfortunately, despite all the progress we’ve recently made in understanding addictions of different stripes, when it comes to politicians, the American public is not always understanding. A drunken or drugged out politician won’t get too far in today’s world. Even our preternaturally disciplined and controlled current president couldn’t get away with an occasional smoke. And while New Jersey governor Chris Christie evinces little shame over his addiction to food, he still frequently assures voters that he is constantly dieting. Addiction is a sneaky son of a bitch. It will go where it can grow and thrive.

Sex addiction is one of the few exceptions. The addiction that masquerades as a heightened version of interest in the opposite sex is one of the few that are still relatively acceptable. Of course sex addiction isn’t about loving women any more than rape is about loving women—regardless of what French apologists for Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s recent allegedly brutal sexual assault on a hotel maid are saying—but it’s somehow more acceptable for an American male today to be crazy about women, to be a womanizer, a serial dater or a real playboy, as Weiner famously was, than it is to be a drunk, junkie or fat guy.

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.