The Audacity of Blaming ‘Sex Addiction’

Some people go to prison, and others go to rehab. Deposed Hollywood plutocrat Harvey Weinstein is reportedly going to rehab. On Tuesday, TMZ said Weinstein was en route to “a rehab center in Europe” to address “sex addiction.”

“We’re told Weinstein still believes he can get help, come back, and make a fresh start,” the site reported. “As a source close to Weinstein put it, ‘He wants to come back with fresh, new ideas.’”

After decades of both alleged and admitted patterns of abusive and coercive behavior, the 65-year-old Weinstein appears to be seeking a do-over. Though he hasn’t publicly confirmed it, he alluded to this last week in a postmodernist mea culpa, in which he misquoted Jay-Z and condemned the NRA and also conceded, “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it. Though I’m trying to do better, I know I have a long way to go.”

Weinstein posed the conflict as a sort of infection that could be eradicated: “My journey now will be to learn about myself and conquer my demons.” In doing so, he managed to downplay his own agency in harboring or cultivating these demons. He appeared to have taken a note in exculpation from Phil Hartman’s character unfrozen caveman lawyer: “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different.”

The implication was that standards of decency and professionalism had shifted beneath his feet, and he is a naïve old dinosaur who can’t help how much he loves sex. The answer, apparently, is an (admittedly overdue!) jaunt to rehab for “sex addiction.” Then back with more ideas soon.

The ability to even attempt to sell this narrative is a luxury disproportionately afforded to powerful men—the ones who are not thugs or violent criminals but simply can’t help themselves.

The known facts are at odds with Weinstein’s moment-of-realization story. Weinstein reportedly met with resistance regularly from the people he attacked and people close to them. He was reportedly confronted years ago privately by Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck. He has paid multiple settlements. He has been mocked publicly at the Oscar nominations and on 30 Rock and Entourage. The problem was not new or unknown, and yet it was last week’s revelation that he considered “a wake-up call.”

The more glaring problem with the narrative is the mischaracterization of the incidents as “sexual”—and an addiction to that sex. “Sex addiction” is not included in psychiatry’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, as the American psychiatric establishment chose to regard sex differently from other addictive behaviors—largely in that there are no serious physical symptoms of withdrawal. This is a consequential distinction. People can have problematic sex-related compulsions that interfere with daily life, but that’s different. For example, in a very real sense, a person approaching the lethal stages of alcohol withdrawal may rob a liquor store to save his life. This would not be the moral equivalent of raping a person to stem an onset of “sex withdrawal.”

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