Today, as the trauma-based neurobiological problem of sexual addiction becomes more universally understood and accepted, sexual offenders who’ve been arrested for illegal sexual activity sometimes grasp at the “sex addiction” label, hoping to use it as an excuse for their behavior. One of the most egregious examples of this was Ariel Castro, the Ohio man who kidnapped and then raped and tortured three women for more than a decade. After his arrest, Castro told police that he did what he did because he was a “cold blooded sex addict.” As a sex addiction expert, that assertion, when I first learned of it, made me cringe. I was not privy to the full facts of the case, nor did I ever speak with Ariel Castro, but the information presented in numerous media reports strongly suggested that Castro was not in fact a sex addict (and that he was actually a calculating, psychopathic sexual predator). In reality, violent sexual behavior at the level displayed by Castro is actually a “rule out” when diagnosing sexual addiction.
So how do we differentiate between sexual addicts (David Duchovny, Tiger Woods, and Anthony Weiner come to mind) and sexual offenders like Ariel Castro? Even in the therapeutic community there is confusion as to what constitutes sexual addiction and what constitutes sexual offending – confusion caused in part by the American Psychiatric Association’s lamentable refusal include a diagnosis and clear-cut clinical criteria for sexual addiction in the DSM-5. This lack of clarity is further compounded by the fact that our legal system is markedly inconsistent from one jurisdiction to the next when it comes to defining and punishing illegal sexual acts. In an attempt to shine some light on this issue, I offer some very basic definitions here:
- Sexual Addiction is a compulsive/obsessive preoccupation with sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviors, typically involving the pursuit of non-intimate sexuality – porn use, compulsive masturbation, casual/anonymous sex, and the like. Sex addicts compulsively engage in sexual fantasy and activity despite negative consequences (relationship issues, problems at work or in school, declining physical and emotional health, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, financial distress, legal entanglements, and more). Usually sex addicts have repeatedly tried and failed to limit or eliminate their compulsive sexual activities. Like other addicts (alcoholics, drug addicts, compulsive gamblers, etc.), sex addicts engage in their addiction as a way to “numb out” and escape the experience of stress, emotional discomfort, and the pain of underlying psychological conditions like depression, severe anxiety, unresolved early-life trauma, etc.
- Sexual Offending is a bit more complicated because it has both a clinical definition and numerous (often conflicting) legal definitions. Clinically speaking, sexual offending occurs when someone commits a sexual act that is nonconsensual. If both partners do not fully agree to a sexual act, or if both partners don’t have the ability/capacity to fully consent to a sexual act (one partner is too young, is extremely drunk or high, is mentally handicapped, etc.), and that sexual act occurs anyway, a sexual offense has taken place. Once again, that is the clinical definition of sexual offending. Legal definitions for sexual offending vary from state to state. For example, the age of consent for sexual activity in US states ranges from 16 to 18. And even in states where the age of consent is the same, the level of offense for the same activity may differ. As such, behavior that is considered a high-end felony in one state may be a misdemeanor in another.
The key difference between sexual addiction and sexual offending is volition and mutual consent. When being sexual with others, sex addicts, by definition, repetitively act out in ways that are mutually agreed upon and acceptable to both parties. Sex offenders do not.
A question I’m often asked is: Can you be both sexually addicted and a sexual offender? And the answer is yes, you can. This does not, however, mean that sexual addiction should ever be used as an excuse for sexual offending. In fact, a major component of all addiction recovery, including sexual addiction recovery, is admitting what you’ve done and taking responsibility for it. This is similar to an alcoholic who gets drunk, drives, and injures or kills another person in a car wreck. The fact that he or she is alcoholic does not excuse the illegal activity (impaired driving resulting in bodily harm), nor does it exempt this person from punishment. Sex addiction is the same. In other words, sexual addiction is NEVER an excuse for bad behavior.
Although there is scant research on compulsive/addictive patterns of sexual behavior, we do know that sexually addicted sex offenders (SASOs) typically start out with non-offending behaviors, with their activities escalating over time into offending. This is the same type of escalation that we see with other forms of addiction. For instance, heroin addicts rarely start out with IV drugs. Instead, they start with alcohol or marijuana, escalating over time to larger quantities alcohol/marijuana, prescription drugs, and harder drugs, until finally they end up with a needle in their arm and little to no idea how they got there. Similarly, SASOs typically start out with relatively vanilla activities like casual sexual hookups and compulsive masturbation to conventional forms of pornography. Over time, though, they up the intensity level by having sex in public places, or looking at more intense and perhaps illegal forms of pornography, or engaging in exhibitionism and voyeurism or any number of other (usually low level) sexually offending behaviors.
Another way to sort out this troubling bin of psychopathology is to consider the motivations of SASOs vs. non-sexually addicted offenders. Non-addicted offenders are typically driven by anger, fear, and rage, and they seek to inflict pain and do harm, whereas SASOs are generally motivated by a desire for self-soothing, self-regulation, and emotional dissociation. With this increased professional awareness of the role that sexual addiction can play in sexual offending, it is imperative that sexual addiction and sexual offender treatment specialists be willing to broaden their approach as necessary, incorporating awareness of differing motivations and tailoring treatment plans to the needs of each individual client.
As always, whether a person is a sexual addict, a sexual offender, or both, the best course of action is referral to a sexual addiction and/or a sexual offending treatment specialist (depending on the client’s needs). These treatment specialists can be found at The Sexual Recovery Institute, The Ranch, and via referrals through the Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, the International Institute for Trauma & Addiction Professionals, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders, and the Safer Society Foundation.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction,and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.