Summary List Placement
If Charlie Johnston could have it his way, he’d have sex every two hours for the rest of his life.
Johnston, a 48-year-old engineer, considers himself a sex addict and has seen a sex therapist for his compulsion since he was 20. Back then, his addiction prevented him from completing homework and he became consumed with seeking out women to get the sex he craved.
Today, thanks to his sex therapist, he has the tools to manage his cravings so he can have sex in a responsible and healthy way, Johnston told Insider. In fact, many of his colleagues have no clue he’s a sex addict.
So when Johnston saw headlines about an Atlanta massage parlor shooter’s sex addiction, he was appalled.
“It didn’t sit well with me because he used that as an out and that’s not really an out,” said Johnston. He added that after 40 years living with a sex addiction, he still craves it “all of the time” but would never consider killing someone because he didn’t get his fix.
After 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long killed six women of Asian descent at Atlanta massage parlors on Tuesday, law enforcement officials and media outlets were quick to mention his sex addiction. During a Wednesday press conference about the shooting, local police said Long told them his sexual tendencies motivated his decision, and that he viewed the massage parlors as a source of “temptation.” It was later revealed Long’s family recently kicked him out of their home due to his sex addiction and that he’d previously attended a sex addiction treatment program. According to Long’s former roommate 35-year-old Tyler Bayless, he felt shame about his problem and used the parlors as an outlet.
While this information offers a bigger picture about the person Long is, it shouldn’t be conflated with his crimes. Sex addicts aren’t wired to kill. Any suggestion they do only serves to shame an estimated 12 million Americans with compulsive behavior towards sex who need help for their problems.
Abusers have weaponized sex addiction in the past
This isn’t the first time a sex addiction diagnosis has been used to excuse bad behavior.
During Harvey Weinstein’s February 2020 trial, his friend Paul Feldsher said his behaviors could be attributed to a sex addiction while on the witness stand. Weinstein was later sentenced to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.
Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy, while awaiting his execution, said his pornography addiction led him to kill 36 women.
And Ariel Castro, a man sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping three teenagers, trapping them in his basement, and raping them hundreds of times, called himself a “sex addict” and likened it to alcoholism during his 2013 trial.
Randy Park, the son of one of the women Long shot and killed, told the Daily Beast it’s “bulls—” to blame Long’s diagnosis.
In addition to criminals’ misuse of “sex addiction,” people often use the term out of fear, to avoid discussing underlying mental health issues, psychologist and sex therapist Joe Kort told Insider.
“I have clients that come to my office and their partner says, ‘You’re either a sex addict or a pervert, and I’m not going to stay married to a pervert, so you better be a sex addict,'” Kort said.
“It reduces somebody to nothing. What does [sex addict] even mean? Let’s say what it is. This person was struggling with mental illness and it came out sexually.”
Sex addiction isn’t even an accepted diagnosis, let alone an excuse to kill
Sex wasn’t considered something a person could become addicted to until the 1980s.
During that time, increased public fear about drug abuse and addiction pushed the US government to fund addiction research and treatment programs. That’s when sex addiction treatment programs popped up around the country. (Long attended one of these addiction programs for six months starting in late 2019, Washington Post reported.)
The programs adopted the 12-step model commonly used in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, David Ley, a psychologist and author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction,” previously told Insider.
Unlike drug or alcohol addiction, however, a person with an insatiable need for sex isn’t dealing with the same underlying issues. When a person is addicted to a substance, their brain is rewired to believe it needs drugs or alcohol, Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, previously told Insider.
Someone with compulsive behavior towards sex, however, wouldn’t feel withdrawal symptoms because their brain isn’t chemically rewired as a result of their behavior. Often, it’s a coping mechanism for trauma, or the result of an unusually high sex drive, Kort said.
That’s why American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “Bible” of the profession, has yet to add “sex addiction” to its pages. Instead, it’s referred to as “compulsive sexual behavior.”
The consensus among therapists is that sex addiction programs operate on the unfounded idea that it is a type of substance addiction and should be treated in the same fashion — with abstinence. That is why, therapists say, these programs have largely proven ineffective.
Sex addiction treatment programs, like the one Long attended, ‘teach people to hate’
Compulsion towards sex can be treated effectively.
Sex therapy considers why a person engages in risky and perpetual sexual behaviors, rather than calling the sex itself a problem, and it’s proven to work.
Kort was a sex addiction treatment provider until he learned about the dangers of addiction recovery programs like the ones he used to run. He decided to pivot, and studied to become a licensed sex therapist.
“If you go to war with your sexuality, you will lose and cause more problems than when you started. So when people go to these meetings, they’ll say, ‘I have 30 days [without sex]. I have 60 days. I relapsed.’ They’re trying to fight their erotic orientation and that’s never good,” said Kort.
On Tuesday March 16, soon after the shooting news broke, Ley posted a tweet, saying he suspected Long had attended one of these non-evidence-based programs. He was right.
In a Twitter thread the next day, Ley said it was obvious to him, because sex addiction treatment programming “doesn’t encourage people to understand, accept and manage their sexual desires.”
“Instead, it teaches people to hate. Specifically, to hate their own sexuality, and the things/people/stimuli which trigger them to feel sexually aroused,” Ley wrote.
Weaponizing sex addiction helps no one
Johnston, despite seeing the barrage of “sex addict”-heavy headlines, has yet to read an entire story about the Atlanta shootings.
“I can’t. It’s so frustrating because he stigmatized the world that I live in,” Johnston said.
“[The shooting] had nothing to do with being sex-deprived or being a sex addict, nothing at all.”
Rather than being a side point, Long’s sex addiction and failed treatment became an excuse for his heinous behavior.
That narrative, of a white male “sex addict” at his wit’s end, helps no one.
It just detracts from the racist and misogynistic undertones of the crime, and minimizes Asian people’s experiences with hate and violence. And it stigmatizes those with compulsive behavior towards sex, writing them off as violent people who are past the point of help.