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Is 'Sex Addiction' a Legitimate Excuse for Cheating?

Using sex addiction as a get-out-of-jail-free card has its price.


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?

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?

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