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The Real Reasons Men Like Anthony Weiner Risk Their Careers For Sexting

Anthony Weiner stepped down from Congress today over his "sexting" scandal. But why do powerful men get caught up in risky behavior in the first place?

For some, the fact that Anthony Weiner exercised terrible judgment, humiliated himself, and potentially hurt the Democratic Party is all that matters. Others are more impressed with how his behavior reflects the overarching pathology of the male ego, especially those of politicians and public figures. And still others think he’s just an immature jerk.

Some people, however, are genuinely curious about the deeper psychological reasons that a successful man like Weiner who is married to a beautiful dynamo of a woman would risk his career to compulsively engage in the most superficial erotic repartee with women he doesn’t know and with whom he would never consider having a real relationship. The fact that he’s apparently being treated for sexual addiction only makes it more confusing. What is sexual addiction and does that really explain Weiner’s behavior?

Based on decades of both research and clinical experience in treating sexually based anxieties, inhibitions, and compulsions in men, I think I can explain some of the deeper motivations involved. But I want to be careful to make two things clear at the outset: The first is that I don’t know a thing about the specific issues with which Mr. Weiner wrestled. Any psychotherapist worth his or her salt should cringe at so-called “experts” who, without any direct contact with the “patient,” seek to analyze the real Anthony Weiner in the media. The second caveat is that understanding sexual behavior is not the same as condoning it. We can understand someone like Weiner and still condemn his behavior. Noting that sexting may have a different meaning to its initiator than to its recipient doesn’t let the initiator off whatever “hook” his wife, colleagues, and constituents choose to put him on.

Despite Freud’s dictum, sexual preferences and fantasies, not dreams, are the royal road to the unconscious mind. Just as knowing the shape of a key enables you to infer the shape of the lock it opens, so, too, knowing someone’s preferred mode of sexual satisfaction and fantasy enables you to infer a lot about that person’s inner life. The reason is simple: Sexual preferences and fantasies are ways of counteracting certain beliefs and feelings that, left on their own, dampen our libido. For arousal to occur, those beliefs and feelings have to be momentarily negated or diminished. That’s exactly what our sexual fantasies and preferences do. They reassure us that we’re safe from and free of those thoughts and feelings that imperil our sexual desire.

This formula is not obvious because its logic is unconscious. The subjective experience of arousal, desire, or compulsion seems biological or otherwise mysterious. The reality is that desire begins in the mind and travels a circuitous path downward, but it does so outside our awareness. All we’re aware of is the end product.

For example, arousal is difficult if one feels too worried about or responsible for the other person, for his or her satisfaction. Sexual submission, however, momentarily lifts that burden because in such a scenario or fantasy one is helpless and, therefore, can’t be responsible. Other people might tend to inhibit their passion because of feelings of invisibility and worthlessness. Such a person might gravitate toward situations and fantasies in which he or she is an object of desire, on display exciting others. What could counteract feelings of inferiority or invisibility better than strutting your stuff and arousing others?

A man I treated who was secretly worried about draining or burdening women with his needs fixated on large breasts, experiencing them as a symbolic marker for a woman who has a lot to give and enjoys giving it. A woman I treated who was attractive and confident in her own right gained a similar reassurance from the height and size of the men to whom she was attracted. One man, a successful attorney, was drawn to younger woman because youth symbolized (to him) an eagerness and lightness of being unblemished by the disappointments and wear and tear of life. Youth, then, functioned as an unconscious antidote to his real view, one acquired in childhood, of women as unhappy and impossible to please, a view that was chilling in the bedroom. And, finally, a university professor, a woman, who I worked with many years ago found herself drawn to biker types because their apparent rough-hewn manner and in-sensitivity made her less guilty and worried about taking care of them. Such guilt and worry inhibited her in so-called “normal” relationships.