News & Politics

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.

That’s the way sexual arousal and desire work. But what does it have to do with Anthony Weiner?

Some people, predominantly men, enjoy sexual encounters on the Internet, whether via erotic conversations, twittering, or sexting. On the surface, the appeal of these modalities is not that difficult to divine. The man can have multiple erotic encounters, fashioned entirely to his taste, and enjoy relative anonymity. The anonymity provided may be total, complete with fictitious screen names and invented identities, or relative, as it was with Weiner who flirted (and more) with online correspondents whom he didn’t know at all and who knew him only through his public persona.

The deeper appeal lies in three areas unique to the digital world: First, the man enjoys connections with lots of (in this case) women. His barriers to connectedness are thus overcome and his loneliness is temporarily alleviated. Second, the women are objectified, as is the man. And in a relationship between objects, no one is truly dependent, dissatisfied, or unhappy. And third, the women with whom a man corresponds, and the sexual scripts he most highly prefers, can be selected for and are under the man’s relative control. If the other person doesn’t “fit the bill” and doesn’t want to play in the prescribed ways, that connection can be deleted and another, more appropriate, one is available to take its place.

While these three dimensions of online sexual play can be appealing to women, too, they speak to particular anxieties and vulnerabilities in many men today. For reasons having to do with their childrearing and with the social construction of masculinity, men tend to be emotionally disconnected from themselves and others. In the course of growing up, to the extent that boys have to deny their identifications with and dependency on their mothers in order to separate and become “masculine,” they end up cut off from their inner lives and averse to feelings of dependency. This is a recipe for painful isolation. The safety of anonymous Internet relationships temporarily relieves the resulting suffering.

Further, denying dependency doesn’t eliminate it. Men still crave intimacy but fear that gratifying this craving will enmesh them in dependent relationships with women they can’t satisfy or make happy and to whom they’ll invariably surrender their autonomy and give more than they get. Objectifying themselves and women temporarily solves this problem. The man and his willing Internet (or texting) partners happily exchange pics and fantasies in a mutual admiration society free of expectations, complaints, or neediness of any kind.

And, finally, the particular “problem” that inhibits a particular man’s capacity for sexual pleasure and success in everyday life--for example, a belief that he’ll hurt women or a feeling that he’s inadequate, invisible, small, or somehow missing the “secret sauce” behind confident masculinity—can be very precisely disconfirmed through scripts and scenarios played out with women chosen for their willingness to do just that (e.g. be admiring, awe-struck, robust, saucy, etc.).

The Internet with its social networks and communities, anonymous bulletin boards and chat rooms, and rapid interactive modalities like texting promises to men the perfect playground for their desire and fantasy life to flourish. Real women in the real world are more problematic, what with their burdensome expectations of mutuality and reciprocity, their human sensitivity to slights and rejections, their neediness, and their demands for loyalty and caretaking.

I would never presume to diagnose Anthony Weiner with this formulation, but I can say that the behavior patterns he seemed to enact are familiar to me in my work. Ultimately, they stem not from the aphrodisiac of power, but from the pain of being emotionally disconnected, guilty, and insecure about their own emotional and sexual adequacy with real women in a real intimate relationship. Such issues are not more prominent in public figures or men with political or financial power, although when such men get busted, it makes for more notoriety. The manifestations of these problems and conflicts are legion. They are mirrored by equally painful feelings in women who struggle to overcome their own inhibitions and fears using outlets and fantasies of their own. Such struggles are no less “screwed up” than those seen more publicly in men. Both genders in our society wrestle with the demons of sexuality and the barriers to its healthy expression and satisfaction. The digital world so often serves as a band-aid for the pain and suffering that results.

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Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of "Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies" and "Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either." He has written extensively about psychology and politics.