Is 'Sexting Addiction' a Real Thing?

Hypersexual behaviors are a real thing, and not something to cover up by calling someone an addict.

Lux Alptraum

Lux Alptraum

Anthony Weiner during his 2013 mayoral run. Image: Raymond Hall/Getty

Earlier this week, ex-congressman and documentary star Anthony Weiner wound up in the papers once more, his extramarital sexting back in the public eye for the third time in five years. Given all the story's elements—Sex! Technology! Self-destructive behavior!—it was only a matter of time until Weiner's woes became fodder for a bit of handwringing about the way we live now. Indeed, it only took a few hours for reporters to start asking if Weiner's tale was a sign that sexting might actually be addictive.

If your automatic reaction to that question is to roll your eyes, you're not alone. Mental health experts cited by The Wrap noted that "[s]exting, like drug use, leads to a rush of dopamine in the brain," but since the exact same thing can be said about cupcakes, that's not particularly compelling science. Given how many of us manage to sext responsibly, it's hard to see filthy texts as some sort of time bomb waiting to destroy civilization.

Yet at the same time, Weiner's descent into sext-fueled self destruction makes it hard to deny that sexting seems to have the potential to unlock something sort of dangerous, at least in a select group of people. So what, exactly, is going on, and is it something we should worry about?

"Our society is overly prone towards both technophobia and fear and condemnation of sex."

To find out, I turned to Dr. Eve, the South African sex therapist who literally wrote the book on cyber infidelity. Right from the outset, Eve rejects the notion of "sexting addiction," telling me that the addiction model is an unhelpful way to understand people who, like Weiner, seem helpless in the face of their self-destructive sexual compulsions. We shouldn't define people with problematic sexting behaviors as "addicts," with the easy pathology and rehab "cure" that that implies.

Eve said behavior that inspires claims of "sexting addiction" are more indicative of a hypersexual person engaging in "out of control behavior." What, exactly, does that mean? Broadly, Eve said, it's often a sign that someone's suffered a trauma that led the brain to be "dysregulated." People with dysregulated brains lack the ability to regulate or healthily manage their emotions. Eve said that, "in order to deal with emotions, there is out of control behavior."

Left untreated, those affected can "get to a stage where they just push the 'fuck it' button," where their underlying pain is so bad that they continue to pursue destructive desires no matter the risks, because they're incapable of considering other ways to manage their emotions and soothe their discomfort.

Image: Shutterstock

But does sexting, specifically, pose a greater danger to hypersexual people than good old fashioned infidelity? In some cases yes, though not because technology is somehow more addictive in and of itself. What's actually at play here is that smartphones just make it really, really easy to engage in bad behavior. Eve cites the notion of the "triple A engine" of affordability, accessibility, and anonymity: sexting is cheap, easy, and distant enough from real life to feel free from consequences.

If you're already primed to engage in out of control behavior, sexting offers a pretty immediate outlet. While a pre-internet Weiner might have been forced to leave his house and rent a porn flick, or go through the work of setting up an appointment with an escort, in the modern era, the capability for self-destruction is always present (even, as Weiner's pictures proved, when your kid is taking a nap).

But ultimately sexting "addiction," like most sex tech panics, is something of an overblown idea. "Our society is overly prone towards both technophobia and fear and condemnation of sex," said David Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction. "As people employ this technology in sexual ways, the combination leads, inevitably, to these modern kinds of moral panics," with all the attendant scare pieces employing lines about dopamine rushes to make us fear for our ability to control our behavior.

Yet most of us are able to sext, or watch porn, or engage in other online sexual outlets in a responsible and healthy way, finding pleasure in the experience without completely losing ourselves in compulsion. For that hypersexual minority with a tendency towards bad behavior, the story is different, and potentially deeply damaging. And while it's tempting to hold up men like Anthony Weiner as some sort of cautionary tale of sexting gone too far, it's important to remember that most of us aren't Anthony Weiner.

And for those who are? Dr. Eve advises against making an appointment at your local addiction clinic, urging self-destructive sexters to seek out a good healthcare provider who can help work through issues without piling on shame.

"I have compassion for [Weiner]," she told me. "He's acting out and letting people know that he's struggling." Hopefully that struggle won't get ignored in the media's rush to chalk this up to the evils of sex and smartphones—though when buzzwords like "sexting addiction" are on the table, it's all too easy for us to avoid looking deeper at the real issues of how we collectively deal with the topics of sex, shame, and mental health.

As Ley said, "The social reaction to Weiner is more revealing of our social fear of sex, violations of monogamy, and technology, and our lack of ability to consider these complex issues in a world that wants simplistic, reductionistic answers like 'he's an addict.'"