What the Murders in Atlanta Teach Us About Sex Addiction
The recent murders in Atlanta are painful and disturbing. Initially they were thought of solely as hate crimes in light of the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Robert Long, who was charged with the shootings shared that he struggled with sexual addiction and this played a role in his actions. Reports say that he struggled with compulsive use of pornography as well as frequenting massage parlors and that Mr. Long viewed the spas as a “temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said that “Whatever the motivation was for this guy, we know that the majority of the victims were Asian. We also know that this is an issue that is happening across the country. It is unacceptable, it is hateful and it has to stop.” Violence against Asian Americans has steadily risen over this past year. This incident also highlights violence against women, which according to the UN Report on Women, “… 35% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, or sexual violence by a non-partner. This figure does not include sexual harassment.” Every time I read this sentence I am in shock. Both of these forms of racism and sexism need to be addressed in systematic ways.
I am sure that in the next few days more will be revealed about the crimes committed, the lives of the victims and the motives of the perpetrator. Additionally, the connection between this man’s personal life and mental health and the acts he committed will be examined in great detail. Therefore, there is an opportunity here to help understand what sex addiction is and what it is not.
Sex addiction is not fun filled, light-hearted and pleasurable. While sex is pleasurable and can be light-hearted and fun, when it reaches the point of a compulsive, addictive act, the fun and pleasure of it are lost in the wake of the compulsive need. Eating delicious food can be pleasurable and fun for most people, and even a way to connect with others. When it becomes a compulsion, the filling of the need becomes so strong that the fun, the taste, and even the connection shared with others is lost in the wake of the perceived “need for a fix.” Even the most delicious chocolate cake can become more about filling an insatiable need than taste. Sex can be exactly the same. It can be pleasurable and fun and a way to connect with others. All of that is lost once it crosses the line into addiction and compulsion. It no longer is fun or connective to others. It’s all about the ‘fix.”
Sexual addiction is a form of mental illness like alcoholism, depression anxiety or obsessive- compulsive disorder. Someone who struggles with it may have other co-occurring disorders that lead to other behaviors that aren’t a result of sexual addiction. One of the forms of sexual addiction can be eroticized rage that is acted out in a variety of hostile behaviors, but assault or murder is NOT a form of eroticized rage.
Sex addiction is full of self-hatred and shame. Any addiction carries with it self-hatred and shame because feeling out of control in one or more areas of one’s life is a horrific painful feeling. Sex, any kind of sex, healthy or not, typically carries with it a lot of shame in many circles based on messages from family, culture, media, or religion. Sex as a topic in our culture has a lot of baggage. Bring it up at your next dinner party and watch people squirm. The combination of generalized shame around sex and also from the feeling of being out of control, creates deep, deep shame in people who struggle with sexual addiction.
Sexual addiction is often secretive. People who were in school with Mr. Long shared that they were shocked and had no idea that he had an addiction to sex. They described him as being shy and that “he didn’t bother the girls.” As mentioned above, sex in general carries with it a lot of shame and also a private matter that most people have in private. This often (but not always) leads to sexual addiction having a much more secretive nature than drinking or other addictions. Normal, healthy usage of alcohol is typically not a private thing hidden from others. Normal, healthy sex usually is.
Sex addiction frequently has an unhealthy cycle of starts and stops, each one pulling it’s opposite to a greater extreme. The further one “punishes” themselves or tries to go to an extreme level of abstinence (in an unhealthy way, not supported with peer or professional support and addressing the underlying issues), the further they then boomerang to even more addictive behaviors. This never-ending cycle is often called the “Addiction Cycle” and exists in most addictive behaviors.
Sex addiction is often dark and seedy. All addiction is progressive in that it increasingly needs more and more in order to get the same high. This leads to seeking it out in ways that are less than glamorous such as the alcoholic buying the cheapest type of vodka and drinking alone, the drug addict willing to let go of their appearance and go to dangerous areas to get their drugs, or the disordered eater standing over the kitchen counter shoving food into their mouth without pleasure. The same is true with the sex addict whose addiction can often take him or her to dark places that are dirty, dark, and dangerous, and where people are being exploited.
Sex addiction harms many people including spouses, partners, children, parents, friends, sex workers, and the addicts themselves. These harms can come in the forms of thousands of cuts of lies and deceptions, emotional betrayal, financial betrayal, secret lives, sexually transmitted diseases, exploitation and many, many more, including at times violence.
Sexual addiction is when the behaviors with oneself or others are consensual. It may be compulsive and addictive, but it is not coerced or non-consensual. Where sex workers are involved, they are often exploited and have a very limited amount of choice given their circumstances but the person having sex with them is not overtly forcing them. This is not to say that there isn’t a level of exploitation, coercion and abuse in contributing to their circumstances but the act isn’t one of violence and physical force. Rape, non-consensual sexual acts, and other sexual offending behaviors don’t equal sexual addiction. They are treated in a completely different way by professionals and the underlying causes are different. Some sex addicts may have sexual offending behaviors. Most do not. Some people with sexual offending behaviors also have compulsive sexual addiction as well.
There are many layers to this terrible and tragic story. My prayers are with the victims and their families. As a society, we have a lot of introspection to do about violence against Asian Americans and women as well as sex trafficking and sexual addiction. I hope that this will help broaden people’s understanding of sexual addiction and if you or someone you know is possibly struggling with sexual addiction, please reach out to us at The Center for Intimacy Recovery. There is hope and life gets better.