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Sex & Intimacy


Why Anthony Weiner Just Can't Help Himself

A politician's unsexy downfall speaks volumes about addiction

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner announces his resignation June 16, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City

Mario Tama/Getty Images

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner announces his resignation in 2011 New York City.

En español | Almost unbelievably, he did it again: Politician Anthony Weiner has been caught — for the third time in five years — using Twitter to send pictures of his crotch to a woman who's not his wife.

Weiner's two previous public episodes of sexting — the practice of sending sexually explicit photos or messages via cellphone — had already burned down his political career: The first cost him his seat in Congress in 2011, while the second scuttled his run for New York mayor in 2013. But this time the damage is personal: "After long and painful consideration and work on my marriage," announced Weiner's wife of six years, Huma Abedin, "I have made the decision to separate from my husband."

What took her so long to reach that decision? For starters, Abedin, 40, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, has a lot invested in this marriage: "Anthony and I remain devoted to doing what is best for our son [4-year-old Jordan Zane], who is the light of our life," she said. Or perhaps she believed, as I confess I naively have, that the almost-certain professional and personal fallout from another incident would keep Weiner from doing it again.

Are there object lessons here? At least three, I'd say.

The first is how little we understand about the nature of sexual compulsions. Weiner's exhibitionism, like other addictive-type behaviors, is extremely difficult to overcome. (The Center for Internet Addiction cites sexting as the most common online addiction.) And as I've learned to my dismay in the course of a 45-year career in sociology and social psychology, even excellent in-depth therapy may be powerless to help: Most — though certainly not all — child molesters, for example, are doomed to reoffend unless they submit to some form of chemical castration, which undermines their sexual desire and ability.

The second lesson has to do with recognizing the urgency of course corrections within a relationship. When an obsessional drive takes hold of someone you love, basic human decency compels you to pity that person. But does that mean you must suffer the consequences of that compulsion alongside them? Abedin's answer was no.

Perhaps she had already glimpsed lesson three, which involves facing up to what you can and cannot change about someone you love. Sadly, if your partner is suffering from a debilitating sexual compulsion, your odds of changing that person are relatively low. Certain people — especially if an offense has landed them in some kind of legally mandated program — go through addiction therapy and come out whole. But they remain a minority.

In an era when technology threatens to eradicate privacy, did the self-styled "Carlos Danger" truly believe he could escape detection? Doubtful. What's likelier is that Weiner's sexual compulsion so thoroughly eclipsed his fear of discovery that even the prospect of total ruin could not keep him from it.

Pepper Schwartz, AARP's sex and relationships adviser, answers readers' questions submitted to