The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Atlanta suspect isn’t the first to blame ‘sex addiction’ for heinous crimes. But scientists are dubious.

Gold Spa in Atlanta was one of three in the metro area where a shooter opened fire Tuesday, killing eight people. (Chris Aluka Berry for The Washington Post)
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After a 21-year-old was charged with killing eight people at spas in metro Atlanta, he allegedly told investigators he did not have a racial motive. Even as the deadly shootings heightened Asian Americans’ fears about a surge in violent attacks, police said Robert Aaron Long blamed his “sexual addiction.”

Suspect charged with killing 8 in Atlanta-area shootings that targeted Asian-run spas

Long, a White man from Woodstock, Ga., is not the first high-profile suspect to make such a claim: Harvey Weinstein, serial killer Ted Bundy, and Ariel Castro, who kidnapped three teenagers and held them captive in his Cleveland basement, have all defended their criminal actions by claiming they were addicted to sex or pornography.

But while the world of entertainment has in recent years popularized the idea of “sex addiction” through films and TV shows, researchers who study human sexuality and addiction say it is far from an established psychiatric diagnosis.

“There’s an idea that when people are too turned on, they cannot control their own behaviors,” David J. Ley, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction,” told The Washington Post. “But the research shows that these ‘sex addicts’ don’t demonstrate observable difficulties in self-control.”

As HuffPost has reported, the American Psychiatric Association in 2012 removed sex addiction from the DSM-5, the nearly 1,000-page guidebook used by psychiatrists to diagnose mental disorders. Some scientists question if it is merely a mask for or symptom of other behaviors.

Long, who has been charged with murder after allegedly confessing to the killings, called the spas he targeted “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” according to police.

Given that six of the victims were Asian women, many advocates said they were both dubious of and angered by that statement. Even with the presence of other factors, some said it would be difficult to extricate the victims’ race and gender — or Long’s — from the deadly shootings.

Eight people, including six Asian women, were fatally shot at three Atlanta-area spas on March 16. Police have arrested Robert Aaron Long as the suspect. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Asian Americans see shooting as a culmination of a year of racism

For researchers like Nicole Prause, there is another reason to be skeptical of his self-described “sexual addiction”: There is no scientific consensus that such a diagnosis exists.

“There’s no doubt that people are coming into my office upset about sexual behaviors,” Prause, a neuroscientist at Liberos in Los Angeles, told The Washington Post. But while “sex addiction is one model for understanding those types of problems, it’s also the least likely.”

In a peer-reviewed study at the University of California at Los Angeles, Prause found significant differences in the brain’s response to sex when compared to behaviors like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or gambling.

While people addicted to these things often demonstrate neurological “cues” upon viewing their drug of choice, no such brain waves appeared in people who said they were addicted to sex, her team’s research found. Sex also fails to follow the trajectory marked by other addictive behaviors over time, which start out as pleasurable but become a necessity for avoiding negative emotions, Prause added.

The debate over whether sex addiction is real has not stopped other high-profile men accused or convicted of a wide range of impropriety from seeking out treatment for such a condition. As their sexual transgressions came to light, Anthony Weiner, Weinstein, and Tiger Woods all checked themselves into rehab centers with that goal in mind.

Reportedly, Long may have done the same. From late 2019 to early 2020, he stayed for about six months at a rehab center in Georgia, his roommate at the center said. While Long was seeking treatment for sex addiction, all other patients were suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol.

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Ley, the psychologist and author, argued that treatment like the kind reportedly received by Long — a devout Christian — may in fact exacerbate the issues at hand.

Self-identification as a sex addict is most closely linked to growing up in a conservative or religious environment, he said. One peer-reviewed study, for instance, found that attempting to suppress sexual thoughts and fantasies among religious people only increased the presence of those thoughts.

“There is absolutely no scientific evidence that sex addiction treatment works,” Ley said, but judges, juries and others may nonetheless “send people to sex addiction treatment thinking it’s going to reduce their risk.”

Rob Weiss, the chief clinical officer at Seeking Integrity Treatment Programs in Los Angeles, disputes the notion that sex addiction — or its cousin, compulsive sexual behavior disorder — is not diagnosable, or that it cannot be treated.

Weiss told The Post the long-term program reportedly undergone by Long differs from the treatment he and some other mental health practitioners around the country might provide.

But he also cast doubt on Long’s claims for a different reason: The patients he treats in Los Angeles show there is no connection between sex addiction and violence, he said.

“They’ve ruined their lives, their partners’ lives, and their families’ lives, all because they can’t control their behavior,” he said. “But they’re not killing people.”