Anthony Weiner Scandal: Is Sexting an Addiction?

“Sexting, like drug use, leads to a rush of dopamine in the brain,” addiction expert Dr. Perry Halkitis, tells TheWrap

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It’s easy to laugh at Anthony Weiner’s latest sexting scandal. The former New York Congressman — who resigned in disgrace in 2011 after sending explicit pictures of himself to women he met online — is now bracing for a new wave of late-night TV jokes and snarky tabloid headlines.

But mental health experts say Weiner’s cumpulsive pattern could be a sign of a much deeper problem, one that’s anything but funny.

“It’s an addiction,” Prof. of Global Public Health at New York University, Dr. Perry Halkitis, told TheWrap. “And part of the recovery, whether it’s nicotine, drugs, alcohol or sexting, is relapse.”

Halkitis, who’s done extensive research on addiction and sexual behavior, says sexting — sending and/or receiving of naked or suggestive messages and photographs — lights up the same areas of the brain as, say, alcohol or cocaine.

“Sexting, like drug use, leads to a rush of dopamine in the brain,” Halkitis explained.  “Those neurotransmitters cause a sense of euphoria and pleasure. The desire for the pleasure outweighs the negative consequences that are sure to follow.”

While Halkitis admits he’s never met Weiner, the former Congressman’s apparent inability to stop what is clearly a self-destructive behavior has all the trappings of an addiction.

This is Weiner’s third sexting scandal in five years, and this one finally cost him his marriage. In 2013, Weiner attempted a political comeback when he ran for Mayor of New York City. But then a second sexting controversy, involving three women, derailed his campaign.

In both cases, his wife, Hillary Clinton top aide Huma Abedin, stuck by his side. But on Monday, Abedin announced that the couple is separating.

The New York Post, which broke the story, said Weiner had been sexting a different woman — one he’d met within the last couple of years, at one point sending her a racy selfie while his 4-year-old son, clearly seen in the background, was right next to him. It was a detail that had many shaking their heads in disapproval. But experts say that could be just another sign of how deep his addiction has become.

“The criteria for an addiction includes loss of control, continuation of the behavior despite adverse consequences, and an obsessive preoccupation,” Robert Weiss, a sex and technology expert for Elements Behavioral Health that manages addiction treatment centers, told TheWrap. “I’ve never met him, he could be a sociopath. But Weiner meets all the criteria of an addictive disorder.”

While the American Psychiatric Association is yet to officially recognize Internet addictions as mental disorders in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of mental health professionals, both Weiss and Halkitis say it’s not for lack of evidence.

In fact, Weiss says, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), which is widely used in Europe and Asia — is expected to include Internet addictions in its upcoming 10th edition.

“There are huge political forces in this country that won’t recognize sexting and porn as an addiction,” Weiss said. “Which means less money for research and treatment.”

But both Weiss and Halkitis, who spent decades researching this exact area, claim there is no question in their minds that porn and sexting can become a full-blown addiction.

While society has become more understanding of substance abuse, they argue, it has not yet made that leap when it comes to sexual and Internet addictions, which are still seen as perversions rather than disorders.

Halkitis also notes that many of the people who are addicted to sexting are not necessarily looking to cheat.

“Think about it this way,” Halkitis said, “It’s possible for someone to be in a relationship and watch porn without cheating. It doesn’t mean you love your partner any less. Same goes with sexting. It doesn’t mean you were necessarily looking to cheat.”

Halkitis says that in order to overcome his addiction, if that is in fact the case, Weiner would have to first understand why he gets pleasure from sexting and then put in a lot of work.

“It will require a life-long vigilance,” he said. “It’s why many people relapse and why we should be more compassionate.”