My last three blogs have been about sexual offending. Frankly, after completing the series I’d hoped to move on to lighter topics. Unfortunately, the recent situation in Ohio – Ariel Castro allegedly kidnapping and repeatedly raping and torturing three young women for more than a decade – requires comment, particularly in light of Castro’s statement to police that he is a “cold blooded sex addict,” along with his reference to sexual addiction in an attempted suicide note.
I am not privy to the facts of this investigation, nor have I ever spoken with Ariel Castro, but it seems likely that he is attempting to use sex addiction as an excuse for what he’s done. There may or may not be an element of sexual compulsion in Castro’s horrific behavior; I couldn’t say for sure without conducting a full, in-person assessment. That said, judging from the information presented in numerous media reports Ariel Castro is probably not a sex addict. Instead, he appears to be a violent sex offender.
As I wrote in a previous blog, violent sex offenders are people who commit forcible rape and “snatch and grab” child molestations. They are the least prevalent type of sexual offender, but they nonetheless garner the most media attention, and because of this the general public has a tendency to lump all sex offenders into this category even though these individuals are in fact a small minority of the overall sex offender population. Typically, violent sex offenders do not respond in positive ways to treatment if and when they receive it.
Sex addicts are an entirely different animal. They are individuals who compulsively use sexual fantasies and behaviors as a way to escape from uncomfortable emotions, life stressors, and underlying psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, attachment deficit disorders, unresolved trauma, and the like. Yes, some sex addicts engage in offending behaviors as a part of their addictive behavior patterns, but they lack the underlying psychopathy displayed by violent offenders such as Ariel Castro. In fact, an assessment with that level of psychopathy would rule out a diagnosis of sexual addiction. Sex addicts (including sexually addicted sex offenders) usually respond positively to accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.
The unfortunate part of Ariel Castro’s “cold blooded sex addict” statement is that he is obviously looking to place blame for his actions on someone or something other than himself. It is exactly this sort of misstatement (along with the need for more tier one, peer reviewed research) that has kept sex addiction from becoming an official diagnosis in the DSM. Some clinicians actually argue that sexual addiction doesn’t exist, that it is merely an attempt by some people to “label and diagnose bad behavior.” And in Ariel Castro’s case these clinicians are probably right on target. This does not, however, mean that sexual addiction does not exist. Either way, the simple and undeniable fact is this: Using sex addiction as an excuse for sexual offending is not kosher. Sexual addiction is never an excuse for bad behavior. NEVER. Not for a violent offender like Ariel Castro, not for the garden variety sex addict whose behavior has escalated to online exhibitionism or some other relatively mundane form of nonconsensual sexual behavior.
I have argued before and I will argue it here again that an official DSM diagnosis – which is obviously not coming anytime soon – would help to clear up a lot of confusion on this matter. It would allow clinicians to clearly identify individuals struggling with compulsive, addictive, and impulsive sexual disorders, diagnose them properly, and direct them toward useful, accurately planned models of treatment. It would also help clinicians not misidentify people who are not sex addicts as being such.
I want to now repeat my earlier statement that sex addiction is never an excuse for bad behavior. A diagnosis of sexual addiction does not take off the hook the men and women whose sexual activities have caused harm to self, loved ones, family, and others. It does not now nor has it ever been intended to provide sexual offenders with an easy way out of consequences (legal or otherwise) for their nonconsensual, violating sexual activity. Sex addicts are absolutely responsible for the hurt and loss left in the wake of their sexual acting out. So even if Ariel Castro is a cold blooded sex addict (he’s probably not) as opposed to a cold blooded violent sex offender (he probably is), a diagnosis of sex addiction would NOT excuse his crimes.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and the upcoming 2013 release,Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships, along with numerous peer-reviewed articles and chapters. He contributes regularly toPsychCentral.com, writing primarily about sex addiction, and The Huffington Post, writing primarily about the intersection of technology with sex and intimacy. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.