In Raleigh, North Carolina, Jason Williford
recently faced the death penalty as he stood trial for rape and murder. Part of the defense strategy was to paint Jason as a sex addict, who was acting out of control, driven by sex desires that he was powerless to resist. A social worker and sex addiction specialist testified that Jason had earned an 18 on a 20 point-scale measuring sex addiction, and that he was one of the most severe sex addicts she’d ever seen. Williford’s defense attorneys argued that because of his sex addiction, their client was not mentally capable when he committed these crimes, and thus should not be held fully responsible for his actions. The jury in the case was ultimately split on the death penalty, and Williford was sentenced to life in prison without parole. But, sex addiction is not a real disorder. Sex addiction is a pseudo-scientific pop psychology phenomenon, fueled by the media and moral groups. If sex addiction is not based on legitimate science, does it belong in a court of law, used as evidence and to sway juries, as it was in this case?
The American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly dismissed sex addiction as lacking empirical evidence. Over the last thirty years, repeated efforts to declare sex addiction a legitimate diagnosis have failed. Despite this, the concept of sex addiction is being raised in courts much more frequently and finding a welcome ear. Judges order men into sex addiction treatment and sometimes excuse men from court appearances when they are in sex addiction treatment. Claims of sex addiction are heard often, in sentencing phases, as defendants use the alleged disorder to explain their sexual behaviors.
In 2012, the former Calumet county District Attorney, Kenneth Krantz, claimed that his sex addiction was “like” an eating disorder, and that his untreated condition had led to him sending grossly inappropriate sexual messages to a female victim of domestic violence. In court, Krantz asserted that he had narcissistic personality disorder, along with chemical dependency to prescription medications, as well as a sexual addiction, allegedly triggered by the medications. During testimony, Krantz argued that sex addictions were different from eating disorders, only in that society does not perceive them as legitimate, and stigmatizes those with sexual behavior problems, calling them “perverts.”
For mental health evidence to be admissible in court, it must fulfill standards of legal proceedings regarding scientific information. These rules, commonly called the Daubert rules, require that scientific testimony be based on research that is repeatable, that involves testing hypotheses, with real world data, and uses sound science, and upon research and scientific information that is generally accepted. And, the error rate involved in this research should be known—in other words, how reliable is this information?
The concept of sex addiction fails to measure up to these expectations, across almost every dimension.
- Different therapists and writers apply differing etiologies to each term, using a bewildering and conflicting variety of psychological theories to explain behaviors and problems. Further, these hypotheses are rarely tested. Instead, the field of sex addiction is filled with untestable theories and clinical interpretations, based upon unfalsifiable arguments.
- Within the sex addiction literature, there’s a great deal of anecdotal and observational reporting, typically from within sex addiction treatment programs, but little real-world empirical testing of these hypotheses.
- There is absolutely no data regarding the “error rate” of sex addiction. How often is it misdiagnosed? How often do we diagnose it when the problem is something else?
- Tests that assess sexual addiction are poorly researched, with a wide variance in their theoretical approaches, variations that reflect the many competing theories of sex addiction. These tests are widely found on the Internet, though they have no empirical or scientific grounding, and typically reflect only the clinical experiences and theories of the test’s creators.
- There is a very significant level of skepticism of sex addiction, both in the general public, and in the scientific community and the mental health field. In fact, if one could argue that sex addiction is generally accepted in the field, wouldn’t it already be a diagnosis?
But claims of sex addiction are rarely held up to Daubert challenges. In the cases I describe in this article, the legitimacy of these claims were not challenged. The most significant intersection of the courts and the sex addiction label lies in the area of crimes of sexual abuse, rape, exhibitionism and voyeurism. Despite the fact that sex addiction is commonly defined as "non-paraphilic or non-fetishistic sex," sex addiction therapists and proponents commonly treat all sex offenders (such as pedophiles and exhibitionists) as though they are sex addicts.
I’m ethically and clinically troubled by the use of the sex addiction label with sexual criminals, beyond the questions of its scientific merit. Using the sex addiction label with offenders puts the blame and responsibility for these sexual crimes on the perpetrator’s supposed addiction and on the effects of a disease process rather than placing responsibility on the individuals themselves. Over decades working with sexual offenders, I can tell you that if there is a way that they can avoid responsibility for their actions, they will. I’ve spent too many long hours challenging folks who are trying to pass the buck and blame everybody but themselves for the choices they make, to endorse the idea that a fictional disease caused someone to violate the bodies of other people. Further, allowing the use of the sex addict label in sex criminals ignores the wealth of information that we have from careful research on sexual crimes, and those that commit them. The characteristics of alleged sex addicts are not the characteristics of sex offenders.
Acts of sexual violence and sexual crimes are complex, determined by a large variety of historical, environmental, and psychological antecedents. Calling these acts the results of a fictional disease trivializes the immoral, selfish, angry, and destructive choices of a rapist and prevents us from holding such people accountable for their behaviors. A recent article was published online, questioning the motives for my challenge to sex addiction. In it, she suggests that the "deadly sins" are really the result of psychological illnesses, like sex addiction. So, I guess murder, coveting, lying, etc. are all just the result of illness? Sex addiction proponents may be comfortable excusing illegal, immoral behaviors through a fictional illness. I'm not.
In June of 2012, Lloyd McCracken was arrested in Pueblo Colorado for sexually abusing a young girl over a period of years. When arrested, McCracken told police that his actions were the result of untreated sex addiction, and were behaviors that he “could not stop on his own.”
The label of sex addiction can inappropriately influence significant decisions about responsibility and culpability, when introduced in courts of law. In theory, we should expect that courts would not treat sex addiction claims as legitimate or allow them to be successful. And I think that we shouldn't have to try to educate courts and attorneys about the legal invalidity of sex addiction claims. Unfortunately, attorneys and judges are bombarded by the popular media, where there is a strong message that sex addiction and porn addiction are real, dangerous, and influencing people's decisions. And, I believe we are seeing the results of that bombardment, evidenced in the cases cited above. This is a growing trend, and frankly a troubling one. Until we start to demand clinical and legal accountability for these claims of sex addiction, it will continue to happen. And guess what? It just did:
In New Zealand, only a few days ago, a teacher's aide was arrested for allegedly sending sexual messages to a 12 year old girl. According to the reports of the incident, the man has told police: "I'm a bit of a sex addict. A lot of things I discuss are around sex. That's just me."