The Hollywood treatment of sex abuse is dangerous for the real addict

Op-eds Opinions

The image of Kevin Spacey toting a blue yoga mat around a rehabilitation clinic angered many when it circulated online a few weeks ago. “Cause yoga practice stops pedophiles,” wrote one sarcastic internet commenter.

The 58-year-old Spacey is reportedly attending a 45-day ‘Gentle Path’ program at The Meadows, an addiction treatment centre in Arizona. The program addresses sex addiction through art therapy, meditation, equine therapy, yoga, and intensive counselling.

Spacey entered the program after a number of men recounted incidents of the actor’s sexual misconduct, accounts that included complaints filed by 20 different men from his time as director at The Old Vic Theatre in London.

To quell the avalanche of allegations, Hollywood has authored its most fantastical plot to date: that predators are sex addicts, and a US$38 000-a-month program will treat an abuser.

“There is no evidence that sexual harassment or sexual assault are related to the proposed features of sexual addiction,” neuroscientist Nichole Prause told VICE in 2017.

“Sexual addiction is using what may be normal sexual behaviours to excess in order to medicate an uncomfortable emotional state,” Penny Lawson, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist at Bellwood Health Centre in Toronto, told Canadian Living in 2009.

Although sex addiction is not included in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), most literature agrees that it hinges on the compulsive need for sexual release, which negatively impacts other areas of life (like relationships, finances, and health). The causes for sex addiction range from childhood trauma to mental illness.

Sex addicts are burdened with secret and anti-social habits formed to sustain their addiction; some sufferers have told of hours of trawling through internet pornography, obsessively constructing sexual fantasies in their mind, and masturbating to the point of injury.

By their own admission, The Meadows (who are also reportedly treating sex offender Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein) describe the sex addict as, “having compulsive thoughts about sex and excessively engaging in behaviours like phone sex, cybersex or pornography.”

Predatory sexual behaviour, on the other hand, is based on the need for power that usually involves another coerced or forced party. The gratification received from an act of sexual violence is based around power, not sex. For example, as Prause explained, “people committing assault generally do not feel they are out of control [like those who are addicted] — they value harassment or assault because they feel in control.”

By blurring this line, sex addicts are discouraged from seeking help as they don’t want to be labelled as an offender.

For the sex addict needing help, images of Spacey jogging up ‘Affirmation Trail’ are discouraging. Who would admit to an addiction that stigmatizes them as a violent criminal? Who would seek help for a problem knowing that they cannot afford the treatment?

I do not know Spacey, and I do not know his addiction. But his access to resources, coupled with his offences, makes him far from the standard definition of a sex addict.

We need to see real — and separate — examples of sex addicts and sexual predators, without the Hollywood gloss, to understand and treat these very complex behavioural maladies.

Writing for VICE, Maia Szalavitz wrote that if a sex addict does offend, their root-cause of their addiction must be treated to prevent further acting out. But, she continued, “that doesn’t mean addiction caused or excused the other problem—and it doesn’t mean rehab cleanses your sins or should become some kind of site for remorse and penitence.”