Over the last few days I've done a few interviews with the British media about Harvey Weinstein's alleged 'sex addiction'. Based on what I've read, my own view is that Weinstein is the latest in a long line of celebrities who have used 'sex addiction' as an excuse to justify their behaviour. He's not a sex addict.
Sex addiction is a highly controversial area among both the general public and those, like me, who work in the addiction field. Some psychologists adhere to the position that unless the behaviour involves the ingestion of a psychoactive substance (e.g., alcohol, nicotine, cocaine heroin), then it can't really be considered an addiction. But I'm not one of them.
One of the reasons why sex addiction isn't taken seriously as other addictions is that the term is often used by high profile celebrities as an excuse by those individuals who have been sexually unfaithful to their partners. In some of these cases, sex addiction is used to justify the individual's serial infidelity. This is what social psychologists refer to as a 'functional attribution'. For instance, the golfer Tiger Woods claimed an addiction to sex after his wife found out that he had many sexual relationships during their marriage. If his wife had never found out, I doubt whether Woods would have claimed he was addicted to sex.
I would argue that many celebrities are in a position where they were bombarded with sexual advances from other individuals and succumbed. But how many people wouldn't do the same thing if they had the opportunity? It becomes a problem only when you're discovered, when it's in danger of harming the celebrity's brand image.
Many scholars have attacked the whole concept of sex addiction saying it is a complete myth. It's not hard to see why, as many of the claims appear to have good face validity. Many sociologists would argue that 'sex addiction' is little more than a label for sexual behaviour that significantly deviates from society's norms. There are also attacks on more moral grounds with people saying that if excessive sexual behaviour is classed as an addiction it undermines individuals' responsibility for their behaviour (although this argument could be said of almost any addiction).
There are also those researchers within the social sciences who claim that the everyday use of the word 'addiction' has rendered the term meaningless (such as people saying that their favourite television show is 'addictive viewing' or that certain books are 'addictive reading'). Related to this is that those that work in the field don't agree on what the disorder (e.g. 'sex addiction', 'sexual addiction', 'hypersexuality disorder', 'compulsive sexual behaviour', 'pornography addiction', etc.) should be called and whether it is a syndrome (i.e., a group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms) or whether there are many different sub-types (pathological promiscuity, compulsive masturbation, etc.).
One of the real issues in the field of sex addiction is that we really have no idea of how many people genuinely experience sex addiction. Sex addiction specialists like Dr. Patrick Carnes claims that up to 6% of all adults are addicted to sex. If this was really the case, I would expect there to be sex addiction clinics and self-help support groups in every major city across the world - but that isn't the case. However, that doesn't mean sex addiction doesn't exist, only that the size of the problem isn't on the scale that Carnes suggests. Coupled with this is that those therapists that treat sex addiction have a vested interest. Put simply, there are many therapists worldwide who make a living out of treating the disorder. Getting the disorder recognized by leading psychological and psychiatric organizations (e.g., American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization) legitimizes the work of sex addiction counsellors and therapists so it is not surprising when such individuals claim how widespread the disorder is.
There are also issues surrounding cultural norms. The normality and abnormality of sexual behaviour lies on a continuum but what is considered normal and appropriate in one culture may not be viewed similarly in another (what is often referred to by sociologists as 'normative ambiguity'). Personally, I believe that sex addiction is a reality but that it affects a small minority of individuals and Harvey Weinstein isn't one of them.