After a 21-year-old white man was arrested on suspicion of killing eight people—most of them Asian women—in massage parlors in Atlanta on Tuesday, Capt. Jay Baker of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office said in a press conference that the suspect, Robert Long, claimed he was suffering from sex addiction. Baker said Long described these women as a “temptation he wanted to eliminate."
Putting aside the fact that a police officer got behind a microphone to uncritically repeat Long's justification just hours after his alleged killing spree—and that Baker (who has promoted T-shirts that are racist against Asians on Facebook, and has since been taken off the case), as well as Sheriff Frank Reynolds, simply took him at his word when Long said his crimes were not racially motivated—the excuse of "sex addiction" is a highly disputed diagnosis among mental health professionals.
Many say that sex addiction doesn't meet the criteria for an official psychiatric disorder, like alcohol or drug addiction. It was rejected from the most recent DSM-5, a diagnostic manual published by the American Psychiatric Association. One peer-reviewed study from the University of California Los Angeles has shown that hypersexuality, or what some clinicians might call sex addiction, isn't different from having a high libido. Other studies have shown that so-called "porn addiction" correlates highly with moral disapproval around pornography use, and not an unusually high or disruptive level of porn watching.
But this doesn't stop people from blaming their actions on the refuted notion of sex addiction.
"There is a plethora of examples of people who use claims of sex addiction to divert or avoid moral, legal and personal responsibility for sexual misbehaviors," David Ley, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, told me. "It happens at the level of a husband who gets caught cheating on his wife, and blames his actions on sex addiction, as opposed to his own deeper issues within themselves and within the relationship." But it also happens, he said, at all levels of privilege, and escalates to every level of abuse—up to murder.
''Pornography... was the fuel for his fantasies to do the things he did,'' James Dobson, a famous anti-porn evangelical psychologist, said after he vidoetaped serial killer Ted Bundy's final interview in 1989. ''There was a great deal of remorse. He wept several times while talking to me. He's going through a lot of agony tonight.''
Harvey Weinstein tried to use sex addition to defend against rape and sexual abuse allegations, saying, "Guys, I'm not doing OK. I'm trying. I've got to get help." Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was caught hiring a sex worker in 2008, and when he cried "sex addiction," several psychologists backed him up in the op-eds of major publications. "We needn't throw away good people because they have a bad problem," one wrote. Instead of normalizing being the client of a sex worker, or even acknowledging the hypocrisy of prosecuting several escort services as attorney general to bolster his career, he decided to paint himself as a victim.
"Not only do people use [sex addiction] as a way to avoid personal responsibility for these actions, but also people use these labels to excuse others for these kinds of behaviors," Ley said. "Sadly, there are lots and lots of people in sex addiction treatment, who are wealthy white men who get caught with child pornography, for instance, or who get caught engaging in criminal sexual behavior or sexual harassment, and they negotiate with the judge to go to sex addiction treatment instead of being held responsible for their actions."
Sex work and pornography are an easy scapegoat for men, and calling it "sex addiction" allows them to pathologize misogyny as an uncurable disease. Long allegedly grew up steeped in evangelical Christianity, as the son of a youth pastor. There are reports that his home church, Crabapple First Baptist Church, responded to the tragedy by trying to erase itself from the internet. Southern Baptists often preach that even allowing lustful thoughts to enter one's mind is a sin, on par with adultery. Often, those messages are embedded in symbolism of war and "spiritual" battlefields. As Cathy Reisenwitz noted in AVN, the Baptist Convention of Iowa declared a "porn epidemic" during its 2020 convention—in the middle of an actual, deadly pandemic—when earlier that year and in 2019, allegations of sex abuse by pastors and church leaders spread.
Massage parlors have long been a target of conservative, religious "abolitionist" groups that appropriate the language of slavery to apply to sex work. Exodus Cry, the religious group behind the petition to shut down Pornhub, publishes material about Asian massage parlors being "fronts for brothels, prostitution, and trafficking" and as central to their "outreach" missions, which involve mostly white staff trying to "save" workers.
The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a conservative anti-porn and anti-sex work organization that continuously supports and lobbies for legislation that harms sex workers, called immigrant massage parlor worker Yang Song's death during a police raid in her own apartment a suicide. It uses her death to further its agenda against sex work—specifically citing Asian massage parlors.
Conservative religious groups try to suppress their own urges, but also can't stand to see anyone else enjoy pleasure or profit from what they can't have. Instead of looking inward, they wage a war on everything that could be seen as "temptation." Most often, they use legislation as a cudgel to make the state do it for them.
"They hate sex, and they're afraid of sex," Ley said. "When somebody says to me that they're a sex addict or a porn addict, in my mind I translate that to mean, 'I am deeply afraid of my own sexual desires'.... I think it's sad because [religious groups] are creating this, they are feeding this conflict that escalates to these kinds of tragic horrific acts."