In 1990 I encountered sex addiction, a niche neurosis for a handful of ambivalent call girls. One who sought to convert me to her belief system (“recovery”) was also attending twelve-step meetings for an eating disorder.

Another saw the light after working a prolonged shift: when she tried to stay on call without a break, the escort agency questioned her mental fitness. The query may have been justified, since her mother, a successful shrink, paid a large portion of her rent. Financial pressure was minimized, but my friend was not interested in rehab. Industry was her path to self-knowledge.

Sex addiction was decorative and voluntary, a marginal concern.

As the idea of sex addiction went mainstream, I watched it becoming less quirky, losing its mystery—more of an imposition, this public malady—and becoming less feminine. Dick Morris (who was Bill Clinton’s chief strategist) and the celebrity golfer Tiger Woods became archetypes of American sex addiction.

In 1996, when Morris was exposed by a call girl in a supermarket tabloid, he resigned from his White House job hours before Clinton’s nomination was announced at the Democratic National Convention. As a spokesperson for PONY (Prostitutes of New York), I was interviewed by Newsday. What did Manhattan sex workers think about a Washington, DC, escort betraying a client in the Star?

Some of my peers had been fired from their day jobs and ostracized by family after being arrested for prostitution. Morris wasn’t arrested, but his career imploded and his marriage suffered. A victim of media headlines, he wasn’t yet the editor of his own story. Sherry Rowlands appeared on talk shows revealing intimate details about her client. I told Newsday that Morris would have preferred being “rolled on 10th Avenue,” a misadventure that doesn’t occur in public. (No responsible activist speaks this way in 2023, but the 1990s was a period of experimentation.)

Soon we were hearing that the exiled strategist had found his way to a twelve-step program for sex addicts.

Turning your transgression into a symptom of what ails you (“addiction”) is a tricky feat. It should free us from moral condemnation—isn’t addiction a blameless disease?—but calling yourself a sex addict has become a ritual of confession, which validates the condemnation. It’s like paying a fine to avoid prison, then being seen as less guilty because your punishment was less severe. Who better than the politically fluid fixer, Dick Morris, to show us how it’s done.

In 2010 Tiger Woods was reported to be in treatment at a Mississippi rehab center, his relationships with women from the porn industry having entered the news cycle. At a press conference Woods apologized to his mom and his notably absent wife. He continued getting into scrapes, settled with the mother of his children and, like Morris, made a professional comeback.

In post-Trump America, the mood is different. Sex addiction, like patriotism, is a refuge not only for scoundrels but for sociopaths.

The emblematic sex addict is no longer a well-connected scallywag banking on rehab to placate the missus. Instead, a precarious twenty-one-year-old, agonizing over his libido, lives with devout Christian parents in a suburb of Atlanta, where his porn consumption is closely monitored. Morris and Woods have been married to attractive, high-profile women, but Robert Aaron Long was romantically bereft, unknown to the general public until he was prosecuted in 2021 for killing eight people (six were women of Asian descent) at three local spas in one day.

His claim—sex addiction was a torment; the killings were about that, not about race—was met with derision. Trevor Noah, host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show, denounced Long, who is white, as a dissembling racist. (“Your murders speak louder than your words.”) Asian-American organizations issued statements. Some of the victims’ relatives, who would prefer we don’t consider the killer’s sexual shame, have called for his execution. Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (whose sex life would later become a national story) spoke of racial hate and a death sentence, echoing the families.

Given that identity is treated as a right or a basic necessity, should Long’s preoccupation with the complex identity of “sex addict” be dismissed? In the rush to racialize (because Georgia’s new hate crime statute is such a shiny instrument) we might ask: Why is Long’s chosen identity so troubling? Unlike Morris or Woods, who were slut-shamed, who therefore remind us of ourselves, he is charged with multiple homicides. Perhaps it’s comforting to anonymize him.

I often wonder whether reaction to his “addiction” would be different had Long’s victims not been identified as majority minority. Had they been white, race would be less prominent. Being a sex addict enables this mass shooter to recast the victims as honorary white Americans.

Where is Trevor Noah when you really need him?

If I doubt the clinical existence of this affliction, I still don’t trust the detractors telling me that sex addiction is just a beard for the perpetrator’s racism. Addiction can be meaningful and mythological.

Sex addiction as we know it, the illness associated with Bill Wilson’s twelve steps, with pop sobriety and church basements, came to life in 1977 when Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous was simultaneously dubbed the Augustine Fellowship. (Yes, that Augustine: he aspired to chastity—later please, not now.)

The year 1977 was also when Studio 54 opened its doors for the first time, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee, and Bill Clinton became Dick Morris’s first client. In November a Caltech astronomer discovered a minor planet, to be named after Chiron, the centaur in Greek mythology who taught gods to heal their injuries yet was incapable of healing his own wound.

Where sex addiction is concerned, the tale of Chiron has continued to resonate. For men like Dick Morris and Tiger Woods, perhaps even Bill Clinton, sex addiction is about scandal emerging from a romp, mimicking Athena who sprang from the forehead of Zeus.

Sex addiction is a process. The ability to talk the recovery-talk and name your ailment makes it possible to edit your public crisis in real time. At many a twelve-step meeting, people from disparate backgrounds unite around a shared substance. The utopian promise of addiction as Rockwellian town hall. It’s the great leveler.

But not for Robert Aaron Long. Sex addiction, a postmodern ailment, has one thing in common with physical illness: unequal outcomes. It matters whether the afflicted person is rich or poor, famous or average, coastal or rural, secular or confessional in outlook. These factors affect the quality of care. A luxury rehab center, frequented by sophisticated consumers, is not for all. Some are blamed for their suffering, for their sickness.

Robert Aaron Long’s sexual reality was shaped by deprivation and ignorance. Sex addiction presents its taxonomy of haves and have-nots. The relationship between fame and the world of sex addiction has become less entertaining, more dystopian. Sex addiction is no longer a decoration or an excuse for having a colorful past.

Chiron weeps.