Is sex addiction really a thing? Science is skeptical

Crabapple First Baptist Church, where the Atlanta shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long was an active member, in Milton, Ga., March 17, 2021. The church posted a lengthy statement on its website Friday morning that called this week’s attacks on three spas “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.” (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)
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Crabapple First Baptist Church, where the Atlanta shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long was an active member, in Milton, Ga., March 17, 2021. The church posted a lengthy statement on its website Friday morning that called this week’s attacks on three spas “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.” (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Spa shooting suspect told investigators he was driven to purge temptation

To join the church Atlanta spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long attended, you have to adhere to certain non-negotiable edicts, a terms of agreement of sorts for membership.

In a section titled “Diligence of Members,” Crabapple First Baptist Church leaders defined marriage as between a man and a woman and said sex was limited to married couples.

“Lust is a huge problem in our culture today and the ease of access to materials that feed temptation is unprecedented,” church leaders warned on their website.

Long, 21, claimed the lure of sexual gratification proved impossible to ignore. On March 16, after a shooting spree that left eight people dead at three metro area spas he had frequented, police officials said he told investigators he had sought to eliminate the temptations brought on by his addiction to sex. No evidence has been made public that he visited the spas for illicit activities.

The Woodstock man, charged with eight counts of murder, had unsuccessfully sought treatment at two local clinics.

The victims include: Daoyou Feng, 44 ; Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, 33; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Xiaojie “Emily” Tan, 49; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Hyun Jung Kim Grant, 51. In addition, Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz, 30, was shot but survived.

Officials said Long cited the alleged addiction to sex as a motive. That drew immediate, national criticism and authorities have said nothing since then about a possible motive.

Others have pointed to racial or gender bias as a motive, as six of his eight victims were women of Asian descent, and urged that Long be charged under Georgia’s hate crime law passed last year. Ultimately, prosecutors will make the call whether to charge Long with hate crimes.

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Medical science is skeptical that sex addiction is an actual thing. It is not listed as an official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered a bible for doctors, researchers and medical insurers. As a legal defense, it would be virtually unprecedented.

“I’ve never heard of it being used in a murder case,” Decatur attorney Keith Adams said. “It’s not a defense. Now maybe it’s a reason. But he can have illogical thoughts without having a mental disorder.”

Long’s addiction was real, say those familiar with his struggle to live a chaste life. Tyler Bayless, Long’s former roommate at Maverick Recovery, where they were treated in 2019 and 2020, said Long was hounded by shame and self-loathing every time he caved to carnal desires.

Bayless, writing on Facebook, said the shootings were “the product of an emotionally disturbed young man who was religious to the point of mania.”

‘Your soul is at stake’

In November, Associate Pastor Luke Folsom preached about the dangers of pornography and advised church members to get rid of their smartphones and cut off their internet service to avoid it, according to the New York Times.

“Your soul is at stake,” he said. Folsom did not respond to requests for comments by the AJC.

The church encouraged members to download software that would send alerts about “questionable web browsing” to a designated person to provide accountability.

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“We owe it to our brothers and sisters in Christ, our families, and most of all, our Lord to battle against this temptation,” the church wrote. It said members who did not believe they had a problem with sex should install the app “to help avoid even the appearance of evil.”

According to Bayless, after Long left Maverick Recovery, he sought help at HopeQuest, an evangelical treatment center in Acworth, financially supported by several suburban churches.

“I've never heard of it being used in a murder case. It's not a defense. Now maybe it's a reason. But he can have illogical thoughts without having a mental disorder."

- Decatur attorney Keith Adams

Officials for HopeQuest did not respond to a request for comment. In one of several videos describing the center’s philosophy, Executive Director Troy Haas talks about how HopeQuest gets its clients.

“Our phone rings daily with calls from pastors, church leaders and Christians asking for help, overwhelmed with the problem of sexual addiction in context of the church and their lives,” Haas said.

In a podcast recorded in 2016, Haas urged pastors to address sinful sex in their congregations and the importance of “intensive residential treatment” for “sexual addiction or unwanted same-sex attraction.”

William Lloyd Allen, a professor of church history at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, said Long’s alleged acts of violence reflect a disturbed mind. But he said they do need to be viewed within the context of the evangelical church.

“In a deranged way, he is simply backing up the theology he was given. He was given the theology that women are temptresses,” he said. “They teach that women tend to tempt men and especially impure women. They teach that God wants people before marriage to never admit sexual desire, and if they do have sexual desires to think of them as sinful. So why wouldn’t he do those things if he is a little – or a lot – off balance?”

Allen said Long likely was driven by an intersection of motivations and biases which have propagated inside the evangelical church, including the demeaning of women, minorities and immigrants.

“All of these are things that Southern Baptists, as a culture, have devalued,” he said. “They are responsible for connecting Asian women to temptresses, to things that need to be eliminated.”

On March 21, following a somber Sunday service, the members of Crabapple voted to expel Long from the church, saying his actions showed he was not truly saved. Allen said the evidence would suggest the twice-baptized man believed himself to be a committed Christian “trying to live the life God wants him to live.”

In his regular podcast, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, criticized the media attention placed on Crabapple and conservative Baptist theology in the wake of the shootings.

“As you look at this coverage it becomes increasingly clear that many in the mainstream media think it is, well, just odd that you would have Christians that would have such a concern with anything that might be described as lust,” he said. “Of course, the entire category of sin makes no sense in secular world view.”

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Mohler said Long was not driven by the teachings of the church, but by a “tragic mixture of sexuality, of struggle, of what may well have been racism and sexual stereotyping of what was, as it turned out, a racially or ethnically patterned crime, even if that was not consciously at the heart of the crime.”

Mohler said sin, not Long’s claim of sexual addiction, was the root cause of his problems.

“One of the things that comes up in this article is the fact that this young man and others referred to his pattern of sin as an addiction. That is not a biblical word,” he said. “Therapy is not the rescue when it comes to sin. Only Christ is.”

Allen said Long was failed by a “white nationalistic religious subculture” that cloaked sex in shame and guilt, devalued women and minorities, and rejects therapy that is not “Bible-based.”

“He is not rejecting all your values. He is distorting all those values, but he got those values from you,” he said. “He is mentally deranged, but I think he is genuinely one of us – a white, evangelical Christian who went off the rails.”

Science skeptical

Sexual and mental health organizations reject establishing sex addiction as a diagnosis, said David Ley, a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Myth of Sex Addiction.”

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ 2013 edition said addictions to sex, shopping and exercises were not included because there was insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to identify them as mental disorders.

“While there are people who struggle to control their sexual desires, there is absolutely no scientific evidence that struggle is an addiction,” Ley said.

Ley and Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University, both dismissed the idea that sex addiction can drive people to commit violent acts.

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“We have studies that show millions of Americans are concerned that their sexual behaviors might be excessive or out of control,” Grubbs said. “If that is true, millions of them are not going out and committing mass murder.”

Last year, Grubbs coauthored a study that found there was “almost no empirical basis for the treatment of compulsive sexual behaviors.” But that hasn’t stopped therapists, many connected to religious organizations, from offering treatment, much of which emphasizes abstinence.

“When we are inherently mammals that have a drive that is hardwired into us, it is not realistic for everybody,” Grubbs said. “Total abstinence often ignores that. It sets people up for failure.”

Ley holds similar views.

“Sex addiction treatment is absolutely not supported by science,” he said. “It is frankly unethical and potentially malpractice that people are out there providing these treatments and charging people a lot of money for them when there is no evidence they work. It is essentially experimental treatment.”

Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who researches human sexual behavior and addiction, worries sex addiction treatment centers could harm patients struggling with other conditions, including depression.

“The major concern is that these sex addiction centers are delaying treatment for something that is appropriate to treat, which is most likely to be depression but it could be something else,” said Prause, who founded Liberos, an independent research institute in Los Angeles.

“There are lots of for-profit and religious organizations that will absolutely cause you to be upset about your sexual behavior because it benefits them. They can make money off of you or they can use this to support their religious goals.”

A legal dead end

Because it’s not accepted as a mental disorder, defenses based on sex addiction are rare. If anything, defense attorneys will trot it out as a mitigating factor aimed at producing a lesser sentence. Adams, the Decatur lawyer, said you’re more likely to see it raised in cases involving child porn possession or distribution.

Long’s attorney, Daran Burns, declined comment.

There have been some cases where the prosecution seized on an alleged perpetrator’s sex life to help explain a motive. That’s how Cobb County prosecutors framed their case against Justin Ross Harris, sentenced in 2016 to life in prison plus 32 years after he was found guilty of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son inside a hot SUV to die. They argued he killed his son in order to pursue a sex-fueled, consequence-free lifestyle.

Harris’ defense team fought unsuccessfully to block testimony about Harris’ extramarital dalliances and sexting. Lead Harris attorney Maddox Kilgore told the AJC that once that evidence was admitted the defense never considered using addiction to explain their client’s behavior.

“If you put it into the proper context perhaps it can humanize the defendant,” he said. “But a lot of judges probably wouldn’t allow it.”

Georgia’s mental health statutes are very narrow, Kilgore said. Defendants must prove they were incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, for instance.

For Long, choosing between what he considered good and evil was a constant struggle.

“I wonder how this would have gone [if] he had been in an environment where he wasn’t repeatedly told how sinful he was for the things that drove him,” wrote Bayless, Long’s old roommate.

For complete coverage of the Atlanta spa shootings, visit ajc.com.