The sham, shame of Harvey Weinstein’s sex rehab show

Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.

Exiled by his movie-industry colleagues, Harvey Weinstein has taken refuge among the scorpions and cactuses of Arizona, where he’s immersed in what has been described as rehab.

He certainly needs help. What we need is a better way of talking about why.

The phrase “sex addict” has been tossed around, encouraged by his own sparse words since dozens of accusations of rape, sexual abuse or sexual harassment were made public. In a self-pitying statement, he vowed to embark on a journey to “conquer my demons.”

That was followed by a self-serving email to agents and studio executives, whom he asked for understanding as he tended to his wounded psyche. Three times he used the same three syllables – “therapy” – and thus cast himself as a patient at the mercy of an affliction.

Perhaps. Or maybe he’s just a merciless tyrant and creep, and to dress him in clinical language is to let him off the hook.

We’ve been down this road before – with Anthony Weiner, for example – and if Bill O’Reilly ever cops to wrongdoing, he’ll surely cite mental distress or disease and check himself in somewhere, claiming he didn’t have total control and implying he doesn’t bear full responsibility. Those pesky demons did it.

I’m not equating these men. I’m noting a pattern in how a certain breed of brute explains and partly excuses himself, and I’m questioning the quickness with which so many of the rest of us adopt that vocabulary.

There’s an itch to identify some pathology, render a diagnosis, layer science onto sheer boorishness. And it’s an insult – to victims, to legitimate psychiatry and to the roles that choice and values play.

On the subject of sexual harassment, we routinely move the focus and unintentionally shift the blame away from the individual culprits, calling out corporations that haven’t provided the right sensitivity training, lawyers who impose nondisclosure agreements, enablers with situational blindness.

All of these dynamics matter, but none would be relevant if we didn’t have bad apples in the first place, and none lessen the stink of that rotten fruit.

Sex addiction has never even been officially recognized by the American psychiatric community. “I remain unconvinced that it’s a pathology in its own right,” Paul Appelbaum, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, told me.

He cautioned that “it is so easy to assume that people who behave badly in one way or another can’t help themselves when it may only be the case that they don’t want to help themselves.”

Besides, sex isn’t the whole story, and it’s probably not the main one. Weinstein thrived on his ability to toy with and torture people, and his hotel-room horror shows had as much to do with humiliation as with lust.

His were “problems of power and status,” wrote The Atlantic’s James Hamblin, a physician. “So it feels especially jarring to hear that same person professing a lack of agency.” Especially convenient, too.

Our turn toward psychiatry as a Rosetta Stone for wretchedness is on vivid display in discussions about Donald Trump. Aghast critics chalk up his self-obsession to narcissistic personality disorder and his fictions to pathological lying.

But while they mean to condemn him, their language does the opposite: A head case has significantly less to be ashamed of and to apologize for than a garden-variety jerk does.

Marc Lewis, a neuroscientist who wrote the 2015 book “The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease,” has no problem with the idea that someone can be addicted to sex, shopping or the like.

He does have a problem with regarding that addiction as an actual, agency-depriving illness.

“Then it becomes a little fortress that people can hide behind,” Lewis told me. “As soon as you go into that territory, all of our mechanisms for living together go out the window.”

Free will is removed. Responsibility is expunged. Guilt is assuaged. There are no bad characters, just bad conditions.

But to appraise Weinstein’s behavior in full dress as well as in the buff is to recognize that as bunk. There are indeed bad characters. He was among the worst of them before rehab, and I wouldn’t hope for much better after.

Frank Bruni is a long-time writer for the New York Times and a columnist there since 2011.