While authorities said Atlanta-area spa shooting suspect Robert Aaron Long, 21, told investigators he was motivated by “sexual addiction” and claimed he had no racial motivation, health experts say the statement falls short.
Capt. Jay Baker, a spokesman for the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, said Long – who is accused of killing eight people, six of them Asian women – suggested the spas were “a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.” But experts say such justifications have been used before in attempts to relieve white men. The statement also ignores racist dynamics and can “damage” the way the public understands these issues.
White men have traditionally given a passport when they say it – and have the privilege of overlooking how race is a factor, experts say.
“Historically, the term ‘sex addiction has been used by white men to absolve themselves of personal and legal responsibility for their behavior,” Apryl Alexander, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the University of Denver, told NBC Asian America. “It is often used as an excuse to pathologize misogyny.”
Baker, who was criticized for telling reporters that Long had “a really bad day for him on Tuesday, and that’s what he did,” and received the backlash for sharing a Facebook post last March that promoted anti-Asian T-shirts, has since been removed as a spokesman for the case.
Examining files of gender-based violence, Alexander said such attacks often occur at the intersection of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and homophobia. She stressed that contrary to what Long told police, such violence “does not just occur in isolation.”
Richelle Concepcion, president of the Asian American Psychological Association, said that accepting the suspect’s reasoning, in this case, erases several conflicting dynamics of class, immigration status, and gender that affect the communities most at risk of physical and sexual violence.
“Frankly, it’s really difficult to attribute the cruel behavior to an addiction, especially when you look at the demographics of the majority of those who have been murdered,” she said. “Race and gender play a role in this.”
“It is really unfair to take his word as there is an intersectionality that relates to the lives taken, especially when you consider that the suspect claims to have gone into these deals with the intention of eliminating the threat of temptation,” Concepcion added.
The defense of sex addiction itself, Alexander said, is highly controversial, as psychology, psychiatry, and sex research continue to debate whether it should be formally recognized. Currently, the idea that sex addiction is a disorder is not supported by research, nor is it accepted as a clinical diagnosis, she said.
Although the American Psychiatric Association included the concept of sex addiction in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1987, it later withdrew the term and has since rejected the inclusion of the concept in its later editions, including the DSM-5, which is widely regarded as the authoritative source of mental disorders, based on the lack of supporting evidence.
Alexander said this sexual behavior does not affect the brain in the same way as other addictions, including substance use and gambling behavior, and called the characterization of Long’s behavior “worrying.”
The self-identification of sex addiction, she said, is often seen in people who grew up in conservative and religious environments, where there is a high level of moral disapproval of their natural kind of sexual urges and desires.” Many of these populations are predominantly white.
“Many people who make these kinds of self-reports about sexual dependence have normative sexual behaviors and impulses, but they could be excessive. Or for many people, it’s rooted in the shame that ‘I have these attraction and emotional desires that are normal, but I don’t recognize them as normal,'” Alexander said.
Yet sex addiction is a common defense led by white men in positions of power. After a series of allegations surfaced by several women, including several who were underage at the time, accusing comedian Chris D’Elia of demanding sexual favors, he responded in February with a video in which he said, “Sex controlled my life.” He added: “I had a problem and I have a problem.”
Harvey Weinstein similarly claimed in a 2017 video that he did not “do OK” and “I got help,” after numerous allegations of sexual harassment and rape. In a statement provided to NBC News, his brother Bob Weinstein described him as “obviously a very sick man.”
And former congressman Anthony Weiner, for example, broke before a judge in 2017 after being sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting an underage girl. Weiner, who described himself as a “very sick man for a very long time,” had sought to avoid a prison sentence after the judge acknowledged that he had sought and received treatment for his behavior.
But the controversies do not end with the diagnosis itself, and the treatments have also been criticized for not taking sufficient account of the role of misogyny in sexual behavior. Ideas, including the hypersexualization of Asian women by society, Alexander says, often go unreflected.
“They often don’t talk about these hypermasculine attitudes or misogynistic messages that individuals receive, whether through pornography or society in general,” Alexander said. “Many of these so-called treatment programs often reinforce gender stereotypes. They talk about things like ‘women seduce you’, ‘women in pornography try to seduce you, and that’s why you have to avoid them’, rather than talking about your own personal attitudes and behaviors that make you marginalize women.”
Such a depiction of women as “seducers,” especially about Asian women, shifts responsibility from perpetrator to victim, Concepcion said. It plays into a stereotype of women as manipulative dragon women, stoking dangerous perceptions that make them particularly vulnerable to violence. She explained that there is a tendency to attribute the reasons for violence and murderous acts to the malicious intent of others, creating the perception that these victims who were killed deliberately provoked the perpetrator into violence.
“There have been recent studies of TV shows and even films from years ago that portrayed Asian women as seductresses, which seems to confirm these stereotypes of Asian women as fact,” she said.
Alexander said that major toxic societal problems in this context of treatment need to be unpacked, in addition to other experiences that may have contributed to such behaviors.
“These are the things that need to be addressed as underlying issues in this constellation of things that may have led to sexual obsession,” she said. “Sexual pressures or occupations are often associated with other types of underlying psychological problems, unfulfilled emotional needs, childhood traumas or, again, power and control dynamics that contribute to oppression.”
Experts, however, stressed that even when people exhibit behaviors that indicate oppression and exclusion of others, this does not often lead to an act of mass violence. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes, statistics show that about 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are due to people with severe mental illness. In reality, people with mental health problems are more than ten times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than the general population.
For people struggling with sexual obsession, experts recommend help and support that address the issue positively. Treatments based on feelings of shame are never effective, Alexander says, and the attenuation of feelings of shame is done through extensive sex education. Sexuality is so often marginalized in culture, and it’s not uncommon for people to have difficult emotions around the subject because they don’t know how to deal with it, she said.
“A lot of our sex education is based on shame and stigma, we don’t talk about normative sexuality and how to deal with it – that your own instincts may be quite natural,” she said.
Given the resources available to help people with mental illness, Concepcion said it was never acceptable to put this violent behavior down to a “bad day.”
“Many of us have bad days and yet the majority of us focus on other forms of coping to mitigate the impact of those days,” she said. “It is never justified to take lives or commit acts of violence when we ourselves have not had such good days.”