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Column: Don’t laugh it off: Sex addiction recovery could help resolve the harassment crisis

James Levine conducts in Lenox, Mass. on July 7, 2006. On March 15, Levine file suit against the Metropolitan Opera over a sexual-misconduct investigation that sank his storied career.
James Levine conducts in Lenox, Mass. on July 7, 2006. On March 15, Levine file suit against the Metropolitan Opera over a sexual-misconduct investigation that sank his storied career.
(Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

On Monday, James Levine, the longtime music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was fired after the Met investigated his history of sexual abuse of young men, including teenagers. Levine sued the Met for $5.8 million for breach of contract and defamation.

On Tuesday, a report surfaced that five women had accused the architect Richard Meier of groping, exhibitionism, assault and paying for silence. “While our recollections may differ,” Meier said in a statement, “I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended by my behavior.”

Anyone who was offended.

In the months since the seismic exposé of Harvey Weinstein, more than 120 high-profile men have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, often with serious consequences. When they first get the news, many toss it off — or rage, lawyer up and sue.

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One thing they don’t do — lately, anyway — is admit to a psychosexual problem. Even those with brutal erotic practices have stopped confessing that they’re sick puppies. Perhaps this is because Weinstein said he was an addict when he flamed out, an admission that did little to win back anyone’s trust or money. He quit in-patient rehab after a week, and is now said to be on a recovery picaresque, sampling various therapies, including kale drinks and loud calls to his lawyers, as he roams the countryside.

It’s a shame the SLAA program has been lumped in with tony rehabs, fake addiction science and tepid apologies as just another refuge of scoundrels.

Maybe it’s best — for modern optics, anyway — for sex abusers to skip the invocations of personal demons and the Medevac to a secluded clinic. There is no consensus, after all, about what “sex addiction” is, and many regard the phrase as a way to slip the knot of moral responsibility. Newsweek has called sex addiction “a condition that doesn’t exist.” The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni has identified in some of these men “an itch to identify some pathology, render a diagnosis, layer science onto sheer boorishness.”

But if the last few months have shown us that victims have no handbook for coping with lechery, assault and extortion, we’ve also seen that leches, assailants and extorters don’t have a handbook either.

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Yet one does exist: a program of recovery that is less science than moral reckoning, less luxury clinic and more church cellar. The program uses the word “addict,” but not in a 2018 sense; no brain science — nor science at all — is integral to the treatment. Instead, it’s a spiritual program in which perpetrators confront their selfishness and cultivate ruthless honesty. They also create a searching inventory of what might be called sin, and make amends to those they harmed.

This is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which was founded in Boston in 1976 by a recovering alcoholic. He thought that the 12 steps that had helped him overcome alcoholism could also help him stop compulsive philandering. SLAA often serves as a punch line, and its meetings can easily be imagined as a pickup joint for the promiscuous. They’re anything but that. Recovery in SLAA is not sexy: there’s prayer, service to others and chores like floor-mopping that might be just the thing for a vain maestro or arrogant architect.

SLAA sometimes goes by a more dignified and evocative name: the Augustine Fellowship. St. Augustine of Hippo is rarely invoked in the context of #metoo, but maybe he ought to be: He was a man of restless sexual energy who in his famous “Confessions” copped to harming people for his sexual gratification. The story of Augustine’s redemption — a dividend of his own moral commitments, as well as God’s grace — is foundational to Protestantism.

Those in the Augustine Fellowship hardly let themselves off the hook for the sexual harms they’ve committed. Everything from harassment to infidelity to the wanton consumption of pornography goes on their inventories. Whether or not they believe in God, they commit to the 12 steps not to repair their reputations, but to save their souls.

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Several men I respect have stopped compulsive and cruel sexual behavior in the Augustine Fellowship. Their recoveries are both arduous and admirable. For one of them, the strict policing of what the fellowship calls “people, places and things” — triggers — has continued for years. He avoids all pornography, red-light districts, and even roads with strip clubs along them.

His amends to the women he harmed have all included taking full, un-defensive responsibility for all the suffering he caused. No “our recollections may differ” here.

Such forthrightness requires humility. The Augustine Fellowship exists for abusers and others who can find humility in their humiliations.

It’s a shame the SLAA program has been lumped in with tony rehabs, fake addiction science and tepid apologies as just another refuge of scoundrels. Feminists rightly say that victims don’t need to learn self-defense; perpetrators need to learn “no raping.” The Augustine Fellowship has been teaching no raping for 42 years — and evidently that simple lesson continues to come as news to men who sorely need it.

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