On a stone patio outside the main house of the world-renowned Promises addiction treatment center in Malibu, therapist Robert Weiss takes a few bites of Mexican food, a slight breeze ruffling the napkin on his lap, and considers the journey that has made him a leading international expert in the field of sex-addiction recovery. A recovering sex addict himself, Weiss, an affable, self-deprecating 52-year-old, has been in a domestic partnership with the same man for more than 12 years.
"I got away from home as soon as I could because my mother was mentally ill," Weiss says. As a teenager in the late 1970s in the New York City suburbs of Westchester County, "I wanted to go to college at Berkeley, but my parents thought it would be too crazy there. But they let me go to Tulane in New Orleans. That shows you something about my parents."
Weiss was promiscuous from the age of 14 into his mid-20s. "I had sex with hundreds and hundreds of men," he says — even while married to a woman. (He came out officially at age 26, after his divorce.)
In 1985, after graduating college, Weiss found himself in Los Angeles, working at the Galleria in Sherman Oaks, when a female friend suggested he attend a 12-step meeting for his sexual addiction.
There, "I started to realize I had a self," Weiss says. "I realized I couldn't maintain my sexual behavior and still like myself."
He adds, "I was the youngest guy at the meeting by 10 years, and I never left. Right around that time, AIDS came crashing down, and people were dying all around us. I never got HIV, and I don't know why. I was lucky. I should have died."
Realizing other people with sexual addictions would die if they didn't get treatment, Weiss decided to do something about it: He earned a master's in social work at UCLA. He then landed a job with Patrick Carnes, possibly the world's leading authority on sexual-addiction treatment. Carnes was years ahead of his time.
"Pat was belittled by the press," Weiss says. "People didn't get it. Sexual addiction was a joke. But I learned about sexual addiction from the inside out."
By 1995, Weiss had started his own treatment center, the Sexual Recovery Institute, on the Westside. He began with a handful of clients and a secretary. Two years later, the popularity of the Internet exploded, and so did the number of sexual addicts coming to him for help — he was seeing 150 to 200 clients a week. Through the World Wide Web, hooking up had become much easier, and much more troublesome for addicts.
Initially, he saw mostly straight men whose partners had caught them cheating. Gay men, he says, "weren't interested."
But then things changed. "Gay marriage started a new dialogue about relationships in the gay community that wasn't there before.
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"The fear of losing a partner got men seeking treatment," Weiss adds. "The fear of death did not get people seeking treatment, which I find interesting."
Along with Carnes, Weiss became a prominent figure in the sex-addiction recovery field, writing or co-authoring several books and numerous articles, speaking around the world and appearances on TV shows. Just recently, he set up a program at Promises in Malibu.
"There are people who are dying and destroying their relationships," Weiss says. "I just think I have the opportunity to save lives."