Sexual harassment is not a mental illness. Picture: Pixabay

The science is in: Men who engage in sexual misconduct really can help themselves.

Despite the excuses you might hear from leaders in the political, entertainment and media worlds who are accused of sexually harassing women (and some men) - a list that seems to grow daily - advances in brain imaging have recently revealed that these kinds of behaviours are simply not addictive in the same way drugs or alcohol might be.

Here's how researchers identify when a behaviour is addictive: When that behaviour starts lighting up the part of the brain connected to need instead of pleasure. That's what occurs in the brains of people struggling with substance abuse. But the same thing doesn't occur in people who say they have sexual urges they can't control, researchers said.

"Now that we start to look at the brains of people and see what is going on, [sex addiction] doesn't fit the criteria of a mental disorder," Joye Swan, psychology chair at Woodbury University, told me.

Psychologists have become so convinced of this that most of the leading scientific bodies have recently released papers or statements saying that what is called "sex addiction" isn't actually an addiction. 

Last year, the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists said there's insufficient evidence to support classifying sex addiction as a mental health disorder. 

In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association removed "sex addiction" from DSM-5, the handbook of mental health disorders.

The science is something to keep in mind in the #MeToo era, as more and more women have the courage to speak up about their experiences with rampant harassment and misconduct -- and the cultural stigma begins shifting from the victims to the alleged instigators.

There's an increasingly crowded stage of powerful men facing such charges - most recently Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who Monday took to the mics to claim he doesn't recall instances where four women say he touched them inappropriately - but also Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., comedian Louis C.K., media figures Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose, actor Kevin Spacey and many others. President Donald Trump has also been accused of sexual misconduct by 13 women.

The Post's Ed O'Keefe tweeted "BACK TO WORK: @SenFranken addresses reporters at the Capitol as he returns to work amid allegations of sexual harassment. 'I know that I've let a lot of people down,' he said."

Some reporters didn't buy Franken's statement that he didn't remember groping the women who are accusing him. Vice's Eve Peyser tweeted "Franken's 'apology' is so insane, like he's literally saying 'sorry if you experienced me groping you"'

NBC News's Steve Kornacki tweeted "Al Franken is apologising and pledging to never again do something he says he can't remember doing"

Of course, the Hollywood mogul whose past actions triggered the recent wave of accusations has appeared to blame his own indiscretions (to put it mildly) on a condition outside his control. Movie producer Harvey Weinstein recently said he's on a "journey" to "conquer my demons" at a sex addiction facility.

Now, there are personality traits associated with sexual misconduct. Psychologists refer to narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy as the "dark triad" of negative characteristics that often show up in people with tendencies toward exploiting others sexually. 

Research has also shown a link between men in powerful positions and their willingness to take advantage of women.

"Thinking about power makes them think about sex, and thinking about sex makes them think about power," said John Pryor, a psychology professor at Illinois State University.

But if it's true that sexual misconduct is a compulsion, not an addiction, then addiction-oriented treatment is unlikely to work well, say experts, who caution against regarding Weinstein and others like him as caught in behaviour patterns they can't fix. Such alleged perpetrators may find it extremely hard to control their impulses, but it's not impossible to do so, they say.

Such behaviours are "certainly are not representative of some sort of underlying mental illness," Pryor said.

Swan likens getting better to skipping - every day - that ice cream sundae you crave. It's hard to stop eating your favourite sweets, but it's doable with the right kinds of strategies and incentives.

"More and more we are thinking these are people with high libido but very low impulse control," Swan said.

Swan says therapy should involve cognitive restructuring, giving people tools to avoid sexual misbehaviours while stressing their personal responsibility to act respectfully toward others. It's a real problem, she says, when the term "sex addiction" is carelessly bandied about in media and pop culture.

"If we as a culture say they have a sickness and we allow that to be the excuse, I think it will keep perpetuating the cycle," Swan said.

There's another key way to get men to refrain from sexual misdeeds: Create incentives against it.

 And if women continue speaking up, men tempted to do something untoward will be increasingly aware of the embarrassment that could follow. Most people respond well to consequences, and sexual behaviour is no exception.

"It certainly is a stigma to be labelled a harasser," as Pryor said.