In Defense of Tiger, the Sex Addict

Sex addiction is a feminist victory.

Tiger Woods and his wife, Elin

When Tiger Woods checked himself into the Gentle Path sex addiction clinic, many women writers and activists reacted with suspicion and rancor. Lemondrop asked if the treatment is “merely a way for philandering men to pay lip service to their outraged wives?”Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon found the diagnosis “nothing short of maddening.”A group of female protesters in Australia showed up at a golf tournament carrying photos of Tiger with a purple pimp hat and a scepter, implying a certain winking noblesse oblige. Our own Amanda Marcotte wondered whether Woods had a disease or a “fairly typical set of attitudes about women coupled with a lot of opportunities.” Or, as she succinctly put it, are celebrities such as Woods who rack up the mistresses ” ‘addicts’? Or just pigs?”

It’s hard, admittedly, to sympathize with a man who asks his mistress to change her voice mail because his wife has stolen his phone. Especially when that man is a millionaire golfer who has profited from his clean, good-boy image. But with some historical distance, the situation seems less suspect. Not so long ago, there was no easy way at all to publicly shame a celebrity pig or even any ordinary pig. The term sex addict does some of that work, and its introduction into the psychiatric idiom could be considered an important moment in feminist history. Suddenly, certain brutish behaviors that used to be overlooked were exiled as abnormal. And in the clinical literature, the word promiscuous came to primarily describe not hysterical women but rather predatory men.

The term sex addict was popularized in the late 1970s, when Patrick Carnes, who founded the Gentle Path clinic, published Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. The book opens with a description Woods would find painfully familiar: the moment when every addict must admit his life is out of control because a “squad car has pulled into the driveway and you know why they’ve come,” and now millions are reading the “steamy news accounts.” The book’s first example is “Del,” a dastardly combination of Roger Sterling and Eliot Spitzer. Del is a lawyer who slept with his secretary and her boss at the same time. He “exploited relationships,” Carnes laments. He stalked women on the street. Carnes lays on the kind of scolding that would earn him applause if he were a guest on TheView. No, you cannot tell someone you love her just so you can go to bed with her. No, you cannot tell her you love her if you love two other people as well.

At the time, feminists rejected Carnes’ diagnosis not because they considered addict a cop-out for cads, but because they considered the book “sex-negative,” recalls Robert Weiss, founding director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in California. “That was an era of sexual permissiveness, when sex therapists were encouraging people to come out and accept all kinds of sexuality.” If men behaved the way Woods or the fictional Del did, “there wasn’t a lot of perspective” in society about it being a problem or an illness, says Weiss. “It was just what guys were being encouraged to do.”

Over time, though, Carnes’ book gained acceptance and became an important corrective to the existing psychiatric thinking on sexual deviance. For a long time, the closest term to sex addict was “Don Juanism,” which gave the condition a swashbuckling, libertine air. Excessive sexual appetite was only clearly pathologized when it showed up in women. During the Victorian era, nymphomania became the catch-all term for a wide range of inappropriate behavior, from “lascivious glances” to extramarital affairs, writes Carol Groneman in Nymphomania: A History. Even wearing perfume was sometimes diagnosed as a symptom of “mild nymphomania.” The book describes the case of Mrs. R, a widow who, in 1895, blamed her “lascivious longings” on reading too many novels and going to too many gay parties as a young girl. It is with “the greatest difficulty that I could conduct myself in a decorous and ladylike manner in the presence of the other sex,” she lamented to her doctor, who prescribed leeches applied to the uterus and ice to the genital region.

Now, about 95 percent of people who are diagnosed with sexual disorders are men, according to Marty Kafka, the reigning expert who treats patients at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Some are true deviants and some are merely compulsive. They may masturbate or obsessively look at porn or bankrupt themselves on prostitutes. Often, the compulsion is crippling; they may intend to spend half an hour looking at porn and instead waste their whole work day away. The sex itself usually gives them very little pleasure and a lot of distress, says Kafka, who has been studying the condition since the ‘80s. These days, the treatment usually involves a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. “We may argue over the exact definition,” says Kafka. “But I have no doubt in my mind that the condition exists.”

One of Woods’ Las Vegas ladies described him as a sex addict who relentlessly pursued women. But that doesn’t mean he was one. Woods’ current mistress count—18 over six years of marriage—does not by itself meet the clinical definition, without knowing how many encounters he had with those women or what else he was up to. The first question Kafka would ask Woods, he says, is: How often did he have an orgasm? By the accepted definition, seven times a week consistently for six months would signal a problem. (Yes, this seems low, but apparently six months of continual daily masturbation is unusual. And it’s only the first question.) Then Kafka would find out whether Woods felt he could control the impulse, whether he did it mostly when he was depressed or manic, and whether it took over his life in any way. Of all the details we know, one—that he had sex the night his father died—would worry clinicians, since it means he might be using sex to self-medicate.

Most addictions share cultural boundaries with character failure. It took 50 years for clinicians to convince Americans broadly that alcoholism had other causes besides sin and bad behavior. Gambling has only recently been accepted as having elements of compulsion. Sex addiction is on even shakier ground; grant-making organizations are queasy about funding research on the subject, so large studies are scarce. And unlike in the ‘70s, the feminist position on caddish male behavior has now allied with the traditional, moralist one, creating an overwhelming resistance to putting sex in the category of something that some men cannot control.

But the unpopularity of the term means that for a celebrity such as Woods, it’s still fairly risky to confess—or at least not deny—being in sex rehab. So if a celebrity does take the risk, then maybe we should give him some credit. When David Duchovny admitted checking into sex rehab in 2008, he was considered a hero in the sex-addict community, says Benoit Denizet-Lewis, author of America Anonymous. Most celebrities, though, instead say they are going to drug or alcohol rehab, which is more socially acceptable. “I don’t see where the real advantage is in admitting to being a sex addict,” says Denizet-Lewis. “It’s still a highly stigmatized thing.”

Woods’ wife Elin’s recent trip to Gentle Path prompted jokes about conjugal visits. But, in fact, sex rehab is a monk’s life, with no hint of sex or even masturbation allowed. For the wives and girlfriends, says Denizet-Lewis, “this is the first time their husbands or boyfriends have admitted they have a problem. After years of lying or making excuses or living a double life, they have finally said, ‘I have a problem, and I value this relationship enough to get help.’ ” And that, maybe, is reason enough not to call the guy a pig.