Tiger’s a lot of things, but he’s not sick

Woods spent 45 days in therapy. But is ‘sex addiction’ really an illness?

He’s a lot of things, but he’s not sick Even as Tiger Woods’s sex scandal costs him billions in earnings as a commercial endorser, he is serving as a walking billboard for the sex-addiction treatment business. In his stilted Feb. 19 television address, Woods admitted, “For 45 days, from the end of December to early February, I was in in-patient therapy receiving guidance for the issues I’m facing.” Those issues, we were left to assume, relate to Woods’s serial infidelities with a parade of surgically enhanced party girls.

In his speech, Woods interrupted his grovelling several times to lash out at the media—accusing it of irresponsible speculation about the events surrounding his Nov. 25 auto accident, even though he hasn’t provided an alternate account that makes any sense, refuses to be questioned about it, and cannot reasonably characterize a car crash on a neighbour’s property as a purely private matter.

Woods expressed anger that “some people have speculated that [my wife] Elin somehow hurt or attacked me.” For all the supposed soul-searching he has done, he doesn’t seem to have worked out that nobody would think the less of his wife for being enraged at him. Or that if she wasn’t chasing him, there is no exculpating pretext for the crash.

Tiger’s predicament could not possibly be more comic. He must know it, but he is not yet allowed to exhibit anything but suffering. His speech was a bizarre choreographed ordeal, almost as painful for the viewer as for the performer. His handlers had to know that the farcical emotional chess moves would be seen through; that the audience would practically be able to read the “HEAVY SIGH” cues on the Teleprompter; that the self-serving, contrived, and downright unbelievable aspects of the monologue would be cruelly apparent. They must have been hoping that the audience would understand that Woods had no choice, and give him credit for going through the motions.

And the “sex rehab” is a crucial part of this show. Americans will extend Tiger the benefit of what sociologists call the “sick role” as long as he sticks to the script.

You would hardly know from the way “sex addiction” is handled in the media that there was any controversy over it in the psychiatric profession. In fact, there is no such universally accepted clinical entity—at least not since the old terms “nymphomania” and “satyriasis” fell out of the technical parlance. They were left behind as pre-scientific vestiges of abandoned Victorian value judgments, but there is an effort to sneak near-exact synonyms back into the psychological lexicon.

Tellingly, it is a divided, disorganized effort. Practitioners treat oversexed, overwrought people according to the principle of, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Are you an addiction-medicine specialist (like TV’s Dr. Drew)? Then you treat “sex addicts.” Are you a specialist in obsessive-compulsive disorders? Then you call it “sexual compulsivity.”

Development-focused therapists call it “sexual impulsivity.” Yet each therapist, by and large, depends on familiar instruments from the standard toolbox: anti-depressants, the AA 12 Steps, group therapy.

There is a move afoot to unify the various labels under the rubric of “hypersexuality” and add it to the upcoming revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but the evidentiary basis remains weak. The tricky question is, aren’t we all thoroughbred “sex addicts” from a Darwinian standpoint? How would you distinguish a sex “compulsion” or “addiction” disorder from an unusually strong sex drive?

A new paper by three UBC-affiliated researchers in the leading journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour argues that you can’t—or, rather, reports that they tried hard, using data from an enormous Internet sample, and failed. Analysis of the various measures of sexual dysregulation, they say, “support[s] a one-factor solution, reflecting a single underlying construct” behind all of them.

I read the paper and kept asking myself “Are they saying what I think they’re saying?” So I called up the corresponding author, research psychologist Jason Winters, and asked him, “Might a good name for this ‘single factor’ you’re talking about be horniness?”

His answer is unambivalently affirmative. When it comes to Woods, says Winters at the end of a long conversation about his research, “Here’s a dude who has probably got women throwing themselves at him as he travels the country, the world. He’s probably got a strong sexual drive, as young testosterone-laden athletes generally do. And I think that’s probably a far better explanation of what has happened to him than some idea of a sexual addiction or disorder.”

These may sound like the words of a skeptic (and they are), but Woods ended up giving a similar account in his speech, admitting: “I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn’t have to go far to find them.”

He didn’t need to add that he wasn’t aware of having a problem or an illness until he got caught. Having defined his problem as a conscious ethical one, rather than a medical one, Tiger retreated behind the blue curtain, preparing for a return to therapeutic custody. The literally penitentiary quality of the exercise could not have been clearer.

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