It was bound to happen. Someone, somewhere was going to speculate that Tiger Woods was a sex addict, and the media — as insatiable for new Tiger stories as the golfer was for porn kittens in tube tops — was going to run with it. So when Drew Pinsky, host of VH1’s Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew, floated the idea on Entertainment Tonight — “It’s safe to say that sex addiction might be a part of his problem,” he told the interviewer — the theory got picked up everywhere, from CBS News to the Hindustan Times.
Have we really come to this sorry pass? Are we honestly saying that a pro athlete who married a swimsuit model is suffering from sex addiction if it turns out he’s strayed outside his marriage?
“If Tiger Woods is a ‘sex addict,’ ” says Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, “then so is a substantial fraction of the American male population, given the high rates of self-reported marital infidelity in many surveys.” He adds that the term “sex addict” may have popular appeal, but it has “little scientific validity:” It’s not in the DSM-IV — the main compendium of diagnoses used by psychiatrists and psychologists — and surveys attempting to diagnose the condition ask lots of questions to which ordinary people could answer in the affirmative (Ever buy dirty magazines? Surf Internet porn? Feel like your sex drive controls you?).
In the wake of Bill Clinton’s Monica travails, Chris Rock pointed out that “a man is basically as faithful as his options.” As the world’s most famous and extravagantly compensated athlete, Tiger was obviously in the same position as Bill: contemplating options for his delectation on a daily, if not hourly, basis. (“You see all these fat Republican guys going: ‘I would never do such a thing,’ ” added Rock in his same Monica riff. “I’m like, ‘Nobody’s trying to blow you.’ ”)
It should also be pointed out that few people labeled Bill Clinton a sex addict at the end of the day — just as few have ever applied the term to Madonna or Warren Beatty or Mick Jagger or Dennis Rodman. Sexuality is an essential part of their gestalts, inseparable from the drives that made them famous in the first place. Rather, the diagnosis seems to be reserved for those whose sexuality takes the public by surprise. (Like David Duchovny, for instance, or Michael Douglas, whose screen personas both rely on a certain impassiveness.) Tiger’s whole image — and sport — was about control. The second we learn he’s not in control, we decide he’s ill.
And there’s the rub. It’s much safer to pathologize the bad behavior of a cultural icon than simply call it what it is: fallibly human. Think of the Atlanta Braves’ John Rocker who told Sports Illustrated he’d sooner quit baseball than pitch for a New York team (“Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS … ”). The response of the Major League Baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, was to have him undergo psychological testing, as if racism and homophobia were sicknesses rather than ugly beliefs. It was shrewdly implying that Rocker was a victim, too — a puppet of bad genes, perhaps, or a damaging childhood that left him with gross, abiding wounds. The same goes for the label of sex addiction. It’s as appealing to the offender as it is to the public. “After all,” says Friedman, “saying you have a ‘sexual addiction’ sounds better than admitting you enjoy lots of extramarital sex.”