The truth about stars who say they're sex addicts
Yes, there is such an illness -- but many just use it as an excuse for bad behaviour, says Susan Daly
Saturday March 27 2010
When Eldrick Tont Woods was still the king of clean, Nike deified him in their iconic, oft-parodied, "I am Tiger Woods" TV commercial.
Thirteen years later, those parodies could be updated with the addition of those five little words: "I am Tiger Woods -- and I'm a sex addict."
It has become the justification du jour for celebrities caught with their trousers down. We especially expected to hear it last Sunday when the man with a catalogue of multimillion-dollar endorsements and a marriage to save gave his first post-rehab interviews.
Clearly, being labelled a serial philanderer is not good for the image, implying as it does a selfish, immoral, undisciplined personality. Applying the term 'addiction' to such behaviour reclassifies it as a psychological disorder, thereby rebranding the trespasser as a victim.
It was thought at one point that erstwhile England captain John Terry might spend a highly publicised spell in a sex-treatment programme to atone publicly for his sins against his wife and team-mates. Likewise, the newly separated Ashley Cole.
Russell Brand, David Duchovny and Halle Berry's ex-husband Eric Benet have all confessed in the past to 'suffering' from sexual addiction.
Whether such high-profile figures are chemically addicted to sex -- or just happily promiscuous until they are forced to give it a more PR-friendly label -- is up for debate.
Interestingly, Woods has refused to use the term 'sexual addiction' in his latest round of mea culpas ahead of the US Masters. He needs to start building bridges with his fans and big-name brands -- and quickly.
His people afforded two television sports stations five minutes each last weekend to quiz Woods on his 'recovery' after 45 days of in-patient treatment. Woods used terms like "disgusting" and "denial" to describe the "bad things" he had done; but also triumphal words like "conquering" and "strength" to ascribe his recovery to his own depth of character. Love the sinner, not the sin.
But when asked directly what exactly he had been in treatment for, Woods refused to elaborate. "That's a private matter," he said.
Dr Eoin Stephens, head of training at the Irish Centre for Sexual Addictions, is adamant that sexual addiction is very real, but that the term can also be abused.
"It can certainly be misused and overdone as a diagnosis," he says.
"This happens partly in the religious right in America, where any sexual behaviour deemed unacceptable can be classified in that way."
Tiger's retreat from the words, he says, could be read in many ways.
"One possibility is that he doesn't want the label or it could be that his behaviour wasn't actually as a result of sexual addiction. I've met people who aren't really out of control but have a sense of entitlement to inappropriate behaviour."
Relationship psychotherapist David Kavanagh doesn't like the use of the term at all. Instead, he describes the "sexual compulsivity" that he believes is causing problems in the relationships of roughly one-10th of his clients.
"In some situations, celebrities have used sex addiction as a get-out-of-jail card," he says, "but I think it is being seen as a shame-based description.
"People think it's easy for famous people to trot it out to evade blame for their behaviour but in some ways, it's more socially acceptable to say you are an alcoholic than to say you are a sex addict."
The medical community does not universally accept sexual addiction as a genuine psychological diagnosis. The committee behind the next edition of the psychiatrists' bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is due out in 2013, has announced that they won't be including it in the giant tome.
The proposed diagnosis for excessive sexual behaviours that impact negatively on one's relationships, work and mental health, will be called "hypersexual disorder".
So, no, it's not an official diagnosis, says Dr Eoin Stephens, "but then neither was post-traumatic stress until 1980."
This public perception is also often that sex rehab centres and celeb PR gurus are trying to medicalise what is simply bad behaviour.
"If I have to have an addiction, I'll take that one," goes the joke.
David Duchovny's announcement in 2008 that he was getting treatment for sexual addiction was accompanied by predictable sniggers, because at the time he was playing the role of a sex-obsessed writer on the TV show Californication. The 2007 comedy Blades of Glory made the issue its own punchline, with a sex addicts' support group meeting descending into a frantic orgy.
Some celebs have been back-pedalling furiously away from their supposed sex addictions. Musician Eric Benet went into sex-addiction rehab in 2002 but later told New York magazine: "In retrospect, it's not what I would label my situation".
Michael Douglas, who is habitually trotted out as an example of A-list sex addiction, has said that he "voluntarily went into rehab" because of a drink problem around 1990.
"Some smart-ass editor said, 'Oh, another boring story about an actor going to rehab. Let's give him sex addiction.'"
The message is that saying you're a sex addict isn't 'sexy' at all.
"There is a perception, even among our other clients here, that those who come into us with a sexual addiction isn't really as serious as a substance addiction like, say, heroin," says Dr Fiona Weldon, clinical director of the Rutland treatment centre in Dublin.
"It doesn't take long for that misperception to lift because they soon see how devastating it can be. Whole families are destroyed by it, whole lives."
She categorically insists that sexual addiction is real and that as a psychological addiction, it can be much stronger than an addiction to an external substance.
"Take nicotine, for example; it will leave the system in three or four days.
"Behavioural addictions such as sex or gambling can be so much more complex. It is not simply the addiction to the high of the sexual content itself. In most cases, the anticipation of the sexual act is what gives the greater high and it becomes more and more difficult to achieve that same high.
"People end up going to huge expense, effort and time chasing it, to the expense of everything else in their life."
Psychotherapist David Kavanagh points out that whatever you call excessive, repetitive sexual behaviours, we may be conditioned to think it's more normal than it is.
"Maybe pornography isn't actually harmless to your marriage, perhaps it's just an acclimatisation," he says.
"The sex industry has a huge investment in making us believe that going to a strip club for a stag night is harmless fun, but no one knows definitively if that is true."
For now, the spotlight remains on Tiger Woods. In his latest interview with ESPN, he may have given the key to his bad behaviour.
"And as I said earlier in my statement, I felt entitled."
A fit, wealthy young athlete with time away from the wife to succumb to the temptations laid before him: is that sexual addiction or opportunism?