TIGER WOODS : INFIDELITY OR SEX ADDICTION ?
THE MISSING CONVERSATION ABOUT BEHAVIORAL ADDICTIONS
by Robin L Goldstein, EdD Licensed Psychologist
A media frenzy surrounds golf superstar Tiger Woods these days. Woman after woman is coming forward stating that she had a sexual relationship with him. Whether these allegations are true and what the impact will be on Tiger Woods stunning career remains to be seen. Meanwhile all the frenzied attention focused on these salacious revelations about a previously untouchable public figure threatens to serve as a smoke screen to yet another missed opportunity to discuss the true societal tragedy of sex addiction. Mr. Woods’ own doctors will have to make the diagnosis in his particular case but the large scale public attention focused on Tiger Woods gives us an opportunity to discuss the hidden world of sex addiction.
WHAT IS SEX ADDICTION?
Society has grown much more knowledgeable about substance abuse and the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction. Chemical addiction is a concept that is not too difficult to understand. A large percentage of Americans use some form of habit forming substance. The most common are caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Most of us know someone who has been unable to give up smoking despite increasing health risks and/or damage. A large number know someone whose “social drinking” has escalated in to a more serious problem.
Addictions that relate to behavior are more difficult to understand.
The most well known and accepted behavioral addiction is gambling. Other out of control behaviors that lend themselves to this framework of understanding are overeating, compulsive shopping, compulsive diet or exercise, and sex. Science is starting to prove that behaviors that are highly pleasurable such as eating, shopping and sex can stimulate the same pleasure receptors in the brain that respond to chemical substances. They can also lead to the same out of control self-destructive behaviors.
Leading experts on sex addiction such as Patrick J Carnes, PhD define sex addiction as sexually related compulsive behavior which leads to serious adverse consequences in the person’s life. Serious consequences could be loss of self esteem, job loss, damage to a marriage or other centrally important relationship, damage to reputation or arrest for sexual behavior. In most cases, as in substance abuse and addiction, there is denial of the seriousness of the behavior, “everybody does it”, “it’s okay as long as I don’t get caught”, ” I am oversexed”, “just one more time, it won’t hurt,” etc.but the increasingly negative impact of the addict’s behavior will increase over time.
Sexual addiction is a reasonable possibility in Tiger Woods’ case because of the obvious impact on his reputation, his income, his marriage and his golf career. Sex addiction is an increasing societal problem, in part because of the internet which has made sexual images, pornography, and extreme sexual interests and behavior so much more accessible, anonymous and affordable, the “Triple A Engine” as defined by Al Cooper, PhD. Drawing light on this enormously destructive problem can bring some benefit to the media circus surrounding Mr. Woods’ problems.
SEX AND POWER
Throughout history, those in power have used symbols to display that power. The Romans had triumphal arches, lavish villas and the Coliseum, , kings and queens had jewels and crowns, castles and pagentry, the Chinese had the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. Today’s status symbols include luxury watches and handbags, multiple homes and fancy cars, brand label clothing.
Society also continues to define woman and their bodies and facial appearance as objects to acquire. For many men acquiring a beautiful woman is a mark of prestige, success and power. How many, commenting on Tiger Woods’ predicament, bring up the beauty of his wife-as if a less attractive woman would deserve to have a husband have multiple extra-marital affairs.
Unfortunately, when women are valued primarily as objects there is always another woman to conquer, another woman who is more beautiful, another woman to validate that the man is important and powerful. With the excitement of acquiring a new, attractive woman comes the additional thrill if there is secrecy and infidelity involved and the inherent excitement of sex. This can create a heady cocktail that, for some, can lead to addiction.
As in all addictions, over time it takes more and more to create the same high. Thus we have the escalating spiral of more and more women, perhaps more forbidden women such as teenagers or children or porn “stars” or prostitutes. Because part of the thrill and the power rush is the risk of getting caught, sex addicts take more and more chances to prove how “successful” and powerful they are, leading often to enormous family tragedies when they finally are caught.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
Many people will excuse Mr. Woods’ behavior. He is an enormously successful man. Doesn’t he “deserve” to live by different rules? Others will believe that infidelity is such a common problem that it is not worthy of the attention. The fact that there appear to be so many women claiming an involvement with the golf star takes this to a different level and makes the behavior seem compulsive.
By excusing the behavior of sex addicts; by perceiving it as normal, we make it that much harder for people who want to break the cycle of compulsive sexual behavior to seek help. Think of what misery the country could have been spared had President Bill Clinton simply been able to say, “I have a problem. I’m going to get help for it.”
As we know, many addicts are very high functioning. How many celebrities, politicians and performers end up in rehab? Until then, many of us were unaware they had a problem. Anyone who has been involved with Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous knows that the ranks are filled with doctors, lawyers, judges, ministers and business executives who continued to perform adequately at work while their personal life was unraveling in the morass of addiction. Public acceptance and recognition that this is not normal, healthy or typical behavior increases the likelihood that those suffering in the grip of sex addiction will get help.
EVERYBODY DOES IT
Infidelity is a common problem. Exact statistics are hard to come by but estimates are as high as about 50% of both women and men admitting to “infidelity” defined as sexual or emotional in relationships in general. The number is significantly lower, around 20% for what people will admit to in marriage.
So what is the difference between sex addiction and infidelity? Many more people engage in marital infidelity than those who become sex addicts. Affairs are exciting, thrilling, and difficult to resist and many people succumb to that temptation. Most will find the cost to their family lives, their marriages and their personal sense of integrity and self-esteem too high. It may happen again, but does not become a regular, repeating event in their lives. A single or series of long term affairs which may or may not lead to divorce seems to be typical. About 30% of marriages experiencing infidelity survive them.
Cocaine is also thrilling and exciting. While we all know this, most people do not try it or become regular users or addicts. The costs are just too high. The risk of addiction is well known.
But what about the person who experiences the thrill and excitement of forbidden sex; sex with strangers, sex for money, pornography, or sex with minors? Those who constantly seek the intense thrill of this type of sex can become addicted to the intensity of that physiological high and with addiction comes obsession, sapping the life and joy out of every day life or ordinary sex with a committed partner. It is this type of compulsive sexuality that erodes the ability to live a normal life or experience intimate relationships. A true relationship is impossible when lies and hidden behavior are in the middle of it. The addicted partner is always lying about where they are, how they feel and what they think. Addiction looks very different from infidelity.
Single people may also have sex with many different partners. Because they are not committed to a partner the costs may not be great. Addiction occurs when it becomes compulsive. When a person pursues sexual thrills to the exclusion of developing or strengthening other areas of their life, it can be defined as addiction. When friendships, work and moving forward in life are diminished because of an intense, primary focus on sex, addiction exists.
THE CHARACTER ISSUE
Many will view sexual acting out, even at a compulsive level to be a sign of poor character or immorality. Alcohol addiction was also viewed in this manner up until recently. The acceptance of addictions as a form of mental illness is a much more modern view and one that is gaining ground.
This does not excuse the behavior and, in fact, recovering from addictions takes enormous personal strength and perseverance. We have no magic pills or treatments which provide guaranteed relief to any addict. Addictions are system wide and require individual commitment, family and social support and professional intervention for recovery. Addictions are life threatening problems that strip an individual of self-respect, integrity and the possibility of intimacy with their loved ones.
There are no happy addicts. People of good judgment and character can succumb to addiction at times of stress. Condemnation of the addict only adds to their own damaged self image and gives them another excuse to drink, get high, seek out another sexual or gambling thrill. This is the well known cycle of addiction.
Is Tiger Woods a sex addict? Those on the outside cannot tell for sure. Some good can come of his public humiliation and downfall if increased attention is focused on the very hidden world of sex addiction.
If you know someone who may be addicted to sex, or who is struggling with infidelity, I can help you. Get the healthy relationships you want with the people who are most important in your life, contact me.