What Tiger Woods Can Tell Us About Sex Addiction

This also appeared in the Good Vibrations Magazine.

Unless you’ve been avoiding the news lately, you’re probably aware that Tiger Woods is in the middle of the latest celebrity sex scandal. And I think that the media kerfulffle over this has a lot to tell us about what we think about sex.

The first thing that strikes me about this situation is that we have a) a good looking dude with b) a lot of money who c) travels a lot and d) is a celebrity. To be honest, I’m surprised that he didn’t have sex with more people than the 14 women we know of as of December 25, 2009. I mean, come on! Does it really surprise anyone? Plus, I know folks who had sex with more people than that in one college semester and I bet you do, too.

The second thing that I notice about this is that it has sparked the predictable question: “is he a sex addict?” Lots of blogs, columns, talk show hosts and pseudo-therapists are lining up to declare that he is or isn’t one, and many of them aren’t delving into the real question of how we define the term.

One of the pleasures of being a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors & Therapists is participating in our email discussions about topics like these and, unsurprisingly, there has been a lively conversation on the topic over the last several days. Part of that dialogue centered on the fact that while sex therapists, sexologists and educators almost universally recognize that some people aren’t able to control their sexual desires, it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a clear definition of what “too much” or “out of control” mean.

Rather than asking whether someone is a sex addict, I think that some of the more relevant questions are:

  • What is this person trying to get out of sex and are they getting it?
  • Are they trying to use sex to avoid something?
  • Are they trying to use sex to meet some other need, especially an emotional need?
  • Are they able to be honest with themselves and their partners about what they’re doing?
  • Are they able to have creative, spontaneous sex or do they feel the need to follow a scripted routine?
  • How do they feel after sex? Do they feel depressed or ashamed? Do they feel joyous and connected to their partner?

Notice that there’s nothing in here that suggests that having more than a certain number of partners is the marker of having a problem. Nor can you tell whether someone has a problem by knowing how often someone has sex, what type of sex they have, or who they have it with. The only way you can tell is by asking them and listening to both what they say and the hidden subtext. Given that (I assume) most of these “experts” never asked Woods these sorts of questions, I don’t see how they can make any kind of determination.

It seems to me that the media’s rush to discuss someone’s supposed sex addiction reflects our cultural sex-negativity more than anything else. The idea that there is something wrong with having “too much” sex or having sex “too often” firmly rests on the myth of the normal and that is at the heart of sex-negativity.

Now, I’ll grant that it sounds to me as if Woods has some problems around honesty. Whether it’s anyone else’s business what he gets up to, it’s certainly his wife’s business and the fact that she didn’t know about his activities is problematic. But imagine what it would be like if, for example, someone like Woods could discuss the possibility of having other sexual partners with his wife? What if he could have been honest about his desires? What if they could have negotiated their boundaries and talked about it with each other? In a society that sees no options other than married or cheating, that offers no role models for sexual diversity or negotiated, consensual non-monogamy, is it really surprising to see someone sneaking around to get some action?

It’s much easier (and makes for better headlines, I suppose) to ask whether Woods is a sex addict. But the question doesn’t really mean much because it takes a complex situation and tries to fit it into a neat category. It turns out that sex addition, just like sex itself, resists being categorized. I’m skeptical of anyone who thinks otherwise, especially if they’re participating in a media feeding frenzy.

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