Editor’s note: This week marks the debut of Dr. Jenni Skyler’s weekly column, Sophisticated Sex, which will run both in the newspaper and on our website. Enjoy!
The buzz across the country is that Tiger Woods is a sex addict. But specialists in the field debate whether this is the correct diagnosis for Tiger, or just a face-saving career move. Before choosing a side, one may want to deconstruct exactly what qualifies as “sex addiction.”
The sex addiction field strongly asserts that compulsive sex, masturbation and use of pornography can lead to dire negative life consequences. Thus, treatment often consists of a 12-step treatment model with a period of abstinence from all sexual and intimate activity in order to unearth deeper issues that caused initial wounding — wounding that often stems from childhood.
Blame Freud. This man has single-handedly ingrained Western society with the idea that everything stems from childhood.
On the other side of the spectrum sit the sex-positive cheerleaders who claim that pornography, masturbation and sexual fantasies of every breed and variety are healthy, natural and an essential piece of our sexual identity. These sexologists and sexual health experts aim to challenge and deconstruct the parochial, prudish, Puritan scripts that keep so many of us incarcerated in shame.
Both camps have laid claim to Tiger, but which side is right? A closer clinical look at each side may offer some insight.
The sex addiction field uses the general addiction model defined by compulsive behaviors that produce stimulating, numbing or fantasy-like states in order to desensitize underlying pain and anxiety. Diagnosis is characterized by three essential criteria: tolerance, withdrawal and adverse life consequences.
Tolerance refers to a growing level of need such that the object or process in question must be increased over time to satiate the craving. Withdrawal symptoms create a psychological and/or physiological dependence on the object or process such that the person finds him/herself craving that which he/she cannot have. Lastly, adverse life consequences, including severe damage of career, relationships and health, are the result of a person’s inability to manage their behavior associated with these cravings.
So how does Tiger measure up? Tolerance. Does he need more and more mistresses to satiate his craving? Dr. Michael Barta, executive director of the Boulder Sexual Addiction Recovery Center, believes so.
“Tiger clearly needed more than one woman,” says Barta. A sexological perspective might claim that power and fame have bloated his head.
Yet, if Tiger is not interested in adhering to the traditional tenets of monogamy, then he might as well sample numerous flavors of ice cream.
How about withdrawal? Is Tiger dependent on his mistresses to assuage his insecurity? He does not strike me as an insecure kind of guy, nor does he seem like he would die a long, slow death without these ladies.
But Barta claims that he lost control. “It was no longer him making conscious choices,” he says.
Adverse life consequences? Well, he lost more than $300 million, received a lot of negative media attention and seemingly ostracized his wife. But can he stop? That is the key question concerning addiction. Now that the media has launched landmines into his private life, will Tiger cease consorting with his mistresses?
Barta upholds that sex is healthy, but for sex addicts, the way they use sex is unhealthy. “Unhealthy is living in pain and being dishonest to get what you need,” he says. “Tiger is a sex addict because he must be dishonest to get what he needs.”
However, the sexological camp might challenge the assumption of the Woods’ exclusive, monogamous arrangement. Maybe he and his wife initially developed a marital contract that sanctioned outside relationships. Maybe they agreed to uphold certain ethics in public and adhere to others in private.
At the end of the day, Tiger has chosen to bear the label of sex addict. But then again, it’s just a label.
Jenni Skyler, PhD, MSEd, is a sex therapist and board-certified sexologist. She runs The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, www.theintimacyinstitute.org.