Sex-addicted? No, it’s Getting Caught Syndrome

The futility of golf, an appalling waste of the gift of life, has been insufficiently acknowledged. I suspect that God, if he had existed and had seen the game coming, would have appreciated the positive qualities of the void and left it alone, uncontaminated by the Creation. But there are times when even golf gets interesting. The current brouhaha surrounding Tiger Woods’s exertions in the 19th hole have made the last month or so such a time.

Apparently this extraordinarily handsome, fabulously rich, wonderfully talented man has been having sex with a number of beautiful women, only one of whom is his wife. This has caused shock and amazement to those who seem to be entirely unacquainted with the history of the world. From Solomon (300 wives and 700 concubines, according to the anonymous gossip columnist of 1 Kings xi, 1-3) to Warren Beatty (an estimated 12,775 lovers), we know that those who have the power to pull will usually pull.

And the inappropriately named “Wilt” Chamberlain — a basketball star of the last century — claimed in his autobiography, appropriately titled The View From Above, that he had bedded 20,000 women or approximately 1.15 a day from his 15th birthday onwards, demonstrating how much can be achieved when (to borrow from Shaw) the maximum of temptation is combined with the maximum of opportunity. Against these heroic numbers, Woods’s alleged total of nine liaisons (though there may be more to come out of the woodwork) looks like celibacy.

And yet he is undergoing treatment for “sex addiction”. This may be a way of reinventing himself after a brutal rebadging from Mr Clean to Love Rat, and of squaring things not only with a very angry Mrs Woods but also with the advertising industry that has hitherto paid him so handsomely. Sex addiction clinics model themselves on other institutions that deal with addictions. They prescribe psychotherapy (to get to the bottom of the mystery of why a grown man could ever wish to shag a beautiful woman), drugs to control mood, libido and other drivers of transgression, and a self-help regime modelled on the famous Twelve Step approach used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

The first of the Twelve Steps is revealing: “We admit that we are powerless over addictive sexual behaviour.” It is this claim that seems to justify the deployment of the white coat and the questionnaire, rather than the wagged finger. The propensity to use the power that one has to attract the most attractive members of the opposite sex is turned on its head and becomes powerlessness. Others would regard seduction as the supreme exercise of power. At any rate, it seems odd to classify it as behaviour for which medical treatment is appropriate.

After all, in Woods’s case, there was no question of sexual deviancy or the need to coerce partners. Everything that happened was between consenting adults. Nor, as is sometimes the case, does it look like the genuinely pathological promiscuity of teenage girls with low self-esteem due to parental neglect engaging in the physical intimacy of sex as a substitute for the love they crave.

The existence of a specific “sex addiction disorder” has been contested — though Patrick Carnes, the leading expert in the area, and editor of the journal Sex Addiction and Compulsivity, claims that it is suffered by as many as 6 per cent of the population — and it has not yet made it to the psychiatrist’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). DSM lists pukka illnesses for which there are accepted diagnostic criteria, treatment pathways and, most importantly, billing arrangements.

For sex addiction is unlike alcohol addiction: there are no clear guidelines as to what counts as safe levels of sexual activity; preoccupation with sex seems to be nearly universal in males of a certain age, though being physically unattractive or hard-up somewhat obstructs translation into action in most cases. Nor is there evidence of the kind of physiological dependence that makes withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs so unpleasant. John F. Kennedy’s claim that “if I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches” has to be treated with caution because Mrs Kennedy, while indubitably a woman, was not quite what he had in mind.

And this suggests that, if there is an addiction, it is not to sex but to sexual conquest. However powerful Woods’s sex drive, nobody would have suggested treatment if he had satisfied it entirely with Mrs Woods. “Sexual conquest addiction” or “new birdism” seems even less plausible as a medical condition than horniness per se, though novel syndromes are coined every day by doctors — and by lawyers wanting to uphold the claim of diminished responsibility on behalf of their clients. Computer addiction syndrome, parental alienation syndrome, self-victimisation syndrome, and UFO survivor syndrome are recent American examples that would make “sexual addiction syndrome” as robust a diagnosis as bronchitis.

Setting aside (with some difficulty) a certain amount of scepticism, we might think about the significance of medicalising Woods’s current predicament. The latter seems to have less to do with sex than with getting caught (perhaps we shall see the emergence of Getting Caught Syndrome), and less to do with the power of the physical sex drive than the multiplicity of its targets. Though rebranding it as a medical disorder may seem to be sympathetic, liberal, indeed progressive, this move may not be quite so benign. It is not so long since the medical approach to people who were thought to be too sexy involved treatments rather less kind than psychotherapy. And when homosexuality was expelled as a mental illness from DSM in 1973, this was rightly thought to be progressive. To draw back more of sexual behaviour into the clinic may have sinister undertones.

It’s also rather insulting to the sexual partners of the putative addict, who are reduced to the equivalent of the bottle of whisky (or meths) downed by an alcoholic and it undermines the patient’s standing as a free agent. It is interesting in this respect how ambivalent Woods is, admitting personal responsibility for his actions with a touching humility and at the same time making them into a condition to be treated, as if they were something that happened to him rather than actions he performed.

At any rate, his true fans, who will be eagerly awaiting his return, will be hoping that treatment aimed at helping to weaken one drive will not also weaken the other. In the meantime, some of us are grateful to him for making golf a little less mind-numbingly boring.

Raymond Tallis, a writer and physician, a former Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Manchester andthe author of the forthcoming book, Michelangelo’s Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence.