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Tiger Woods' story veers to sex addiction

Reports the golfer is at rehab center brings attention to affliction as experts acknowledge the public's skepticism. Fellow golfers worry about 'circus' atmosphere when Woods eventually returns.

January 21, 2010|By David Wharton

Tiger Woods was never the sort of athlete to get involved with social issues, not like Muhammad Ali protesting the Vietnam War or Martina Navratilova championing gay rights.

But the scandal enveloping the superstar golfer has prompted national debate on several fronts, touching upon the intersection of celebrity and private life, raising questions about whether any athlete should be considered a role model.

Now comes a new topic: Sex addiction.

A spate of unconfirmed news reports and blog items this week have Woods checking into a private clinic in Mississippi to treat an alleged addiction to sex.

Regardless of whether the reports are true, they have people talking about something that ranges far outside the world of sports.

"This isn't just another guy who is having affairs," said Rob Weiss, executive director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. "This is one of the most famous athletes in the world . . . someone who is attractive, intelligent and has money."

Woods has remained hidden from public view in the months since multiple women have claimed they had sexual liaisons with him. Speaking only through his website, he has apologized for his actions and announced an indefinite leave from the PGA Tour.

He has not commented on the addiction reports.

This latest development -- which includes tabloid photographs purporting to show him outside the clinic -- has fellow golfers worried about his eventual return.

"Tiger should actually come out in public before, and not at, a golf tournament," Geoff Ogilvy told reporters before the Abu Dhabi Championship on Wednesday. "One, out of respect for all the other golfers and, two, to defuse the circus part of it."

RadarOnline.com and two Mississippi television stations first reported that Woods had checked in at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Miss. Benoit Denizet-Lewis, who has written about and been treated for sex addiction, subsequently claimed in his blog to have confirmation from an unnamed source at Pine Grove.

The author of "America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life" and a contributor to the New York Times magazine, Denizet-Lewis has since pulled the item and expressed regret for having named the facility, which has become the subject of international news.

However, he has not retracted his confirmation, saying he hopes to raise public awareness.

"It's easy to be flippant about sex addiction," he blogged Wednesday. "It's harder to cover it with intelligence and a modicum of respect. My hope is that we can get there."

In Los Angeles, Weiss has similar hopes.

Having worked with sex addicts for 20 years, Weiss wanted to make clear that he has no firsthand knowledge that Woods is addicted to sex.

But several elements of the golfer's story appear to fit the profile, he said, beginning with the widely circulated telephone message in which Woods allegedly asks a mistress to remove any identification from her voice mail.

"People who don't have a problem, when they get caught or might get caught they understand that they have to stop right away -- they'll say, 'We can't see each other anymore,' " Weiss said. "Here, you have someone in the middle of the consequence and, rather than deal with the consequence, they're trying to protect and continue the behavior."

Sex addicts suffer from what is known as a "process addiction." Instead of craving a particular substance such as drugs or alcohol, they are thought to act on the adrenaline rush their behavior elicits.

Of the clients who have sought help at the Sexual Recovery Institute, many have similar backgrounds.

"It's a childhood that involves having to perform or entertain," Weiss said. "They learn that in order to be loved, they just need to perform for mom or dad. They don't learn what makes them happy."

While compulsive need for sex is not as commonly accepted as other forms of addiction, mental health experts recognize it as a serious affliction.

Actor David Duchovny, who plays a sex-obsessed character on the cable television show "Californication," helped shed light on the condition in 2008 when he announced that he was entering a rehab clinic.

Still, Weiss and Denizet-Lewis aren't the only ones who suspect people will look skeptically upon reports linking Woods to such behavior.

"The public is jaded about the notion of celebrities entering rehab," said Michael Gordon, a crisis management expert with Group Gordon Strategic Communications in New York. "It happens so often now, people start to question how credible it is."

Woods once earned $110 million a year from sponsorship deals, according to Forbes magazine, but his endorsements with companies such as AT&T and Accenture have since fallen by the wayside.

In terms of recovering that earning power, "it all has to do with sincerity and transparency," Gordon said. "He needs to come forward, talk about the relevant facts and apologize in a sincere way -- that will truly be the beginning of the recovery for his public image."

With sex addiction suddenly a hot topic, Weiss wants people to understand that recovery from this kind of behavior can be even trickier.

Addicts must reevaluate much of what they know and learn to live in a new way.

"It's like having an eating disorder," he said. "We don't tell you to stop eating."

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton

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