It's not the first time that sex addiction has been thrust into the spotlight by a high-profile celebrity's behavior.
Still, the range of reactions to growing speculation that superstar golfer Tiger Woods may be receiving treatment in a sex rehabilitation program proves that the topic can still whip the public into a frenzy.
Thus far, the reports that Woods has checked into the Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Hattiesburg, Miss. -- which on its Web site puts the price tag for approximately 45 days of treatment for sex addiction at $37,100, not including doctor fees or medication -- have not been confirmed. Messages left Friday with Woods' publicist and with Pine Grove were not immediately returned.
A handful of grainy photos, posted last week by the tabloid National Enquirer, of a man resembling Woods at the Hattiesburg clinic serve as the only evidence that the golfer may be seeking professional help at the clinic; however, these photos have not yet been authenticated, and some are already calling into question the veracity of the images.
Benoit Denizet-Lewis was one of those who mentioned Woods' possible treatment at Pine Grove in his blog. But as a recovering sex addict himself, the author and contributor to New York Times Magazine said that celebrity cases of sex addiction -- whether it be that of Tiger Woods or the 2008 admission of actor David Duchovny that he was checking in to a sex rehab clinic -- tend to stir up equal measures of awareness and misconception about the condition.
"I can't think of a condition where there is a bigger gap between public perception of it and the reality of it," said Denizet-Lewis, who recently authored "America Anonymous," which profiles eight personal stories of addiction. "People's knee-jerk reaction to it is not founded in fact and is unfortunate. ... It's not as fun as people seem to think it is."
Shining a Light on Sex Addiction
For Denizet-Lewis, sex addiction manifested itself as an inescapable urge to surf pornography online and participate in sex chat rooms on the Internet, even while at work.
"The reality is, sex addiction can take many forms and manifest itself differently in people's lives," he said. "The addiction starts to seep into other areas of your life. Suddenly, you can't go to your son's soccer game because you can't pull yourself away from the computer. Or suddenly you find yourself looking at pornography at work. ... You end up doing things that are against your ethics."
But, he noted, the public is primarily exposed to sex addiction through celebrity scandal and stories in tabloids.
"The only time we talk about sex addiction is when a celebrity has sex with a lot of women and implodes and goes into rehab," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who come in for sex addiction are not celebrities."
Still, sex and relationships counselor and New York Times best-selling author Ian Kerner said, high-profile celebrity cases may help bring the condition to light.
"What has been happening lately because of Tiger Woods and because of David Duchovny is that sexual addiction is really coming into the cultural foreground," Kerner said.
Sexuality expert Dr. David Greenfield, clinical director of The Healing Center, LLC in West Hartford, Conn., agreed that the Tiger Woods case, while personally tragic for the golf star, could "push sex addiction over the top in terms of public recognition, understanding and accessibility, which is a good thing.
"I think that what [the public has] been sensitized to is that sex can be used as a drug," he said. "The concept that sex can be a drug and therefore can be addictive is a new thing for the public to sink its teeth into."
Not all psychological experts agree that sex addiction should be put in the same category as drug and alcohol addiction. Clinical psychiatrist Armond Aserinsky said he is one of many professionals in mental health who still put the term "sex addiction" in quotation marks -- though he said that by whatever name, sexual compulsions can create real problems.
"One might not have to accept the notion that the behavior in question is actually an addiction to see value in a treatment approach that has long been used in general for patients who have trouble controlling impulses," he said.
"There is a huge variation in how professionals think about sexual addiction," said Aline Zoldbrod, a Boston-based certified sex therapist and author of "SexSmart: How Your Childhood Shaped Your Sexual Life and What to Do About It." "The disorder, whatever one calls it, is not listed currently in the American Psychiatric Disorder's current diagnostic manual."
Zoldbrod, for one, said she believes that sexual activity can be addictive, just like drugs or alcohol. And she said that most psychological experts would agree that addiction or not, it deserves treatment.
"Personally and professionally, I don't care what we label it, but in my opinion, sexual compulsivity is fast becoming one of the nation's biggest public health problems," she said.
Are You a Sex Addict?
For many, however, the question remains: when does an obsession with sex cross the line into sex addiction? Greenfield said that the distinction is sometimes a difficult one to make.
"There is a very gray line between promiscuity and sexual addiction," he said. "Are you using sex as a means to alter your mind and consciousness? Does your behavior interfere with one of the major spheres of your life?"
Woods, Greenfield said, would meet any of these criteria; it's affected him financially, it's affected his work, and it has affected his marriage and relationships.
"As soon as the details of this case came out, I knew this guy was a sex addict," he said. "You don't engage in that kind of activity for a rational purpose."
Of course, having sex indiscriminately with multiple partners -- an activity in which Woods allegedly indulged -- is not the only sign of sex addiction, Zoldbrod said. She said that anyone who finds a huge amount of their time consumed by sexual fantasies or who uses sexual behavior to avoid other feelings such as anger, boredom or sadness may suffer from sex addiction.
For those who are curious as to whether their approach to sexual behavior constitutes an addiction, there are numerous resources. To help individuals determine if they may have a sex addiction, a Web site developed by Dr. Patrick Carnes, a nationally known speaker and author on addiction and the director of the clinic in Hattiesburg, offers a questionnaire titled "Am I a Sex Addict?"
Getting Help for Sex Addiction
Acknowledging a sex addiction, however, may be just the first step in getting better.
"The biggest problem with sex addiction is that if you are an alcoholic you can go cold turkey and quit," Kerner said. "If you're addicted to drugs, you can stop taking those drugs. If you are a sex addict and you're married, you're not likely to become a monk or a eunuch. You have to return to the activity that is a trigger for your addiction."
For a sex addict, "recovery" could mean no sex outside of marriage. Alternatively, it may mean no longer viewing pornography, or being able to last the work day without logging into a sex-related chat room.
If indeed Woods is seeking treatment at Pine Grove, Kerner said, he will eventually face the challenge of distinguishing "between the kind of sex that is unhealthy and the kind of sex that is truly about nurturing an intimate relationship" with a loved one.
"The first thing that he is going to do is 'detox' and be removed from any type of activity that causes him to think about sex," he said, adding that those in treatment are likely to undergo both psychoanalytic therapy to determine the cause of his addiction and cognitive behavioral therapy, which will reveal what triggers unhealthy sexual behaviors.
Denizet-Lewis said that for sex addicts, making the effort to get treatment is the first step toward recovery.
"It's hard to imagine the incredible humility that it takes to say, 'I can't control my sexual behavior, and a really need help.' It's scary," he said. "Recovery from sex addiction is a daily challenge. I'm doing well now, but I could slip up tomorrow if I'm not careful."