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On Tiger Woods, the media, and sex addiction

December 14th, 2009

Dr Petra

Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the past week or so you can’t have escaped the news of Tiger Woods’ infidelities. The media have been thrilled to report on every new salacious revelation and fuel speculation over Mr Woods’ career and marriage. In some cases abetted by a minority of therapists and psychologists.

I can’t comment on Mr Woods. Here’s why. If I know a celebrity then I’d be breaching their confidentiality by talking about them to the media. And if I don’t know a celebrity personally all I’d be doing in discussing their personal life with the media is gossiping. That’s not me being prissy, it’s the basic ethical guidance set out for psychologists to follow.

In cases where celebrities run into trouble it’s logical journalists will want to cover the story. And the public may be interested either voyeuristically or because they’re also experiencing problems and hope they might learn how to deal with the situation by following what’s written about the celeb in question.

It’s not unreasonable for experts to play a role in such coverage. For example in this case it would be possible to talk about the wider issues of what cheating involves, why cheating occurs, the impact on children or wider family members, and how couples can deal with such problems within their relationships. Ethically you can discuss general issues. What you can’t do is talk specifically about the celebrity and speculate on their life.

Unfortunately many journalists aren’t satisfied with this. They want the ‘personal touch’ (a diagnosis of the celeb in question). And to help they’re happy to provide you with film clips and photographs to analyse or give you statements from the celeb or those close to them for you to diagnose. You’ll find with such celebrity cases that you’re not only pushed into talking directly about the person and their family, you’re often put in a context where the celebrity is ridiculed or blamed. Perhaps unsurprisingly many ethical practitioners avoid any discussions of celebrities within the media simply because there is little or no hope of discussing wider issues, but an almost certain guarantee you’d be asked to judge celebrities directly.

And as we’ve seen so many times, if you won’t do this then there are plenty of therapists, psychologists, medics and other self proclaimed ‘experts’ who will be more than willing to do so. Meaning journalists are confused over ethical standards but don’t need to respect them since they’re not consistently adhered to.

In the case of Tiger Woods I gather from journalist colleagues in the US a minority of therapists began badgering the media as soon as the story broke. So this wasn’t even a case of journalists deciding to focus on the ‘sex addict’ angle. It was being suggested to them by professionals not only willing to diagnose someone via media, but also speculate on their personal life. Both unethical practices, but both very popular in celebrity crisis stories.

Behind the scenes discussions I’ve observed between reputable therapists and sex educators have indicated dismay over the willingness for a minority of practitioners to promote the ‘sex addiction’ tag for Mr Woods.

Aside from the ethical issues over speculation and confidentiality outlined above, the main reason for this concern is down to the very diagnosis of ‘sex addiction’. While the idea of sex addiction (when it’s not being sniggered about) is becoming increasingly popular, it doesn’t mean to say there is an accepted evidence base for it. Indeed, while people can act in sexually compulsive, risky, thoughtless, cruel, controlling and abusive ways, that’s not the same as saying they are ‘addicted’ to sex.

Critics of the ‘sex addiction’ model argue it medicalises behaviour that may be unpleasant or upsetting to partners in a relationship, but does not mean what is happening is a sickness. They complain that making problematic sexual behaviour into a disease-based model actually permits people to take less responsibility or see sex as something they can’t or won’t control. Given that many advocates of the sex addiction movement are often working from right wing and faith based perspectives it’s perhaps unsurprising that they classify masturbation, watching porn or having open relationships under their ‘addiction umbrella’.

If you’re interested in reading around this area I’d recommend starting with Marty Klein, an uncompromising and often challenging sex therapist who nevertheless outlines very clearly why the sex addiction approach (and related industry) is problematic for our relationships. Klein does not excuse negative behaviour in relationships, but argues that by focusing on sex as addiction we may miss key problems and not provide adequate therapeutic interventions for people who need it (although we may well provide inadequate and untested therapeutic interventions for people who don’t). Picking up on some of the issues Klein raises, Leonore Tiefer in conversation with Susie Bright also identify why the addiction model is problematic and why people are so anxious about it. You can listen to this podcast via Susie’s blog ‘sex addiction the big con’.

Sex addiction is a field which does have some evidence behind it, although the quality of said evidence is questionable and there is a major problem with many of the diagnostic tools used to diagnose sex addiction. Which is how I discovered that I was a sex addict – as did several of my colleagues including Cory Silverberg and Susie Bright (who also reports in this blog on her experiences of debating one of the sex addiction advocates within the media).

More worryingly is many ‘sex addiction therapists’ are not necessarily therapists at all and the interventions they endorse are usually homespun ideas based on flimsy evidence and no independent evaluations. This is of particular concern given many of these practitioners target therapists, physicians, faith and youth leaders to ‘train’ them in the homespun therapies or how to spot a sex addict. Although describing themselves as qualified because of being sex addicts themselves, many practitioners have little or no formal qualifications and lack supervision in the work they do. They are careless over ethical standards (evidenced in their eagerness to speculate on celebrities in the media among other things) and either unaware of or unable to understand the wider evidence base about sex and relationships problems.

It is worth noting that most reputable professionals do not endorse the idea of sex addiction, although they are concerned about relationship problems. If, however, there are an aggressive group of practitioners promoting this view – and they’re as eager to work with the media as the media are to hear from them – then it is very difficult to challenge.

For example, yesterday a journalist who called and asked me to talk about Tiger Woods sex addiction responded to my point that in general we don’t recognise the concept in the UK by saying ‘ordinarily I’d agree with you but the therapist whose diagnosed Tiger has advised the government on sex addiction’.

That journalist wasn’t aware of the debates on sex addiction, nor the lack of an evidence base for it, nor the concerns over the ethical practice of those promoting it. But they were impressed that the therapist they’d heard about enhanced their expertise by claiming they advised the government on the issue. This would be the Bush administration which promoted abstinence based sex education, withheld funding for sex positive education, restricted the availability of over the counter emergency contraception (despite the evidence base saying this was a good idea), and was not known for its sex positive approach. Of course such an administration would also welcome a neo Conservative therapy that was so gloomy and judgemental about sexual behaviour – and advocated sexual control.

Journalists need to be very careful when covering stories like this. It’s not good enough to run with a story and not question why certain therapists seem so keen to court the media when a story breaks, to not be alert to professional standards and be suspicious of those who so enthusiastically wish to overstep them. Journalists shouldn’t just accept a diagnosis of ‘sex addiction’ but should instead ask questions about what the term means, who is promoting it, why it’s gaining popularity, and whether the wider scientific/health community even agree with it.

Your story then is not Mr-Woods-the-sex-addict, but questioning why some folk seem so keen to diagnose by media and what are we saying about our relationships in the 21st century that infidelity is now a medical condition requiring a 12 step solution.

Rather than accepting at face value a glossy website, smart suit, claims of being seen on chat shows or advising politicians, why not check if this reputation is shared among therapists professional colleagues (not just their hangers on).

It’s dangerous when psychologists and therapists use celebrity relationship problems as a means for promoting themselves, their products or their services. It misleads the public about the nature of problems and solutions available. It promotes untested ideas and misdirects journalists about the evidence in this area. It reduces the chances to offer solutions to those needing help, while it invites judgemental attitudes and blame – which may well put people off seeking therapy.

Since it’s unlikely Tiger Woods will be the last celebrity to ever be in this situation, what can (and should) reputable journalists do if such a story is to be covered?

Firstly, if you want to gossip or speculate about the celebrity don’t do this with the involvement of any therapist, health professional or psychologist. Where you do involve an expert only have them speak about the issue at hand – not the celebrity. Ask the professional to provide information about the issue (why it happens, how common the problem is, how people usually respond and what help is available). Focus on solution based discussions rather than inviting the expert to blame or be judgemental.

Be very cautious about therapists or other experts who contact you direct when a story breaks and offer their services to talk about a celebrity – indeed such a person is indicating they are not professional and it’s a sign you shouldn’t be talking to them – ever.

When celebrity relationships break down it’s easy for journalists to see it as copy, the public to see as entertainment, and therapists to view as a fantastic marketing opportunity for their counselling services.

But we must never forget this is about these stories are always about families falling apart and relationships under pressure. Intense media scrutiny at such a time can be devastating and harmful and as ethical practitioners our job should never be to add to any suffering a person is already experiencing.

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