Sex: The Addiction That Can’t Save the Stars

On November 27 of 2009, golf legend Tiger Woods totaled his SUV after smashing it against a tree outside his Florida home[1]. The reason for the accident was later revealed to be a heated marital dispute with his wife (and mother of his two children), Swedish ex-model Elin Nordegren. What ensued was one of the biggest celebrity sex scandals of the past decades: Tiger Woods, sports hero and family man, was discovered to have several mistresses—across the United States and abroad—with whom he would travel and party in parallel to his golfing activities. With that revelation, there was not only a mediatic “eruption” about Tiger Woods’s celebrity and a quest for his “true identity”[2] but also an effort by the “publicity and communication industries”[3] to exploit the scandal in all possible media discourse, from celebrity magazines to regular news to talk shows. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods eventually had to attempt to deflect the PR damage away from his “celebrity-commodity”[4] for the sake of product sponsorships and golf itself. Following the historical examples of Wallace Reid in the 1920s and Robert Mitchum in the 1940s, the route that the media discourse of the scandal took made the sex scandal into a matter of addiction and redemption for a fallen hero. That media take, however, simply “put the spotlight on ‘sex addiction’”[5] without significantly repairing Tiger Woods’s public image. In fact, the link between Tiger Woods and sex addiction seems to have been in detriment of both, since neither Tiger Woods nor sex addiction garnered support from a skeptic public and instead have been tagged as questionable representatives of each other.[6] The failure to redeem Tiger Woods as a sex addict, shared by both Woods himself and the media, has resulted because his scandal (“a matter of sexual mores,”[7] about which society can prove to be the most vicious) served as a morality tale, or an “actualization ‘of something that had previously had an existence as a more virtual set of pressures, contradictions, and fantasy scenarios’”[8] involving the ideas of family, personal responsibility, success, heroism, and even sex addiction itself.

To begin with, sex addiction has been a controversial topic among the medical community since at least the 1970s: some addictionologists have claimed it to be a real condition, while many sexologists have approached the matter “with sarcasm, disavowal, and attacks on its scientific credibility.”[9] The American Psychiatric Association does not currently recognize sex addiction as an official diagnosis, yet even psychologist who oppose the concept accept to describe it as “a compulsion, akin to unrestrained gambling, and not an addiction that has a direct impact on brain chemistry” the way heroin or cocaine would.[10] Even when it sprang up as a social phenomenon during the 1970s (self-proclaimed sex addicts across the U.S. started recognizing the conditions), and in spite of the attention that the media has put on it since the 1990s through scandal coverage and outlets such as Dr. Phil and the reality-TV series Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew,[11] sex addiction remains a highly suspect condition among the general public, deemed more “an excuse for not thinking”[12] with regard to marital faithfulness and family issues.

So when Tiger Woods decided to check into a rehabilitation clinic in Mississippi in January of 2010 known for its sex-addiction program[13], he became part of an already stigmatized trend at the prime of his sex scandal. According to publications, the public viewed Woods’s rehab, whether a legitimate medical decision or a cunning PR/media construct, as “a gloss for bad behavior”[14] that turned his already damaged image into that of a chronic adulterer who got caught and had to hide behind sexual addiction.[15]

But if addiction has served as a redeeming tool for celebrity scandals in the past and if Tiger Woods was not the first celebrity to be involved in a sex-addiction scandal, then why did his case have so much public backlash, from lost sponsorships with Gatorade, Gillette, and AT&T[16] to disgruntled fans and golfer colleagues?[17] The answer lies in the fact that, when compared to both old cases of celebrity drug addiction and recent scandal cases of celebrity sex addiction, Tiger Woods had a different context and his bad decisions made for an unfavorable sequence of events, all which turned his story into “a juicy morality tale” of “weakness amid wealth and power”[18] involving (or more accurately, transgressing) family and individual values traditionally championed by American society.

In the older Hollywood scandals (namely, that of Wallace Reid drug addiction, Robert Mitchum’s drug bust), the studio system and its PR machine (press control and fan publications) worked towards the constructions of a positive image of their celebrity assets, while independent scandal magazines exploited those images by attacking them under the guise of “offering the truth.”[19] For instance, Wallace Reid’s heroin addiction, “considered one of the three most significant scandals of early Hollywood,” was represented by newspapers, trade journals, and fan magazines as a case of “a tragic, but heroic, figure who sacrificed his life to an adoring public.”[20] Similarly, Robert Mitchum’s drug bust in the 1940s prompted not only articles praising him for taking responsibility (by pleading guilty and “doing his time”) rather than condemning his bad behavior but also articles suggesting that marijuana was not as evil as heroin.[21] In those cases, the studios used their mediatic control of their stars to protect the public notion of Hollywood’s morality, spinning and manipulating scandals in order to reinterpret them as stories of redemption or heroism.[22]

Tiger Woods, however, as a self-made celebrity (due to his golfing success), lacked the support and “mediatic protection” that the studio system gave to Reid and Mitchum because they were the studios’ assets. Instead, Tiger Woods belonged to himself, having to rely on what little control of his celebrity-commodity private PR advice from his agents and publicized personal decisions could afford him. As a result, the media had the most power in the discourse of his scandal, which was mostly run with what resembled scandal-magazine tactics of old Hollywood—mainly interested in increasing ratings and circulation with the cycling and recycling of news and scandals even at the expense of the truth.[23]

Unlike past cases, Tiger Woods’s addiction itself remains a questionable claim. Whereas Reid’s fatal heroin addiction and Mitchum’s marijuana were both legitimately recognized as examples of “pressing public health issues,”[24] Tiger Woods’s sex addiction remains suspect among both professionals and laypeople alike.

But if Tiger Woods’ claim to sex addiction hurt his image, his decisions did not benefit his damage-control efforts either and instead contributed to the development and escalation of the scandal.

First of all, the scandal began with a headline-worthy and flashy incident: a domestic dispute turned car crash. Not only did that get the rumors about marriage trouble going in the media while Woods went into seclusion, but it also prompted the avalanche of “coming-out” mistresses amidst Tiger’s media silence, revealing an alternate life of a celebrity who “willfully, and fraudulently, created an image designed to make him as much money as possible” via strategic interviews, profitable sponsorships, minimal personal disclosure, and lots of career-oriented PR—the golf hero, exemplary family man, living proof of the American ideal of success and overall “bionic man,” turned out to be a lie that the American public would resent. [25] And with each event and discovery that was proven true and that contributed to the unfolding scandal, the public had more grounds to resent Tiger Woods and fewer reasons to redeem him.

In order for the general public to redeem Tiger Woods, he needed to show he wanted and warranted redemption, both of which he failed to do, for he remained silent in the media after the accident that sparked the scandal; a few weeks passed before he surfaced to announce his retirement from golf in December of 2009.[26] It wasn’t until February of 2010 (after his alleged sex rehab) that Tiger Woods came forth to host a press conference in which he stated: “For all that I have done, I am so sorry…I had affairs, I cheated. What I did was not acceptable, and I am the only person to blame.”[27] The effectiveness of his public apology was reduced because of its delay (happening months after the scandal started) and because he refused to answer any questions from reporters at the conference, which prompted journalists to label the apology as an “epic fail” that came “too little too late,”[28] thus feeling like a “stagecraft” and “performance” that attempted to restore his celebrity-commodity value. Moreover, when Tiger Woods said that “It’s time for me to start living a life of integrity,” people could not help but question and resent the heroic image he had previously built and supposedly lived by.[29]

The best option for Tiger Woods to compel the public and media to redeem him would have been a policy of swift honesty, as proven before by Hugh Grant, who had a sex scandal of his own after cheating on his wife (actress Elizabeth Hurley) with a Los Angeles prostitute and being caught in the act by the police.[30] Instead of going into seclusion, avoiding the media, and getting defensive about the situation (which most celebrities do amidst scandals, including Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, and Tiger Woods), “Hugh Grant apologized right away in every talk show possible,” from Larry King Live to The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, taking full responsibility and resorting to no excuse for his behavior.[31] Even though the British tabloids kept attacking Grant for a while (for which he was already a favorite target), the American press and general public forgave him enough for Grant to remain a box-office success.[32]

Perhaps Hugh Grant’s apology worked not only because of its swiftness and honesty but also because he avoided shielding himself with any type of “abuse” excuse, to which the public has become jaded.[33] It seems that, for the American public to sympathize with a rehabilitating celebrity after a scandal, the problem and the effort of rehabilitation by the celebrity must be considered authentic from within the family of the celebrity itself. For instance, when actor David Duchovny went into rehab for sex addiction in 2008 amidst rumors of marital infidelity on both Duchovny and his wife (actress Tea Leoni), neither the media nor the public seemed to question the truthfulness of the decision.[34] Despite the press releases by the couple giving almost full disclosure about the rehab and their marital problems leading to a split[35], the way the scandal was managed made it seem to be a private family matter that was being publicized out of respect for the fans (and preempt a tabloid exposure) rather than as a publicity stunt. Amazingly, it seemed that way even when both celebrities could benefit from it—Leoni had an upcoming movie, while Duchovny had just recently won a Golden Globe for (ironically) portraying a sex-mad writer in the hit TV series Californication.[36]

            Oddly enough, the public and the media might have been more lenient in their reactions and discourse about both Duchovny and Grant because of their preset expectations for them. Not only had Grant already been subject to scandal in Britain before his arrest[37], and had Duchovny been linked to sex addiction due to his womanizing antics during the mid 1990s[38], but both celebrities were actors living in Hollywood. A hundred years of high-profile and menial scandals have proven that scandalous stories are expected to come from Hollywood and its morally-suspect residents—actors and entertainment celebrities must provide some melodrama for the consumers, the fans, in their film and TV works as well as in their personal lives.[39] A living example of such supply of seemingly unquestioned bad behavior is Charlie Sheen, whose celebrity has more than survived scandals regarding domestic abuse (with actress Kelly Preston in the 1990, ex-wife and actress Denise Richards in 2006, and soon-to-be-ex-wife Brooke Mueller in 2009) and prostitution (in the Heidi Fleiss scandal in 1994)—he has built “bad-boy behavior” into his persona and celebrity-commodity to the point that people expect it. It is so engrained into his celebrity-commodity that his scandalous behavior was a potentoal basis for his lead character “Charlie” in the Emmy-winning sitcom Two and a Half Men.[40]

But scandalous behavior is not expected from sports figures, who are supposed to be representatives of the heroic.[41] Sports figures have been, since the times of Joe DiMaggio (and even before then), not only role models for society in matters of success, perseverance, and discipline but also beacons of moral integrity: not in vain is “sportsmanship” defined as “fairness, respect for one’s opponent, and graciousness in winning or losing.”[42] While Hollywood scandals can be tolerated as entertaining melodramas or little morality tales, scandals from the sports fields are generally viewed as crimes against morality and American values.

Tiger Woods then, in addition to falling from sporting and fandom grace with his “sexcapades,” became a sort of moral criminal who blundered every chance and attempt to redeem his public image. His indiscretions were pegged (implicitly and explicitly) as an affront to the family unit (one of the dearest values for American society) mainly because of his wife’s obvious contempt (i.e. her absence during his apologetic press conference and her overall media silence,[43] which was significantly different from, for example, the sympathy-charged support that Dorothy Davenport garnered as “Mrs. Wallace Reid” when spinning his scandal[44]). Even worse, part of the scandal and subsequent public resentment towards Tiger Woods stemmed from the fact that it all destroyed his picture-perfect family—the legendary golfer, by betraying his loving wife[45], who had sacrificed her modeling career for the sake of their two children, broke his family apart.[46]

The Jesse James-Sandra Bullock scandal, similar and contemporary to Tiger Woods’s case, proves the severity with which the public can judge a transgression of the ideal of family, especially when the “victimized” partner had made sacrifices for the sake of the family. The James-Bullock scandal mirrored several of the events in the Tiger Woods scandal: several mistresses came forward to the media, both James and Bullock avoided the media, James checked into sex rehab, among other similarities; the most striking was that Bullock had taken a break from her career (just like Elin Nordegren did) years before in order to take care of Jesse James children from his previous marriage, which made Jesse James not only a cheating husband but a  cheating husband to “America’s sweetheart” of the moment (Bullock had recently won a Best Actress Academy Award) and loving step-mother of his children.[47] Jesse James, though of lesser celebrity and prominence than the champion golfer, was deemed as much (and maybe even more) a transgressor of the family ideal as Tiger Woods was at the peak of his scandal.[48]

Ultimately, the media discourse surrounding Tiger Woods’s scandal revealed that claims about sex addiction cannot yet save a celebrity from hard public scrutiny because of the condition’s suspect credibility. Rather than giving medical explanations or PR-savvy excuses for any sexual indiscretions, history has proven that a scandalous celebrity might be better off by accepting responsibility, honestly apologizing for any transgressions, and genuinely privatizing the problem behind the scandal. In other words, celebrities such as Tiger Woods (those famous for remarkable achievements in their fields) can only redeem themselves to the American public when they embody integrity and all-American values (including family) both in their times of great success and in the face of great scandal.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Anderson, Mark Lynn, “Understanding Wallace Reid and his Public,” Headline Hollywood, ed. Adrienne McLean and David Cook. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
  • Bader, Michael, “Sex Addiction Is an Excuse for not Thinking,” Psychology Today.com, January 19, 2010.
  • Bissinger, Buzz, “Tiger in the Rough,” Vanity Fair, February 2010.
  • Boswell, Thomas, “Tiger Woods apology: What’s real? What do we believe?” Washington Post.com, February 20, 2010.
  • DeCordova, Richard, Pictures Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
  • Desjardins, Mary, “Systematizing Scandal: Confidential Magazine, Stardom, and the State of California,” Headline Hollywood, ed. Adrienne McLean and David Cook. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
  • Everett, Cristina, “Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren divorce is ‘100 percent happening,’” NY Daily News.com, April 22, 2010.
  • Fischer, Luchina, Suzan Clarke and Lee Ferran, “Lessons From Sandra Bullock-Jesse James Scandal,” com, March 22, 2010.
  • Irvine, Janice M., “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sex Addiction,” Disorders of Desire, 7. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.
  • Jordan, Julie, “The Ex Files,” People, 17 No. 18, November 3, 2008.
  • Klein, Marty, “Our Addiction to Tiger Woods’s ‘Sex Addiction,’” Psychology Today.com, February 20, 2010.
  • Luscombe, Belinda, “Was Tiger Woods’ Apology a Game Changer?” com, February 19, 2010.
  • Martinez, Jose, “Tiger Woods sex scandal: Golfer being treated for sex addiction at Mississippi rehab, says author,” NY Daily News.com, January 18,
  • Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary.
  • Piazza, Jo, “Why scandals don’t faze Charlie Sheen’s career,” com, December 28, 2009.
  • Serjeant, Jill, “David Duchovny’s sex disorder likened to alcoholism,” com, August 29, 2008.
  • Siemaszko, Corky, “Fans Turn on Tiger Woods,” NY Daily News. January 21, 2010.
  • Stern, Andrew, “Tiger Woods case puts spotlight on ‘sex addiction,’” Reuters, February 19, 2010.
  • Turner, Graeme, Understanding Celebrity, London: Thousand Oakes: SAGE, 2004.
  • Wharton, David, “Tiger Woods’ story veers into sex addiction,” Los Angeles Times.com, January 21, 2010.
  • “Gatorade sinks Tiger Woods sponsorship,” com. Los Angeles. February 26, 2010.
  • “Tiger Woods says, ‘I am so sorry’ in public apology,” com, February 20, 2010.
  • “Hugh Grant pleads no contest,” com, July 11, 1995.
  • “Spin cycle: Hugh Grant finds ‘honesty’ best policy,” com, July 17, 1995.
  • “Nine Months star Hugh Grant runs talk show gauntlet,” com, July 11 1995.
  • “Hugh’s the boss? Grant does great spin on ‘Tonight,’” com, July 11, 1995.
  • “Jesse James Scandal Great News for Tiger?” com, March 23, 2010.

[1] Siemaszko, Corky, “Fans Turn on Tiger Woods,” NY Daily News. January 21, 2010.

[2] Desjardins, Mary, “Systematizing Scandal: Confidential Magazine, Stardom, and the State of California,” Headline Hollywood. Ed. Adrienne McLean and David Cook. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Page 206.

[3] Turner, Graeme, Understanding Celebrity. London: Thousand Oakes: SAGE, 2004. Pages 42-45.

[4] See 3 above. Pages 34-41.

[5] Stern, Andrew, “Tiger Woods case puts spotlight on ‘sex addiction,’” Reuters, February 19, 2010.

[6] Wharton, David, “Tiger Woods’ story veers into sex addiction,” Los Angeles Times.com, January 21, 2010.

[7] See 2 above. Page 206.

[8] DeCordova, Richard, Pictures Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990; as quoted by Desjardins, Mary (see 2 above, page 206).

[9] Irvine, Janice M., “Regulated Passions: The Invention of Inhibited Sexual Desire and Sex Addiction,” Disorders of Desire, Ch. 7. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.

[10] See 5 above.

[11] See 5 above.

[12] Bader, Michael, “Sex Addiction Is an Excuse for not Thinking,” Psychology Today.com, January 19, 2010.

[13] Martinez, Jose, “Tiger Woods sex scandal: Golfer being treated for sex addiction at Mississippi rehab, says author,” NY Daily News.com, January 18, 2010.

[14] See 12 above.

[15] See 5 above.

[16] “Gatorade sinks Tiger Woods sponsorship,” Reuters.com. Los Angeles. February 26, 2010.

[17] See 1 above.

[18] Klein, Marty, “Our Addiction to Tiger Woods’s ‘Sex Addiction,’” Psychology Today.com, February 20, 2010.

[19] See 2 above.

[20] Anderson, Mark Lynn, “Understanding Wallace Reid and his Public,” Headline Hollywood. Ed. Adrienne McLean and David Cook. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2001. Page 86.

[21] See 2 above. Page 216.

[22] See 20 above. Pages 85-86.

[23] See 2 above. Page 207.

[24] See 20 above. Page 83.

[25] Bissinger, Buzz, “Tiger in the Rough,” Vanity Fair, February 2010.

[26] See 16 above.

[27] “Tiger Woods says, ‘I am so sorry’ in public apology,” CNN.com, February 20, 2010.

[28] Luscombe, Belinda, “Was Tiger Woods’ Apology a Game Changer?” TIME.com, February 19, 2010.

[29] Boswell, Thomas, “Tiger Woods apology: What’s real? What do we believe?” Washington Post.com, February 20, 2010.

[30] “Hugh Grant pleads no contest,” CNN.com, July 11, 1995.

[31] “Spin cycle: Hugh Grant finds ‘honesty’ best policy,” CNN.com, July 17, 1995.

[32] “Nine Months star Hugh Grant runs talk show gauntlet,” CNN.com, July 11 1995.

[33] See 30 above.

[34] Serjeant, Jill, “David Duchovny’s sex disorder likened to alcoholism,” Reuters.com, August 29, 2008.

[35] Jordan, Julie, “The Ex Files,” People, Vol. 17 No. 18, November 3, 2008.

[36] See 33 above.

[37] “Hugh’s the boss? Grant does great spin on ‘Tonight,’” CNN.com, July 11, 1995.

[38] See 33 above.

[39] See 3 above, page 116.

[40] Piazza, Jo, “Why scandals don’t faze Charlie Sheen’s career,” CNN.com, December 28, 2009.

[41] See 3 above, pages 105-106.

[42] Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

[43] See 27 and 28 above.

[44] See 20 above, page 86.

[45] To be more precise, the legendary  part-African-American, part-Asian, part-Native-American golfer and wealthiest athlete in the world had betrayed his loving, Norwegian white wife—all which could allow for an explanation of his failed redemption and public resentment in terms of racial and socio-economic biases, but such is not the focus of this paper.

[46] Everett, Cristina, “Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren divorce is ‘100 percent happening,’” NY Daily News.com, April 22, 2010.

[47] Fischer, Luchina, Suzan Clarke and Lee Ferran, “Lessons From Sandra Bullock-Jesse James Scandal,” ABCNews.com, March 22, 2010.

[48] “Jesse James Scandal Great News for Tiger?” CBSNews.com, March 23, 2010.

April 2010. Dallas, TX.

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