When Infidelity Becomes “Sex Addiction”

Cue: High-profile, charismatic man married to high-profile, attractive woman in picture-perfect marriage is outed by a long string of lovers claiming to have affairs (often lasting several years) that include everything from wild sex (often without protection) to pregnancies and abortions.

Response: The tabloids erupt in a media feeding frenzy and the public is outraged (usually because said man has cheated on attractive and likable wife with “trashy” “sluts“).

Solution: Claim sex addiction and enter sex rehabilitation.

Skeptical? Yeah, so am I.

Jesse James follows the lead of David Duchovny and Tiger Woods and enters sex rehab to deal “with personal issues” that include a bevy of mistresses and a publicity nightmare. It sounds more like old-fashioned infidelity to me.

Their cries of sex addiction and subsequent decisions to admit themselves into treatment centers is vaguely reminiscent of gay-bashing conservative mega-church pastor Ted Haggard‘s decision to enter “gay camp” after his sexual encounters with a variety of male prostitutes were made public. Apparently, it worked. Haggard, his wife says, is once again straight and free from “homosexual compulsions.”

Sex rehab, gay camp–sounds like a convenient excuse to garner sympathy, shirk responsibility and restore one’s former reputation (oh, yeah, and their marriage to their wife).

Obviously I have not treated any of these men, but considering the fact only  six percent to eight percent of people in the United Sates qualify as sex addicts it’s hard to believe that these men automatically fall into that category. From where I’m sitting, their sexual exploits are behaviors encouraged in most men. After all, sexuality, sexual virility and having a lot of  heterosexual sex with a lot of women (often at the same time) is the cultural measure of a “real man,” and what is referred to as hegemonic masculinity [PDF] in academic circles.

The hyper-sexualized male is a standard fixture in pop culture and our culture in general. Why do you think The Forty Year-Old Virgin was made about a man?  It would have never been made about a woman. Women are supposed to be sexy, not sexual, and if a woman is a virgin at forty she’s probably just ugly or fat. If a man is a virgin at forty he must be gay or have a problem. Men are sexual beings, and if they’re not they’re not “real men.” Open any lad mag, like Maxim or FHM, and you’ll get loads of pictures of “hot babes” and articles on how to add notches to your bed post.

Married men aren’t entirely excluded from the sexual playground. It wasn’t historically uncommon for powerful married men to keep several mistresses in addition to their wives. In fact, it was encouraged. These days monogamy is heralded as sacred and normative, but if you’re going to cheat it should be kept on the down low. In fact, there’s plenty of advice and a plethora of gadgets that will help you cheat successfully. Take the iPhone app Tiger Text, which will help you “cover your tracks.” There are scores of websites and books that are willing to offer advice.

Are David Duchovny, Tiger Woods and Jesse James all sex addicts unable to restrain themselves? Possibly, but probably not. All three men share high-profile images, power and a sense of male privilege intersecting with the general expectations of “real men.” Their problem is probably not sex addiction but the fact that they got caught having affairs with “tawdry” women that marred their images in the eyes of the public that supports their lifestyles by consuming the pop culture products associated with their names.

To claim sex addiction is a cheap excuse that invalidates actual sex addicts, assumes the public is foolish enough to buy it and puts wives into the position of being grudge-holders if they don’t forgive their spouses for being “ill.” It also distracts us from having a public dialogue that examines the social construction of highly sexualized images of masculinity in our culture, which lies at the root of most of these cases.

Above left: Tiger Woods. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Above right: Jesse James. Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinguino/ / CC BY 2.0

This is cross-posted at Feminist Fatale.


  1. Sex addiction is such a convenient excuse, isn’t it? And “recovering” from it creates a new redemption story for the “addict.”And don’t we all just love redemption stories?

  2. Excellent point, Michele.

  3. Great post Melanie, this is something I’ve wondered about a lot too. I didn’t want to be the one to judge whether or not someone was suffering from an addiction – but at the same time, it just feels like an easy out. Another man screwing over another woman but the sexism of society and power issues that (in my mind) create these types of men is never discussed.

    I wonder what sort of counseling happens in sex addiction rehab centers and whether there is any type of dialogue about society’s perpetuation of male sexuality and male power…..a lot to think about and analyze here. Well done!

  4. This post represents a perfect example of why people facing a crisis of sex addiction might not seek help. I can’t tell what you are recommending that these men do? Just be ashamed of themselves? Would it be better that they claim they are the victims of a hypersexualized masculine society?

    And you diminish your point by excluding certain facts. David Duchovny sought treatment for sex addiction not after any high profile scandal, nor after an affair – but after an addiction to internet pornography.

    Sex addiction – like many addictions – is a tough concept for people to wrap their heads around. Is there a chemical dependency? Why do people seek treatment only after they have had a problem? We may not be able to determine a hard diagnosis in many cases. But the compassionate response is to encourage people to seek answers and betterment through treatment. I recommend reading Benoit Lewis’ “America Anonymous” for a better understanding of sex addiction and how it fits in the panoply of addiction http://www.americaanonymous.com/.

    I do want to applaud some points here. You began to question the normativity of heterosexual monogamy, which is great. You also began to question masculine hypersexuality. Those are both great places to explore. But not at the expense of trashing someone for seeking treatment.

  5. I am not trashing someone for seeking treatment. I am making a cultural critique. Plus, I am quite familiar with addiction and its complex nuances. My sister was readmitted to the ER yesterday for a 10-year battle with an eating disorder that is claiming her life. I have family members that have been and continue to be part of AA. But, according to the research, it is highly doubtful that these men are bonafide “sex addicts.” If Woods is actually a better person after treatment (as he claimed yesterday), I applaud that. My main issue is that the “sex addiction” claim and rehab stint in situations where it is “simply” infidelity degenders and sensationalizes men’s cultural encouragement to be hypersexual. The March issue of Maxim featured several tips on how to successfully cheat on your girlfriend. While my post was inspired by Jesse James’ recent entry into a clinic, the focus is less on him and more on the trend. By sensationalizing these stories, we are not led to a cultural examination of manufactured messages that encourage this behavior everyday in everyday men that are not sex addicts. I don’t believe this post would discourage a man who is dealing with sex addiction from seeking treatment. This post is to encourage cultural dialogue. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I hope my response has been helpful. Given the time, I assume my response may have been more articulate tomorrow morning.

  6. PS: I realize Duchovny did not seek treatment after a publicized scandal resembling Woods and James which is why I focus more on the latter than the former and his picture is not included in this post. But he is worth mentioning since Woods and James followed suit. I don’t think this discredits my points.

  7. Claiming sex addiction also blames the wife of the “addict” for not having a sex drive that was adequate enough to keep her husband from looking elsewhere for his “fix.”

  8. Great post! I had a conversation about similar issues today at work. After a mention of Tiger Woods, a colleague turned to me and asked, “What do you think would happen to a married woman’s career if a string of her lovers came out about their sexual relationship?” Would we see a woman admit herself to sex rehab? If part of the draw of “sex rehab” is restoring a positive public image for these male stars, would it have the same effect for a woman? I’d wager the calls of “slut” and “whore” would be so tarnishing to her career and personal life that not even sex therapy could restore her sponsorships. While it’s certainly not true in all cases, it seems that in the circle of wealthy and powerful men, sex rehab is simply the new face of the same old boys club.

  9. Thanks for the great comments, Feminist Review and Cyndi. You make excellent points. Women are blamed for men’s transgressions and most issues related to relationships, “emotional work” deemed women’s work. Cyndi, I am so glad you pointed out the sexual double-standard. It was a point I was going to make. You’d never see a woman claiming sexual addiction. She wouldn’t be allowed. So, given the comment above about men seeking rehabilitation…well, that seems to be a luxury afforded to men only. Along with the sexual double-standard, I want to emphasize the point I made at the beginning of the article. Another reason there was a measure of outrage to their stories (outrage that would have been magnified had these “sex addicts” been women, followed by relentless slut bashing) is that the wives represent the “good girl” in the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, aka the madonna/whore dichotomy, that persists and deems certain women more valuable than others. Plus, I do believe that their infidelity blew a hole in the romantic fairytale notion of the perfect marriage. I wonder how people would have responded if the women or women they had affairs with were not labeled “trashy” “sluts.” Just more food for thought.

  10. http://jezebel.com/5511021/painted-ladies-on-tats-and-trashiness?skyline=true&s=i

    Here’s a new post at Jezebel discussing inked women that relates to my discussion.

  11. George Skiles says:

    Great post Melanie. I appreciate the manner in which you recognize the internal psychological factors contributing to the addictive sexual behavior of some men, while focusing on the social factors (e.g., hegemonic masculinities) that contribute to sexual behavior of all men. These social factors impact, without a doubt, sexual behavior that is, at the same time, socially encouraged and discouraged.

  12. No surprise: Nike and Tiger are already playing the “redemption” story for shoe sales and bucks. And even using Tiger’s late dad Earl to score wisdom points: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5NTRvlrP2NU. Yuck.

  13. Michele, thanks for mentioning this. Woods teed off in Augusta today. Here’s more coverage including the new ad you mentioned: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/tiger-woods-tees-off-masters-nike-debuts-commercial/story?id=10317886

  14. I have read this great blog. I want to tell you that sexual addiction refers to the phenomenon in which individuals report being unable to manage their sexual behavior. It also called “sexual dependency”.

  15. I think this is another interesting issue where too often we look for the cause of supposedly deviant behaviour or mental health problems in individual rather than society. While psychiatrists are often metaphorical and real life savers when dealing with problems when they occur; I feel that the tendency to individualise and medicalise the cause of such problems misses half the story. This is not to say that problems like addiction are not real, but our mental state is determined by external pressures as well as genetic predispositions. For example, rates of anorexia were found to increase significantly in Fijian girls after American TV shows were shown there http://www.anorexia-say-no.com/fuji-anorexia.html. Even the chemical balance in our brains is influenced by external factors.

    By putting behaviour and mental health problems solely down to individuals we essentially remove responsibility from the rest of society and rather than question problems of our culture, or challenge the economic powers that have an interest in furthering these (such as advertisers using women’s bodies to sell products) we turn the entire conversation towards the problems of that person. The problem is not just that a person might try to shirk responsibility for something like an affair by falsely claiming addiction, but rather that whether the addiction is false or not society is shirking responsibility as well.

  16. Vegan Power says:

    awesome post Melanie,

    i am a bit tired of EVERYTHING being blamed on some type of addiction and once the person gets treatment suddenly all is forgiven. In 12 Step (REAL LIFE) all is NOT forgiven necessarily and amends are not always made or even accepted, and no one in recovery tells the new person that they are ever ‘cured’, or that all will be forgiven. because if you are actually are sick the damage done may not be easily forgiven if ever. so its all a Hollywood show– and i reckon it’s all BS anyway! just to get attention and make MORE money because as they say there is no such thing as bad publicity!

  17. It is sad to read some of the distorted comments on this subject. sex addiction is real, it forms part of a greater problem in that like all addictions it starts from somewhere. I work with a group of addicts, and I can tell you the problem is very, very real. To the surprise of the critics here, not all of them run of for sex addiction treatment because they are caught, it is because they are dealing with a crisis in their life that is out of control.
    Don’t judge people and drive them into the ground, why not try to help people and encourage them to seek treatment regardless of the addiction. If you think it is easy for any man to come forward and admit to a sex addiction at the shame of friends and family, then you are very, very sadly mistaken.
    A real addiction, suffered by real people (men and women) that needs a fantastic support network and not critics.


  1. […] Woods tees off in August today after a self-imposed hiatus and stint in rehab for “sex addiction.” Nike is now selling his redemption story and is received with mix […]

  2. […] Sexual. So sexually ravenous and energetic that they need protein-infused energy bars to handle all that […]

  3. […] with women. Rather, they emphasize hegemonic masculinity’s socially constructed tenants of hypersexuality, dominance and control. I recently posted a series of images advertising masculinity, many of these […]

  4. […] and blinging out their vaginas, sex scandals are commonplace whether it be a celebrity, politician or religious leader, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish […]

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!