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Sarah Churchwell: Tiger Woods and the first law of sexual economics

The golfer has gone for women with limited access to wealth and power

The only surprising thing about the Tiger Woods story is that anyone finds it surprising. Guess what? People surrounded their entire lives by sycophants and flatterers, who become obscenely wealthy before they've emerged from adolescence (if they ever emerge from it), whose subsequent power creates a consequence-free environment, tend to lose their sense of perspective.

They think they can have whatever they want, because generally they can. And given the opportunity, rich and powerful men will often leverage their power for sexual favours. To whom is this news?

For many children, their first full sentence is: "I want that." It's a primal impulse, more basic than sex: our first instinct is to take what we want. Only through patient teaching and painful socialisation do we eventually accept that we can't always have it. But people who are given whatever they want soon develop a sense of entitlement, and rapidly lose their sense of proportion.

Tiger Woods may not have believed his own hype, but he seems to have believed one of his slogans: Just Do It. Tiger just did it – and it is beginning to look as if the only person in Woods's life who ever said no to him was his wife, Elin – and allegedly punctuated her opposition with a golf club. That's what you call setting limits.

Increasingly American commentators are suggesting that there is a racial element to the media's fascination with the Woods story, arguing that the subtext is that of a previously well-behaved black athlete turning into an unruly sexual predator of blonde women. But let's bear Occam's razor in mind, and ask whether we need a more elaborate explanation for our fascination than the fact that a carefully constructed façade of perfection has come crashing down before our eyes.

It is no coincidence that Woods was encouraged – if not forced – to create that façade by his corporate sponsors, who represent the public to whom they were selling the image of Woods as moral exemplar. This is the logic of celebrity endorsement, that we buy the commodities they flog because we aspire to be more like them. If they aren't aspirational figures, their value plummets. Woods's marriage was part of his brand.

We want to believe that there is something immanent, categorically different about our heroes; we use religious words like icon, god, worship, and aura to describe them because we admire mystique. But we also relish demystification. The ordinary becomes a revelation when we convince ourselves that someone else is extraordinary.

In all likelihood the only thing extraordinary about Tiger Woods was his golf: he had extraordinary coordination, and extraordinary discipline – on the course, at any rate. That discipline was the source of his power.

But there's no correlation between being good at sports and good at marriage.

Now, predictably, we've started hearing about "sex addiction". Our culture's predilection for diagnosing and pathologising behaviour we condemn relates again to questions of accountability. Calling it an addiction begins to absolve Woods of responsibility. It also seems to profoundly miss the point.

We should stop being shocked when male athletes – or politicians, or movie stars – are sexually voracious, because sex is one of the trophies of their power. The idea of "potency" combines power, sex, and virility for a reason: it is totemic – proof that their power is real. There are only so many mansions and cars a billionaire can buy, only so many ways to exercise your prerogatives. Behold the droit de seigneur. Illicit sex isn't just a cheap thrill; it's simultaneously testing and demonstrating his power. How much could he get away with?

Doubtless some of the women always planned to cash in eventually, but they will have enjoyed some other frissons – borrowed glory, for instance, or being in on the secret, and therefore able to expose it. These women all had something else in common, besides their generic resemblance to each other (and to Mrs Woods): they are recognisably working class – waitresses, escorts, porn stars. Woods seems to have gone for women with limited access to wealth and power. Welcome to Sexual Economics 101.

Now he is paying the price for his indiscretion, it seems – $55m, according to reports, to keep his wife Elin in the marriage. Some commentators have written off Elin, a former nanny and model, as a dumb blonde. But she is the daughter of a politician and a journalist, and it seems that she may be teaching her husband a masterclass in the art of accountability, at last.

Sarah Churchwell is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of East Anglia