In the 21st century, addiction is better understood. Treatment centers are numerous, and support groups are mainstream enough that they’re parodied on late night television. If someone admits to a struggle with alcohol or even drugs, he or she is applauded for dealing with the addiction. But to say, “I may be a sex addict” is still an entirely different thing.
In some ways, the pervasiveness of pornography has made that addiction a little more acceptable. Its ubiquitous influence is inescapable and compelling. The church is being forced to admit the pornography problem among its ranks, and more churches offer accountability groups. Christian self-help material is widely available.
Yet those who struggle with sexual addiction usually feel overwhelming shame, especially as Christians. Sex is one of the few addictions that begins with a choice that’s clearly labeled “sinful.” To take a drink, a puff, a pill, a snort, or to place a bet may not be the healthiest choice, but few categorically view it as sinful. Sexual acting out is different, because it goes against God’s designed foundation of integrity and fidelity.
In a vicious cycle, the shame of sexual addiction fuels further acting out. It’s a secret sin, where strugglers are afraid to admit the problem. A common assumption is that sex addicts are moral derelicts who just need to try harder to stop their behavior. Those of us who are Christians have tried harder, and we’ve begged God to deliver us from this problem. When we fail, we only feel worse. The shame escalates and is debilitating. It even keeps sex addicts from asking for help.
The good news is that no one, including sex addicts, are beyond God’s grace. A solution exists to the problem of sexual addiction, and healing is possible.
Addict or Offender?
Yes, women are sex addicts, too, but if you’re a female who struggles with this issue, just the term “sex addiction” may make you shudder. It’s such a horrible label! Many women prefer “relationship” or “love” addiction, but the reality is that “sex addiction” is an umbrella term that covers a number of different presentations. It’s not about the sex, and in fact, some women say they don’t even like the sexual activity they engage in. Women, like men, are looking for love, affection, affirmation and acceptance. Sex and intense relationships are false solutions to these legitimate needs.
Historically, sex addiction was thought to only affect men. Clinicians didn’t consider that women, too, could be sex addicts, and early attention to the problem was focused solely on men. Current statistics show that one-third of the visitors to sexually oriented websites are female. Today, experts in the field believe that women comprise 40-50% of those who are sexually addicted, yet there have been few treatment opportunities offered solely to women.
Women often feel especially ashamed of being sexually addicted. Our culture views promiscuous women as whores, while it dismisses similar behavior in men. Few women talk openly about their recovery from sexual addiction, and often a female addict believes she’s the only one with her problem.
A common presentation for women is relationship addiction, which is also sometimes called love addiction. These women are involved in promiscuity, affairs, or a pattern of dependent relationships. Often, there’s a power component at work – the power of being seductive, of being lusted after, and of using sex as a vehicle to get into powerful places or to get in with powerful people.
More and more women are also struggling with masturbation and pornography, especially Internet pornography. Some women are more relational in their online behaviors and favor on-line relationships and sexually oriented chat rooms. Many females, though, are increasingly addicted to Internet sexual activity in all its forms, including visual pornography.
Hope Offered to Women
In 1997, the Woodmont Hills Church in Nashville, Tennessee sponsored the first workshop that specifically addressed the problem of female sexual addiction. This treatment option was spawned by Marnie Ferree, a Christian woman who had found grace and healing from the sexual woundedness and addiction in her own life. Her vision was to “comfort others as I have been comforted” (2 Corinthians 1: 4). Now part of the comprehensive program known as Bethesda Workshops, the Healing for Women offering is sensitive to the special needs and difficult situations of women who are addicted to sex or relationships.
It is possible to recover from sex/relationship addiction. You can achieve sobriety. You can maintain purity in your behavior, relationships, and your walk with God. You can be set free from your sexual shame.
You can begin today a whole new way of life. Ask God’s help in taking that first step.
First Steps for Sex Addicts
If you’re beginning to realize you have a problem with sexual addiction (or are heading down that road) or you’re already certain you need help, here are some first steps you can take.
Talk to someone about your problem.
According to a slogan from the Twelve Steps, we’re as sick as our secrets. Tell someone else about your struggle and ask for help. It’s not enough just to confess your sin to God. Simply being honest with someone helps relieve the shame and start a healing process.
Learn more about the problem and the solution.
Reading is a good starting place. For specifically Christian resources, if you’re male, get Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction by Mark Laaser; if you’re female, get No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction by Marnie Ferree. Other great books are anything by Patrick Carnes, including Out of the Shadows, Don’t Call It Love, and the workbook Facing the Shadow. Sex Addiction 101 by Robert Weiss is a helpful starting point and has an accompanying workbook. Check out the Resources section for an extensive list of suggested reading.
Set behavior boundaries.
Make any changes you can think of to curb your acting out behaviors. Put your computer in a public place and install an Internet filter. Eliminate contact with an affair partner. Don’t carry cash to spend at a strip club. Change your cell phone number or email address. Most people find it hard, if not impossible, to maintain strict boundaries early in recovery. Don’t give up if you can’t do these kinds of things by yourself. Using the other tools of recovery will help you succeed here.
Attend a Twelve Step or support group.
No one can recover alone or with the help of just one other person. Being part of a community is key – and not just any community. At least several people in your support system need to be successfully abstaining from inappropriate sexual activity. Find a 12 Step group like Sexaholics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous or a faith-based program like Celebrate Recovery or a L.I.F.E. Group. Attend regularly. Several times a week is best.
Find a counselor who understand sex addiction.
Many counselors (including Christian ones) aren’t trained in treating sex addiction, and they can unintentionally do more harm than good. Find a counselor who understands addiction and its root causes. The best place to locate a clinician is through the website of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP). Visit www.sexhelp.com for a searchable database.
Decide to postpone any major decisions.
Agree to defer important decisions like getting a divorce or running off with an affair partner. Until you’ve been sober for several months (and preferably at least a year), you aren’t thinking clearly.
Consider coming to a Healing Workshop.
It may feel like a big step, but a Bethesda Workshop provides a HUGE jumpstart into recovery. It quickly gets you way down the road to healing. The Healing Workshops section has complete information.
Healing for Men
for men who personally struggle with
pornography and other forms of
sex or relationship addiction
Healing for Women
for women who personally struggle with
pornography and other forms of
sex or relationship addiction
Healing for Teens & Parents Workshop
for teens ages 15-18 who
are acting out sexually,
parents also attend workshop
If you’re concerned about your sexual or relational behavior, ask yourself these questions that comprise the simple PATHOS screening test (adapted) developed by Dr. Patrick Carnes:
- Preoccupied: Do you often find yourself preoccupied with sexual thoughts or relationship behavior?
- Ashamed: Do you hide some of your sexual or relational behavior from others?
- Treatment: Have you ever sought help for sexual or relational behavior that was problematic for you?
- Hurt others: Has anyone been hurt emotionally because of your sexual or relational behavior?
- Out of control: Do you feel controlled by your sexual desire or your relational behavior?
- Sad: When you have sex or engage in certain relational behavior, do you feel depressed afterwards?
If you answer “yes” to more than two questions, experts highly recommend you talk with a trained therapist to explore your answers. Bethesda Workshops suggests that any “yes” answer is problematic and deserves further exploration.
Another helpful resource is the Sexual Addiction Screen Test (SAST), a longer questionnaire developed by Dr. Carnes and provided by the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), specifically through the Recovery Zone materials. It’s a 52-item yes/no screening that provides confidential results and interpretation of your answers.
Bethesda Workshops has no way of knowing which website visitors click to take the SAST and receives no information about your results.
I’m a committed Christian. I know what I’m doing is wrong. Why can’t I stop by just reading my Bible or praying more? Are you sure I don’t simply need more faith?
Reading your Bible, praying, and increasing your faith are all important parts of your spiritual walk. But simply being a Christian doesn’t exempt you from having an addiction any more than it might spare you from having diabetes.
Sexual addiction is a many-faceted problem which demands a multi-approach solution. Addiction is a physical, mental, and emotional disease as well as a spiritual problem. All four areas must be addressed. Would you treat your diabetes by simply praying more?
My spouse doesn’t know about my sexual acting out. Do I have to tell? What about my children?
Your sexual secrets are understandably embarrassing and shameful. They also are having a tremendous impact on your marriage, even if you believe your spouse doesn’t know. This secret sin will handicap your relationship. You can never have true intimacy and commitment unless it’s built on honesty.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should immediately confess your sexual behavior to your spouse. In fact, that approach isn’t a good plan! Consultation with a professional and with other recovering addicts is strongly recommended. Be sure there are resources in place to help your spouse before you disclose. Bethesda Workshops covers disclosure in every individual intensive. You can also access our two-part podcast on disclosure.
What about my kids? What do I tell them?
Sharing your story with your children is also a difficult step. Professionals in the field generally agree that children, both minors and adults, have a need to know (to varying degrees) about a parent’s addiction. You should consider your children’s ages, maturity, and personality when discussing sensitive information.
The primary thing to consider is your motive for telling your children: Is it to promote honesty and healing within the family, or is to relieve your guilt or manipulate the children into comforting you? Again, consultation with an addiction professional is helpful.
What should I tell others about the workshop? I sure don’t want to say I’m going to a conference on sexual addiction!
You don’t have to explain in detail where you’re going or what you’ll be working on. You can share that you’re attending a Christian workshop that’s designed to bring you closer to God and to guide you toward being the person God has called you to be. Another general statement is to say the workshop will look at a variety of childhood issues and how they might be impacting your life and relationships in the present. It’s healthy to have boundaries! That’s one of the things we’ll discuss at the workshop.
My situation is different. My sex partners are the same sex, and the pornography I use involves the same sex. Does that make me a sex addict? If a come to a workshop, will the other participants be comfortable with me there?
The type of acting out doesn’t determine whether or not someone is sexually addicted, and it doesn’t necessarily mean someone is gay or lesbian. It’s not unusual for heterosexual men to act out with other men, and heterosexual female sex addicts sometimes become involved with other women. Gay or lesbian individuals obviously act out with their same gender. Same sex or opposite sex activity isn’t the issue in terms of addiction, and Bethesda Workshops treats all acting out the same. (For some people, concerns about sexual orientation might be something to explore after establishing sobriety from all forms of acting out.) Almost every workshop is attended by individuals who act out with their same gender, and other participants are welcoming and unfazed.