This article was written by BCC Counselor Jim Lang as part of our new series on addiction. In this series, our counselors are sharing how everyone can understand, overcome, and find freedom from addiction.
How does sexual addiction compare to other addictions? This is a question that men and women coming to counseling often struggle with.
Let’s start to answer this question with another question: How do we view alcoholism?
Most people believe that alcohol addiction is real and people can develop an unhealthy dependence on alcohol. They also believe that people who struggle with addiction to alcohol can find freedom by seeking help from God, family, medical intervention, accountability groups, etc.
Many of us have seen firsthand a friend, relative, or public celebrity who was a train wreck destroying everyone and everything in their path until God helped them find a better path. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
However, did you know that in the early 1900s, alcoholism was seen as a moral failure with no cure other than eventual death? Alcoholics were seen as the dregs of society, and in many cases, their families placed them in insane asylums. Things have changed a lot since then.
Unfortunately, people who struggle with sex addiction today are mocked or looked down upon much as the alcoholic was in the early 1900s. They are seen as sexual deviants who have failed morally and are incurable.
Take Harvey Weinstein or Tiger Woods, for example. Neither man received the warm accolades or encouragement to enter therapy that people like Elton John or Brad Pitt received for their alcohol addiction treatment. The best they could hope for was to stay out of sight until people forgot the past.
Today, our understanding of addictive behaviors includes both process addictions (an activity we do repeatedly) and substance addictions (a chemical entering our body repeatedly).
Process and substance addictions are both extremely powerful.
The sex addict can develop a chemical dependence so strong that they will sacrifice everything in the world for the next fix. Even their family, friends, and their lifelong careers will seemingly be tossed aside for the next high.
Ultimately this addiction leads to death spiritually and physically. Most sex addicts even have suicidal thoughts in the final stages of addiction.
Understanding How Sexual Addiction Begins
Patrick Carnes, a researcher in understanding how processes can become addictive, has defined sex addiction as a pathological (behavior that is habitual, maladaptive, and compulsive) relationship with a mood-altering experience.
The person addicted to sex, like the person addicted to almost any substance or process, is seeking artificial short-term comfort from somewhere other than God and the resources He provides for life. Their heart has been hardened and their brain has been rewired to seek pleasure over experiencing the pains and struggles of this life.
Many of us learned at a very young age that viewing images and self-pleasure were a quick and easy balm for painful experiences. This method of solving problems in life leads us to escape and run toward our substance or process and away from everyday disappointments rather than confront and resolve them.
A person is considered to be an addict “when a repeated activity has harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causes well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.”
When a person is searching for stimulating material and activities every day, multiple times a day, there is an addiction. Many people don’t see the devastating consequences, and they lie to themselves for years about the effects the bad habit is having on themselves and those around them.
Understanding How Sex Addiction Grows
After many years of working with Christians addicted to sex, Doug Weiss has identified the most dominant characteristics seen in his clients. His list includes entitlement, opportunistic, surface relationships, lovers of isolation, objectification of people, driven, and persistent.
Sex addiction begins for most people by the middle school years and like any other addiction, it is progressive and destructive. In other words, what worked at first no longer works overtime. “More” or “stronger” is needed in the worlds of both substance and process addiction.
In his research on sex addiction, Carnes labels the following progressive levels:
- Level One actions include pornography use, self-pleasure, phone sex or anonymous sex, and prostitution.
- Level Two includes things that would be considered illegal, but the consequences would be minimal other than the person’s reputation.
- Level Three actions would result in prison time and being registered as a sex offender, and it includes severe sexual abuse of all kinds.
Understanding How Sex Addiction Requires a Spiritual Answer
Freedom from sex addiction, like any habitual sin, is rooted in the desires of the heart. Every time that an addict decides to use, they are saying that the desire to feel less pain is more important than anything else at that time.
From a Christian worldview, we know that our wrong desires (sin) are at the root of all behavior that is contrary to what we know as the commands of God. His commands are all designed for our good and His glory.
John 3:19 tells us “Light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light.” When we come humbly to God in repentance, God helps us renew our minds and reject the tempting lies of Satan. Our known theology finally becomes our new living theology; one that puts God first.
Addicts decide to live life for short-term pleasure, contrary to everything they know is right. This usually results in overwhelming shame.
Counseling the sex addict includes discussing behaviors that originate from struggles, pain, cravings, triggers, and rituals that are all part of the addictive cycle. We also examine the characteristics of the physical brain and how neuropathways have adapted to addiction with new unhealthy connections.
Understanding these concepts is important, but nonetheless, they are not an excuse for poor decisions from a sinful heart.
Breaking the Bonds of Sexual Addiction
Part of recovery from sex addiction is abstinence from any form of sex for a time. Even for those who are married, Scripture teaches that abstinence from sexual activity for a season can allow a focus on the spiritual battles that need to be won.
Whether single or married, the practice of sexual abstinence teaches the addict that sex is a blessing, not a need.
Sexuality has a purpose and it is a beautiful thing that God designed strictly for a husband and wife. Abstinence also re-trains the brain to allow the executive function (the thinking and reasoning part) of our brains to form healthy connections. This allows our brain to repair itself to a point where we can be relatively happy and start to once again feel our feelings rather than suppress them by using our “drug” to feel normal.
As we go through the detox process of any addiction, the cravings and temptations to go back to the old life are extremely powerful. However, with a good treatment plan in place, many people find freedom from their “drug” and a life focused on using.
Treatment plans for sex addiction can include:
- Defining in clearly written terms specific problem sexual behaviors which are to be eliminated.
- Tasks assigned to encourage the spiritual life, including daily connection with God, recovery-related readings/reflection, check-in phone calls, and sexual purity meeting attendance.
- Biblical counseling to understand experience patterns, triggers, rituals, acting out, shame, the cycle of addiction, recovery, and goals for the future.
- Understanding tools to be implemented when we are prone to wander in the future.
- Setting goals for healthy spiritual, biological, emotional, and relational life.
Finding Strength to Win the Battle
We know that addiction dies in community and thrives in isolation.
God’s Word tells us that we need community and teaches us that the early church believers relied on help from each other. We need that as much, if not more, today with the onslaught of evil fired at us each day.
Proverbs is filled with wisdom that speaks to the characteristics of true friendship that will help us: honesty, transparency, empathy, and confrontation.
Addicts, or any person wishing to walk closer to God and others, need friends like those described in the Bible. If we fight our battle alone, we will predictably continue to lose.
There are a few other recommended articles from our Addiction series that help explain to a greater degree some of the principles that are laid out in the article.
- How addiction is related to our spiritual life and values – Read Here
- How you can find the help you need – Read Here
- Why there is hope for freedom from addiction- Read Here
We don’t have to live in bondage to our desires, feeling, and actions. Instead, we can learn to pursue what is better.