Orthodox America

Pastoral Commentary - The Question of Sex Addiction

Fr. Alexey Young

Note: the following article is by its nature direct and frank. It may not be for all readers, but is especially aimed at clergy and those lay people who suspect that they may have become sexually addicted or are engaging in sexually obsessive behavior, even within marriage.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God (I Thess. 4:3-5).

Contrary to what this world tells us, there IS such a thing as sexual immorality. This is not something that is "subjective" or "relative." Scripture makes very clear that from the creation of man, sexual acts and actions have always been carefully and strictly hedged about by God's laws. This is because the gift of life comes only through sex. Therefore, He Who is the "Giver of life" and the Origin of all things, alone has the supreme right to tell mankind how and in what way sex may be used. Let us be blunt: it matters not how many psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, legislators, TV and film celebrities, special interest groups or "church leaders" tell us otherwise.* For those who believe in God and His revelation if Scripture, there is only one relationship in which sexual behavior is blessed-between a husband and wife.

And precisely because the sacred beginning of biological life is blessed only within the great mystery of marriage, God in His wisdom enjoins a certain kind of chastity even between husband and wife-i.e., avoiding lewdness and animal lust, choosing instead modesty and self-discipline. There should be mutual satisfaction for both husband and wife, of course, but in God's view they may not make use of pornography or "sex toys," which only have the purpose of increasing lust.

Anything else-be it adultery, fornication, homosexuality, masturbation, sodomy (even between a husband and wife)-is strictly forbidden under nothing less than pain of eternal damnation:

NO fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or effeminate or sodomite...shall inherit the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9-11).

On the contrary, we are told:

Such [sinners] you once were; but now you have been cleansed and justified and made holy in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God (ibid).

Orthodox Christians need to be reminded of all this from the amvon or pulpit often and firmly, for they suffer from these "falls" just as do others. Partly, of course, this is because we live at a time and in a culture when we don't want anyone-not even God, much less His Church-to tell us what to do. Never mind the All-Seeing Eye of God: we latter-day decadents have been told, and many of us now believe, that we have the "right" to do anything we want in the "privacy of our own home." In fact, we try to veil all kinds of sins in the cloak of "privacy." And we have an omnipresent environment constantly urging us to "indulge."

The other reason why Orthodox Christians are equally subject to these temptations and sins is because sex is an appetite. Like the appetite for food, sexual feelings can be very strong. Second only to the impulse (among those that are truly spiritually-minded) to find and love God and Truth, sex is an extremely potent drive. This is because sex is an appetite of both the body and the soul.* God created us that way. But unlike the drive to find God, which can be easily stifled by sin, sexual instincts can be controlled only with single-minded effort and God's grace. As with the appetite for food, sex is subject to perversion and addiction. In both cases (food and sex) this abuse is extremely destructive to the human personality and can, ultimately, lead to mental illness (in the case of sexual addiction) or death (in the case of food addiction). This is because all addictions (whether alcoholism, food, gambling, sexahol-ism) are chronic and progressive. In other words, they will not stop or "get better" on their own. Once begun, addictions can rarely be stopped by the addict himself. He MUST have outside help-from God, his priest, and sometimes also from professionally qualified others. There is, practically speaking, no exception to this.

Priests should also understand that it is not only the addict who is negatively affected and ultimately destroyed, but also his family. No one escapes. Not the spouse, not the children, not anyone in the family system. All will become infected and emotionally dysfunctional to one degree or another. Many family members may develop other addictions, yet not knowing why. For example, the spouse of a sex addict may have a food addiction; various of their children may become addicted to drugs, gambling, smoking, etc. Even if no addiction asserts itself, all will certainly be emotionally hurt and sometimes disabled. This is why therapists urge the family of an addict to seek counselling at the same time the addict is being treated. Everyone has been profoundly damaged. Among the few books currently available on the subject of sexual addiction, those of Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., are highly recommended. In Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, Dr. Carnes explains: "The delicate balance of human ecology we call a family relies on the interdependency of its members. When issues around self-esteem, relationships, and needs are not resolved, the impact is felt throughout the entire web of relationships. When those issues evolve into addiction and co-addiction, the loving bonds become a prison. The entire family-maybe for generations-participates in thought and action." One might think that this is not the case with a sexaholic, whose addiction (to pornography, masturbation, prostitutes, exhibitionism, etc,) is usually kept "secret" from his family. However, the nature of the human personality-so complex, so subtle-and the interrelationships of a family system, are such that even a so-called "secret" addiction will ultimately affect everyone else, even if only subconsciously. Sin cannot for long exist alone or in isolation. Dr. Carnes also tells us that sexual addiction is just as powerfully "mood-altering" as alcohol or drugs. This is important to understand: certain kinds of personalities get addicted to things that alter their moods. Many people have so much hurt and abuse in their lives, from childhood on, that they literally want to "numb themselves out" and suppress or deny their real feelings about what has gone on in their lives. Addiction is one way of "numbing out." Today there are those who believe that 90% of our society is dysfunctional and addicted-if not to alcohol, then to nicotine, food, sex, gambling, etc., and this is probably true. However, the problems of our society at large cannot be the primary concern of the parish priest. His focus must be the individual soul-whether male or female, adult or child-that presents itself to him for Confession or counselling. (Woe to the priest and parish where Confession is not a normal and regular part of spiritual life-for the priest and his flock are then deprived of opportunities for grace, understanding, and healing.)

Therefore it's necessary for the priest to recognize the signs of sexual addiction, compulsiveness, or obsessiveness. This is subtle, because unlike the alcoholic or smoker, who can with help learn how to completely abstain from his "drug of choice," a married person cannot be expected to embrace celibacy (abstention from sex). The question for the priest, then, is how to help a penitent discover if his or her sexual behavior is addictive. Dr. Carnes offers the following helpful formula for identifying compulsive sexuality:

First, he says, the behavior "is a SECRET. Anything that cannot pass public scrutiny will create the shame of a double life." Nearly all sexual addiction is kept secret from others-whether it be masturbation, pedophilia, incest, etc.

Second, "it is ABUSIVE to self or others. Anything that is exploitive or harmful to others or degrades oneself will activate the addictive system." Within the Christian context this would apply even to the demanding husband who forces his wife to accept sodomy or constantly insists on his "conjugal rights" even when his spouse is tired, ill, during the first weeks after childbirth, or during her monthly cycle.*

Third, "it is used to avoid or is a source of painful FEELINGS. If sexuality is used to alter moods or results in painful mood shifts, it is clearly part of the addictive process."

Last, " it is EMPTY of a caring, committed relationship. Fundamental to the whole concept of addiction and recovery is the healthy dimension of human relationships. The addict runs a great risk by being sexual outside of a committed relationship." This last point demonstrates God's wisdom in limiting sexual behavior to marriage.

From our standpoint it's imperative we realize that an addict (whether to sex or anything else) is above all suffering from a severely disabled will. The Holy Fathers were profoundly familiar with this. They saw that it is at the root of all spiritual disease and vice; they wrote about it with understanding. An individual with a "disabled will" is so driven as to be almost possessed; certainly, without outside intervention, he is unable to make rational choices for virtue and life.

Dr. Carnes highly recommends the use of a physical, emotional, and spiritual program of "watchfulness" and recovery based upon the highly successful Twelve-Step Program originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous more than fifty years ago. Indeed, the international Sexaholics Anonymous organization (based in California but with chapters in most cities) has developed this even further, providing books, literature, and support groups.**

This organization's manual by the same name, Sexaholics Anonymous, summarizes the sexually addictive process in this way: "It begins with an overpowering desire for a 'high,' relief, pleasure, or escape. It provides satisfaction [initially]. It is sought repeatedly and compulsively. It then takes on a life of its own. It becomes excessive. Satisfaction diminishes. Distress is produced. Emotional control decreases....Ability for daily living is disrupted. Denial becomes necessary....It [the addiction] becomes the main coping mechanism. The coping mechanism stops working. The party is over."

"For the sexaholic, the progression is relentless and inevitable....Like revelers riding a raft down the river of pleasure, we were unaware of the awesome power of the rapids or the whirlpool ahead." The Orthodox reader will recognize that this is the exact progression sin takes in its merciless plunge toward spiritual death.

Space does not permit a full examination of the Twelve-Step Program. Some may already be familiar with it. Probably every pastor knows at least one alcoholic in his parish who has been greatly helped by Alcoholics Anonymous. It has had the effect of at least stopping the sickest and most destructive behavior.

We can, however, look briefly at the First of the Twelve Steps: We admitted that we were powerless over lust-that our lives had become unmanageable.

The key words here are "powerless" and "lust". Acknowledging that one is "out of control" and then (in the Second and Third Steps) deciding to turn one's will and life over to God and His control, is essential.* This breaks the bond of denial and puts the addict into an immediate and prayerful relationship with God, where he must humbly cease to depend upon himself. Self-trust, as the Fathers knew, is the cause of all sin and spiritual disease, and ALL addicts are filled with self-trust and pride. It is a kind of self-idolatry-the punishment for which, Scripture tells us, is spiritual death.

The second key word is "lust", and it's interesting that Sexaholics Anonymous does not beat around the bush about this, does not diminish the sin by calling it "sexual dysfunction" or some other secular-humanist term. It identifies it as one of the Seven Deadly Sins-lust.

"...The problem is not simply sex, just as in compulsive overeating the problem is not simply food. Eating and sex are natural functions; the real problem in both of these addictions seems to be what we call lust-an attitude demanding that a natural instinct serve unnatural desires....It is not only more intense than the natural but becomes something totally different. Eating and sex enter a different dimension; they possess an unnatural spiritual component. The addiction is thus to lust and not merely to the substance or physical act."

We should also mention that the Fifth Step involves admitting the specific sins of lust to another-in the Orthodox context this means confessing to one's Spiritual Father.

However, a priest should not wait for a patient to admit to an addiction. Beginning with pubescent children, he should gently and tactfully inquire about certain acts and sins which, at that age, usually manifest themselves as masturbation. The confessor must overcome any natural squeamishness he has about this. He must also overcome the common idea that masturbation, while a sin, is an inevitable and perhaps even "normal" part of early adolescent self-discovery. If uncorrected, this sin will take root and become an addiction that can later produce more serious sexual addictions. All therapists dealing with sexual addiction now recognize this. (Some victims of this sin are so dependent on it that they continue to masterbate even after marriage, sometimes preferring it to the marital act.) In cases of adult addicts, the priest may want to refer penitents to certain books and other literature, or encourage them to join a Sexaholics Anonymous group. But where incest, exhibitionism, or bestiality is involved, he will certainly want to urge immediate professional therapy before the law gets involved, as it inevitably-and rightly-will. But in all cases-whether youth or adults-the priest will want to talk at length about what Sexaholics Anonymous calls "trigger mechanisms"-those "stimuli, conflicts, or pressures that provoke a fantasy, feeling, or thought that leads to our acting out" the sin of lust. Patristic teaching advocates watchfulness or "nipsis" as the beginning of a cure. This is what used to be called avoiding "occasions of sin," and can be broadly grouped under the following categories:

"Sex Objects. Persons of the same or opposite sex, including our own bodies....Some of us include in this category animals and inanimate objects....Media. Pictures, printed matter, ads, television and movies, music, and dance...The Inner Landscape. Most of us can see how memories and fantasies can act as triggers. Intangibles we are likely to identify on our own are such things as failure, rejection, or criticism...loneliness, alienation, boredom...and other manifestations of unfulfilled God-hunger."

Here we have been able to sketch only a broad overview of the problem. Hopefully the reader will see that it IS a problem, that it MUST be addressed forthrightly, especially by priests, who have responsibility before God for their flocks, and that it CAN be successfully resolved, although only with much hard work and prayer.

One last word: since it is axiomatic that "you cannot give what you do not have," priests must be sure that they have resolved addictions issues (whatever they may be, if any) in their own lives. If the physician is not himself being healed, how can he hope to aid in the healing of others?