What Is Sexual Addiction?
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James 1:14-15 says “14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Here James gives us a stark image of the result of sin in our lives. When we are tempted, enticed, or lured by our desires, we may give in to sin. As we continue giving in to sin, it breeds death, destruction, and bondage or addiction in our lives.
Sexual addiction can be defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.
The term addiction can bring to mind images of individuals struggling with extreme cases of entrapment or chemical dependency. For most of my life, I thought very few people struggled with addictions, and that the term was reserved for someone struggling with alcoholism or substance abuse. But in reality, sexual behavior can easily become very addictive, leading to feelings of entrapment and bondage. Sexual addiction can be defined as any sexually-related, compulsive behavior which interferes with normal living and causes severe stress on family, friends, loved ones, and one’s work environment.1
Using this definition, if one’s sexual behavior is habitual and compulsive, it could be a sign that it has become an addiction. If an individual has tried over and over to stop their behavior, maybe even going months without it but eventually returning to it, it could be an addiction. This cycle of abstaining and then returning is also referred to as a binge-purge cycle, which is common with addictions. Now, sexual addiction is an umbrella term that can take many different forms. Compulsive use of pornography, masturbation, acting out sexually, and fantasizing can all fall under the category of sexual addiction. In our day, sexual addiction is one of the fastest growing addictions.
As an insight into how rampant sexual addiction is, here are some statistics from one study. A sexual addiction recovery ministry called Pure Desire recently conducted 3,000 surveys throughout evangelical churches in the U.S. Their survey included a clinical Sexual Addiction Screening Test. The results they found were astounding. 66% of the men, 40% of
the women, and 55% of the pastors qualified as having a sexual addiction.2 In my experience in working with college students, many more are struggling with sexual addiction than the percentages expressed across the wide demographics of the survey.
What Are The Causes Of Sexual Addiction?
Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. 15 For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. 16 In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. 17 Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Ephesians 6:14-17 (NLT)
Our battle is ultimately not against sexual sin, but against Satan and the fiery arrows that He attacks us with. These fiery arrows often come in the form of lies that have been rooted in our souls through pain and trauma from our life experiences, producing shame in our lives.
We sin because we are sinful, but we also sin because we are sinned against and we develop ways to cope with the pain that others’ sin causes us.
In the Christian community we may tend to talk about getting to the root of the sin or the sin beneath the sin. Or we say that we are sinning due to a lack of faith or trust in God, and while that is true, our sin often is a much deeper rooted issue. We don’t just need to get to the root of the sin, or the sin beneath the sin. We need to get to the soil feeding the roots and we desperately need Jesus to heal us at a deep level.
Yes, we sin because we are sinful, but we also sin because we are sinned against and we develop ways to cope with
the pain that others’ sin causes us. Clinical research supports three issues that lay at the foundation of most addictions and all of these contribute heavily to the lies we believe about ourselves, God, and others. These three issues are family dysfunction, personal trauma, and an addictive society.3 As a result of pain in life and our broken nature, we develop sinful coping mechanisms to medicate painful life experiences. Let’s explore these three core issues.
Many people come from families that are dysfunctional in some way. We live in a sinful, fallen world, and no family is perfect so there are many ways a family can be dysfunctional. This could include the physical or emotional absence of a parent, abuse, alcoholism, divorce, or even not discussing emotions, feelings, or pain in depth. Blaming a family member for the way they treated us or hurt us is not the solution, nor is it Biblical. But, we must identify how we have been hurt, forgive others, and understand how Jesus can bring healing from this pain.
Coming from a dysfunctional family does not excuse an individual’s actions but it does bring understanding and must be faced. This dysfunction can be very difficult to identify because we have no other family to compare ours to. What we know is normal. When we think of dysfunctional homes, we may think of the most extreme cases involving intense physical or sexual abuse, or multiple marriages and divorce. In reality, not getting some of our needs met growing up, or being hurt by actions or words of a family member can leave deep wounds. These wounds cause us to have faulty core beliefs and views of ourselves, God, and others, leading us to medicate that internal pain.
Often, family dysfunction or other painful experiences in life can cause trauma in our lives. Trauma is severe stress that leaves deep emotional scars requiring special coping techniques.4 Trauma frequently refers to an experience beyond our ability to adapt effectively. This can easily happen in childhood, negatively affecting our development in the area of relating to other people.
At an early age, the foundational software of our brain is developed through our experiences in life. After age two, the brain starts to rely on the circuits it has rather than re-developing it’s foundational hardwiring. So, trauma in early childhood will become a significant part of our perception of our world at the unconscious level.5
Just like with hearing the term family dysfunction, when we hear the word trauma, we can think of the most extreme cases like intense physical abuse, a severe car crash, or combat experiences. We may think of trauma as short moments of high intensity like the scenarios just mentioned, but in reality, subtle emotional or physical abuse, pain, or neglect over time has been found to impact individuals just as severely as trauma from those extreme scenarios.6 Many of us as kids growing up experienced trauma to some extent. Whether it was being bullied, made fun of, criticized, not affirmed by others, being ignored by parents, spanked in an aggressive way when parents were angry, controlled, or manipulated, all of these things can cause trauma.7
Trauma comes in the form of two extremes. The first being big T trauma, or events of extreme impact. For example, you may have faced an infrequent painful event of high intensity that led you into the extreme trauma zone. It could have been sexual or physical abuse, the loss of a parent, a life threatening situation, the divorce of parents, or other events of high intensity.8
The second form of trauma is little t trauma, or frequent had consistent experiences of someone communicating unintentionally communicated to you over and over that
consistently, controlled, or manipulated. Maybe a parent was physically or emotionally absent consistently. All of these could constitute as little t trauma leaving an intense impact on your soul and leading you into the extreme range of trauma.10
On the surface, the little t trauma may appear to be totally insignificant, but if it’s consistent, it can be as crippling as big T trauma. We can think that we have gotten over things or since we’re no longer angry about something that happened years ago that we’ve moved on and healed. But in reality, painful events can deeply impact our soul and our mind leading us to readjust to cope rather than truly heal. Everyone is created uniquely and therefore responds to painful events differently. So something that crushes one person may not impact another person at all.
An Addictive Society
We live in an addictive society with a consumer mentality. We can get what we want, when we want it, and the biggest example of that is pornography and masturbation. These promise sexual fulfillment and satisfaction, but they only gratify and don’t satisfy. They provide the pleasure without the commitment, vulnerability, and possibility of being vulnerable but rejected by someone in the most intimate act. Our culture says porn is harmless and everyone looks at it. But we know from scripture this is not true and even secular counselors are beginning to join in the war against pornography. We are constantly at battle between God’s design for healthy sexuality and our culture’s view of sexuality. Renewing our understanding of sex as a good gift of God in the right context is crucial.11
How Does Someone Become Sexually Addicted?
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 (NIV)
The ultimate battlefield of habitual sin is a spiritual battle that is located in your mind. As we see in these verses, a significant part of this fight is about pulling down mental bondages or strongholds of the mind. We must understand that sexual sin (masturbation, pornography, fantasy, sexual acts etc.) starts out as an immoral problem but quickly becomes a brain problem and an addiction for many people. So let’s talk about the brain.
Towards the top front of the brain is the frontal lobe, specifically the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is primarily associated with the left side of your brain. It is the area of your working memory and concentration.12 This is where executive planning, social awareness, and impulse control takes place.13 The prefrontal cortex allows you to delay gratification. It is the part of your mind that is primarily engaged when you quote scripture to yourself, hear a sermon, or remind yourself of the gospel. This area of your brain actually shuts down when you are acting out sexually. This area of your brain is what the Bible refers to as your mind. When you know something about God, but it hasn’t sunk into your heart or your life shows that you don’t truly believe it, that’s because it is in the prefrontal cortex and hasn’t sunk deep down into your heart, which is the limbic system.
At the center of your brain is the limbic system, specifically the amygdala, which is where your emotional memory is located; it’s where our trauma or pain from the past and core beliefs are stored. It’s the fight or flight part of your brain that influences your decision to react to pain and run to coping mechanisms. It’s what the Bible refers to as your heart and it is primarily associated with the right side of your brain. When somebody says they know something biblically but don’t live it out or truly believe it, it’s because it has not transformed their limbic system.
Simply praying or quoting scripture to yourself when you’re tempted to sin may work for a little while but will not ultimately stop you from returning to habitual sin.
I think this is why Paul in Romans 7 (ESV) spoke so strongly of returning to sin over and over despite constantly wanting to do what was right. In verse 15 he says “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” and finishing his thought in verse 19 he says “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” This is why simply praying or quoting scripture to yourself when you’re tempted to sin may work for a little while but will not ultimately stop you from returning to habitual sin. Those are great things, but your core beliefs have to be healed.
An essential feature of brain anatomy is the fact that there are more connections running from the amygdala, in the limbic system, to the prefrontal cortex than the other way around. That means that the amygdala will win the battle every time.14 Your limbic system, your heart and true beliefs, will often overpower your prefrontal cortex, your mind, your head knowledge. That explains why Paul is in such despair in Romans 7.
Additionally, in your limbic system exists something called a reward pathway.15 When you do something that God created you to do that’s enjoyable, like getting a good grade on a test, having an encouraging conversation, or enjoying your favorite beverage, your brain rewards you with dopamine, bringing about happiness and pleasure.16 This is a good thing when we are enjoying God’s good creation in healthy ways.
But when we walk into the realm of misusing God’s gifts, it gets really dangerous and does things to our brain that our brain wasn’t created to handle. For example, using cocaine, illicit drugs, even porn and other forms of sexual sin causes our brains to release a super flow of dopamine.17 The action alone creates a high and euphoric feeling. The dopamine leaves behind a protein called deltaFosB, which makes it easier to return to the same behavior that was pleasing and creates new pathways in the brain.18
Our brains weren’t created to deal with this amount of dopamine, so it get’s rid of the receptors that regulate dopamine levels, meaning you need more and more of the same substance or action to get the same amount of dopamine you got before.19 This means your tolerance goes up. You need more to get the same buzz as before. You need riskier behaviors, more intense forms of porn, greater amounts of the substance. You need this to feel normal and to get through life. If you don’t get it, you’ll go through withdraws and have strong urges to medicate your stress or pain. Repeating these behaviors creates a strong attachment to the behaviors, increasing our desire to return again and again creating more and more neurological pathways in our brain.
Over time, the neurons that fire together wire together, creating fixed neurological pathways in our minds.
These neurological pathways are created through the 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells in our brains. Each neuron has upwards of 10,000 connections to other neurons. As we make decisions, these neurons fire together which means that they send an electronic signal between each other. Over time, the neurons that fire together wire together, creating fixed neurological pathways in our minds.20 It’s like a pathway that gets created by numerous people hiking the same way through the forest. Over time, this pathway becomes more and more worn and permanent.
This gives an understanding as to why it can be so hard to stop compulsive behavior and habitual sin. Because over time you’ve created physical, fixed ways of acting that has transformed your brain. No longer do you just have a moral choice to make to return to sin, but you have a hardwired brain problem to deal with.
Lastly, as we continue down this destructive path of compulsive sexual sin, this leads to something called frontal lobe atrophy of the brain.21 Frontal Lobe atrophy means the higher reasoning and judgment portion of the brain starts to wither away. There is a shrinkage of this part of the brain, impairing one’s ability to process the consequences of returning to the same thought patterns and behaviors.
How Do We Know If Someone Has A Sexual Addiction?
If there is a consistent struggle with sexual sin, it could be an indication that there is an addiction. Although a licensed therapist may need to diagnose someone as having a sexual addiction, a good indication can be found by using this free Sexual Addiction Screening Test (found at puredesire.org/images/resources/sast-test.pdf). And as many women also struggle with Love Addiction, the following test can also be helpful (found at puredesire.org/images/resources/love- addiction-evaluation.pdf). Although some of the questions on the tests are stated in the present, answering each question based on an individual’s entire life experience gives the best indication.
How Does Someone Heal From Sexual Addiction?
So, is there any good news? Absolutely, because our God is in the business of heart transformation, healing, and the renewal of our minds. In John 10, Jesus said that He came to bring us life and to bring it abundantly. But so often, we struggle to experience the abundant life He promised. Our lives must be marked by repentance to Christ. Repentance involves a turning from trusting ourselves and our coping mechanisms to trusting God. To repent, or turn around, we must get to the root of why we do what we do and address the pain that we’re medicating.
As mentioned previously, we sin because we are sinful, but we also sin because we are sinned against and we develop ways to cope with the pain that others’ sin causes us. Our tendency can be to run from the pain, or to try to move on without processing our pain. But, we need to work through this pain with Jesus and safe people, so that we can come to healing at a deep level.
Healing from this addiction involves addressing the underlying factors that drive the addiction like trauma and pain from circumstances in life or our family of upbringing, and seeing the faulty core beliefs we have about ourselves healed in light of how Jesus sees us. This is something we have to get, or there will be little hope and lasting change in our lives and those we care about. The majority of individuals I take through sexual addiction recovery have extremely low self esteem due to the way they were treated by others and the things communicated to them throughout their lives. Although this is often masked by pride, arrogance, and anger as a way to compensate. So they feel worthless and initially turn to porn as a way to cope and escape but then quickly become hooked. Intellectually they know they are loved by Jesus and that He is proud of them, but they don’t truly believe that due to their painful experiences in life.
We don’t need better self esteem, we need better God esteem.
Biblically and scientifically speaking, our minds must be renewed. Romans 12:2 (NIV) says “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
One relatively recent discovery about the brain is something called neuroplasticity which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.22 Science now proves that Paul was right when he wrote those words in Romans over 2,000 years ago proving that our brain is changeable after childhood development. This means our mind can be renewed and changed by the word of God and by experiencing His love. Just as your brain can be conformed to the pattern of this world by creating fixed neurological pathways, it can be transformed by the renewing of your mind, through hard Spirit filled work, causing those old pathways to be ineffective and new pathways to be created. Our old beliefs and patterns will cripple away as we renew our minds in light of the gospel and as new neurological pathways are created in our brains.
We don’t need better self esteem, we need better God esteem. We need the truths of who God says we are to sink into the depth of our hearts. These truths must go from head knowledge (our prefrontal cortex) to heart knowledge (our limbic system) and transform our core beliefs. Despite the faulty core beliefs we may have as a result of our painful experiences, new core beliefs can be formed causing those faulty beliefs about God, ourselves, others and to change. This often happens over time through new experiences with Jesus and safe people. We are wounded experientially in the context of relationships and we must heal experientially in the context of relationships. This is why we can want so badly with our mind (prefrontal cortex) to conquer sin and be set free but will return to it over and over.
Three things must be in place to create a healthy recovery environment from sexual addiction.
Because most individuals have been involved in their sexual addiction for years, we need to have a shift regarding our understanding of the time involved in healing. As porn and other types of sexual sin can affect the brain similarly to drug use and are just as, if not more addicting, the issue needs to be treated with the same level of seriousness. Someone struggling with a cocaine addiction for over a decade probably can’t just stop their behavior cold turkey, they need therapy, time, a support system, and to address the underlying pain in life that led to their addiction. Similarly, we need to do the same with the individuals we work with who are struggling with sexual addictions.
Three things must be in place to create a healthy recovery environment from sexual addiction. First is a commitment to a life of no secrets. Due to the shame of addiction, we learn to hide our behavior due to fear of judgment. Maybe we’ll share some things with others, but other things we’ll keep a secret. We must commit to complete transparency and vulnerability moving forward.
Second, is a lifestyle of healthy accountability. 1 John 1:7 says “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” As we walk in the light, meaning we are fully transparent about our sin with Jesus and safe people, we grow in greater intimacy with them. This verse speaks of the progressive sanctifying and cleansing of sin that Jesus does as we take steps of faith to walk in the light. Accountability does not stop at installing a blocking or reporting software on the computer or a weekly confessional meeting with a friend. Accountability is much more than that. It is a daily lifestyle of reaching out for help to process the pain, stress, and sin in our life. It’s asking trusted friends to encourage us, support us with specific challenges we are facing, and to follow up with us throughout the week. Accountability is a daily choice to move forward in healing.
Third is a daily lifestyle change of recovery in the power of the Holy Spirit with a healthy structure. Daily choices in life determine our destination in the future. Recovery is a bit like training for a marathon and the daily disciplines you would implement as part of training for a future race. Having in place a good gospel-centered recovery program that includes support, accountability daily, and material that dives into the pain from an individual’s past that drives their behavior is crucial to seeing healing.
A common lie we may believe is that we just have to let go and let God, meaning we have no role to play in our own healing or sanctification. But God designed the world in such a way that we have active choices on a daily basis. Romans 8:13 says,”For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This battle has to be fought and won daily in the power of the Holy Spirit. This verse speaks so clearly of a combined effort between ourselves and the Holy Spirit. We must actively make choices moment by moment to live life on
God’s terms, to surrender to His design for our lives, and to move toward renewing our minds and addressing our pain from the past. This is a process with no quick fixes. One recovery expert, Dr. Patrick Carnes, has stated that the average recovery time is a 2-5 year process.23 Implementing these three aspects is a lifestyle change, for life.
Despite our minds being physically changed as a result of addiction and the neurological pathways that have been enforced, we know that God promises to conform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) and that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We must remember that Jesus is more committed to our sanctification and healing than we are. Philippians 1:6 (ESV) says “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” This is a promise. You will be conformed to the image of Christ.
When we actively apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the areas of our lives that have been wounded, the Holy Spirit brings about true freedom and healing. As we begin to heal from the pain of our past, the desire and need to act on sinful coping mechanisms decreases. But only Jesus makes this possible. As a result of Jesus’ finished work on the cross, God looks at us despite our sin and brokenness, and says what He said to Jesus in Mark 1:11, “this is my son (or daughter) with whom I am well pleased.” He gives us a new identity, where we are not defined by our deeds but defined by our royal standing as His sons and daughters. This identity and His view of us lays at the core of transforming the way we see ourselves as a result of the pain we have experienced in life. We may view ourselves as worthless, inadequate, unlovable, or a constant failure, but Jesus looks at us and says loved, cherished, righteous, worthy, son, daughter.
Summary Insights And Shift In Thinking
• Shift from seeing and referring to sexual sin (masturbation, pornography, fantasy, sexual acts etc.) as simply a moral problem to an addiction that has rewired the brain.
• Shift from thinking there’s a quick solution to understanding the average recovery process is 2-5 years, although ceasing relapse can happen immediately.
• Recognize a growing number of Christian men and women are struggling with sexual addiction and that there are varying degrees of addiction.
• Recognize abstaining from sexual sin for a period of time is not necessarily an indicator of freedom or healing. This is often a binge-purge cycle where individuals put their willpower to the test for up to a year but soon return to the addiction.
• Recognize that sexual addiction is healed by Jesus through getting involved in a recovery group (often in addition to therapy with a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist) where an individual is no longer isolated on a daily basis, lives a life of no secrets, addresses the underlying pain/trauma from family, friends, and our broken world with Jesus and safe people.
• Recommended resources: For college students, check out the Living Free recovery curriculum. For men, check out the Seven Pillars of Freedom, and for women, the Eight Pillars of Freedom. All are available at puredesire.org.
2 Pure Desire, “Pure Desire Promo”, PureDesire video, 6:11. May 18, 2016. http://puredesire.org/images/resources/pure-desire-promo.mp4
3 Ted Roberts, Pure Desire (Regal, 2008), 52.
4 Patrick J. Carnes, “Abused Children Addicted Adults,” Changes, June 1993, p. 81.
5 Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), 159, 160.
6 Ted Roberts, Pure Desire (Regal, 2008), 66.
7 Ted Roberts, Pure Desire (Regal, 2008), 67.
8 Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), 161.
9 Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), 161. 10 Ted Roberts, Pure Desire (Regal, 2008), 67
11 Ted Roberts, Pure Desire (Regal, 2008), 68-69.
12 John Demos, “Neurofeedback,” (New York; W.W. Norton: 2005) 22-56.
13 Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), 228. 14 Ted Roberts, Seven Pillars of Freedom (Pure Desire Ministries International, 2015), 233.
15 Hilton, D. L., And Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, 2: 19; (Http://Www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Pmc/ Articles/PMC3050060/) Bostwick, J. M. And Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex And It Matters. Science 278: 45–7. Addiction Treated With Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceed- ings 83, 2: 226–230; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction?
16 Hedges, V. L., Chakravarty, S., Nestler, E. J., And Meisel, R. L. (2009). DeltaFosB Overexpression In The Nucleus Accumbens Enhances Sexual Reward In Female Syrian Hamsters. Genes Brain And Behavior 8, 4: 442–449; Bostwick, J. M. And Bucci, J. E. (2008). Internet Sex Addiction Treated With Naltrexone. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 83, 2: 226–230; Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 108; Mick, T. M. And Hollander, E. (2006). And It Matters. Science 278: 45–7.
17 Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 106; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
18 Nestler, E. J. (2003). Brain Plasticity And Drug Addiction. Presentation At Reprogramming The Human Brain Conference, Center For Brain Health, University Of Texas At Dallas, April 11.
19 6 Hilton, D. L., And Watts, C. (2011). Pornography Addiction: A Neuroscience Perspective. Surgical Neurology International, Of Addiction: Origins, Treatment, And Recovery. Disease-A-Month 54: 696–721; Mick, T. M. And Hollander, E. (2006). Impulsive-Compulsive Sexual Behavior. CNS Spectrums, 11(12):944-955; Nestler, E. J. (2005). Is There A Common Molecular Pathway For Addiction? Nature Neuroscience 9, 11: 1445–1449.
20 Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, 63.
22 Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself. New York: Penguin Books, Preface.
23 Patrick Carnes, ed., Clinical Management of Sex Addiction (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002) 14-18