Chapter OneWhat is Sexual Addiction?
Tony, a young college student, had been adopted at age seven.
He had never felt fully accepted by his adoptive family
because he didn't resemble his new parents and because later
on they had a natural child.
In high school, Tony started masturbating and looking at
pornography to give him a good feeling and ease the loneliness.
But the loneliness continued to haunt Tony as he entered college.
The more he struggled academically, the more he used pornographic
magazines and masturbation to alleviate tension.
After a while he needed a greater "high," so he began calling
900 "Dial-a-Porn" numbers. "This really met a need in my life," he
later told me. "Those conversations helped me feel less lonely."
* * *
One afternoon a woman in her early thirties called me and described
for ten minutes how she would compulsively pick up men. "I've
been with at least three hundred men, most of them total strangers,"
she recounted. "I spend a large portion of every day meeting men
who are willing to have sex with me. It doesn't matter whether they
are young or old, clean or dirty. I just want to have sex with them."
Then she told me that she had often been beaten up, raped, or
robbed by the men she picked up.
"Do you think it's possible," she asked tearfully, "that someone
who will have sex with me will also love me? I'm not sure I can get
help. I feel out of control, but it's the only way I can be loved-even
though I know those men don't really love me. But I can't give up
The fourth and final time she asked if she'd ever be loved, she
hung up. I never heard from her again.
* * *
Stephen started to masturbate in high school. In seminary he progressed
to pornography and frequently rented X-rated movies in
hotel rooms when he traveled on church business. He married a
fine woman, began raising three children, and enjoyed his pastoral
As time passed, however, stresses increased. In his mid-thirties,
Stephen began using Monday, his day off, to cruise the city and pick
"I use prostitutes as a way of relaxing from the rigors of ministry,"
he said. "I deserve it after working very hard the rest of
* * *
What do these people have in common? They are sexually addicted.
This addiction occurs throughout all classes of American society.
People from all walks of life-Christians and nonChristians, rich
and poor-tenaciously pursue sexual behaviors in order to help
alleviate their relational pain and make themselves feel good, satisfied,
and in control.
Fueling this behavior is a growing market for sexually oriented
goods and services that supply the demand. Motel rooms often provide
X-rated movies as a "service." Escort services abound. Nearly
every hero or heroine featured in television soap operas is sexually
involved with someone. Neighborhood stores rent and sell pornographic
magazines and videos. Child sexual abuse is all too common,
as are stories of religious leaders who "fall."
Not surprisingly, people have struggled with sexual issues and
problems from earliest times. The Bible, for instance, records numerous
examples of people who committed sexual sins, although we
have no way of knowing whether they were sexually addicted.
Shechem, the son of a heathen ruler, raped Dinah, the daughter of
Jacob (Genesis 34:1-2). Temple prostitutes regularly solicited business
as part of the religious rites of the nations surrounding Israel
(Deuteronomy 23:17). Amnon forced his sister Tamar to have sexual
relations with him (2 Samuel 13:1-21). Samson spent the night
with a prostitute (Judges 16:1). King David chose to watch a naked
woman bathe and, consumed with lust, had an extramarital affair
with her and then had her husband killed (2 Samuel 11:1-17).
Opinions vary widely on what causes sexual addiction and how
to treat it. In the Bible, God sets forth clear boundaries for sexual
activity and emphasizes people's need for repentance and salvation
from sin. Critics of this teaching argue that the Bible's view of sin
ignores the influence of family dysfunction and other factors in the
development of sexually addictive behavior. Mental-health professionals
debate whether sexual addiction is a disease over which sex
addicts have no control or the result of choices influenced by sin.
So first we must confront the fundamental question, What is sexual
addiction, and how does it manifest itself?
What Is Sexual Addiction?
As we look at a description of sexual addiction, let's begin with the
range of normal sexual responses within a marriage relationship.
Think of sexual behavior as being on a continuum:
In the normal experience of sexual relations, both spouses experience
times when they are interested or uninterested. Typically, one
spouse is interested while the other is temporarily uninterested.
A number of factors influence a spouse's level of sexual interest,
such as physical appearance, emotional mood, fatigue, or resentment.
For example, picture a married couple who hasn't made love in several
days sitting on the couch watching television. The husband looks
at his wife and is sexually attracted. He moves closer to hold her hand
and place his arm around her. As he begins to kiss her, she feels distracted
from the television show and expresses only mild interest
compared to his. So he remains where he is but doesn't kiss her anymore.
Later, they may come closer together on the continuum of interest
and make love.
Farther out along the continuum, a person can move beyond
relatively fulfilling sexual relations in a marriage toward some level
of sexual tension. This divergence can be illustrated on the following
The person who is sexually repelled has moved beyond the natural
cycle of increasing and decreasing sexual interest and developed
a "take it or leave it" attitude-or has even lost all interest in
sex to the point of personal revulsion. Barring medical reasons, this
person is dealing with other relational issues that are impacting his
or her sex life. These could include: loss of emotional satisfaction in
the marital relationship, previous negative sexual experiences, anger
and resentment, or stressful circumstances.
The person who is engrossed in sexual relations, on the other
hand, desires frequent sexual relations. In a dating situation or marriage
relationship, the sexually engrossed person-typically a
man-will pressure his partner to have sex. Such pressure may be
uncomfortable, even to the spouse who willingly makes love. The
discomfort will increase if she feels that he is having sex more for
his own pleasure than to enjoy genuine intimacy with her. As she
becomes emotionally ambivalent, she will often move toward
becoming sexually repelled.
Table 1.1 describes five people who are facing varying sexual
issues. Clearly, persons A and C are sexually addicted, according to
how we'll define sexual addiction later. The others face sexual issues
and are grappling with what I will call false intimacy.
Let's define some terms we'll be using throughout this book.
Perfect intimacy: This refers to the pre-fallen relationship Adam
and Eve shared. Naked and unashamed, they joined sexually and
relationally with the fullest of pleasure, without hesitation or a hint
Real intimacy: This is the sexual and relational intimacy two
spouses share within their committed, loving marriage. Self-doubts
exist, but the couple communicates together and enjoys each other
relationally and sexually. Given the reality of a world of imperfect
relationships, both partners face disappointments. Within the enjoyment
of real intimacy, both partners experience fear of being
exposed, fear of abandonment, fear of loss of control, and fear of
their respective sexual desires. In their sexual expression, both are
dependent on and open to what the other spouse will do.
False intimacy: This is essentially a self-created illusion to help
a person avoid the pain inherent in real intimacy. False intimacy can
be as slight as a husband who looks at his wife and imagines her
having lovely, long brown hair. Something much deeper is reflected
in his imagination. Expressed simply, he desires more than he has
and demonstrates that he senses something is missing. False intimacy
is always present in sexual addiction.
Here is a complete continuum of intimacy and dysfunction:
A person who is sexually revolted has a lifestyle of sexual repulsion.
Sex for this person is consuming, for it must be avoided at all
costs. A person who is sexually obsessed, on the other hand, lives
for sexual pleasure. Sex is again consuming, for it must be obtained
at all costs.
Let's look at several illustrations.
* * *
Sharon, a successful middle manager, dresses in business suits.
Competent and organized, she is ready to handle any situation presented
to her. Currently divorced, she has rarely enjoyed sex. During
her marriage, she faked orgasms to please her husband. During
sex, her mind either wandered or she felt repulsed by the thought
of being touched sexually. When she finally shared her feelings honestly
with her husband, he left her and remarried.
Now that she is single, Sharon often thinks about sex and finds
it disgusting and repulsive. As she did in her marriage, she often
finds herself avoiding contact that might lead to sexual relations.
Men find her physically attractive, but when they approach her
Sharon's response is limited to flirting.
Sharon is afraid of intimacy, of being close, of being sexual, and
of losing control in a way that might result in further relational
pain. On the surface, she seems to be sexually revolted, but sex
doesn't actually consume her. For the most part, she is hiding in
the security of false intimacy-as she relates to herself, to others,
and to God.
* * *
John, thirty-four and single, masturbates as often as three or four
times a day. He is moving toward sexual obsession. When he isn't
masturbating, he is sexualizing the women in the office, planning to
masturbate, or thinking about an X-rated video he saw the evening
before. Often he turns in work late, misses meetings, or is late for
work because of his masturbation. His problems at work are growing.
He has received his last warning for late arrival.
* * *
Gail, twenty-six and single, is a secretary who began masturbating
as a "source of comfort." Three years ago, she started having affairs
with married men at the office. They want to be with her, which she
likes, but they don't want emotional involvement, which suits her
fine because that's what she fears most. She is moving toward sexual
obsession but is relationally uninterested.
* * *
What do these people have in common? They are all involved in false
intimacy. For them, their location on the continuum defines varying
levels of sexual interest, sexual activity, and deviation from real intimacy.
But regardless of where they fall along the progression, their
goals are the same. Each wants to avoid the pain of real intimacy
and obtain a sense of relational satisfaction-even if it's counterfeit-through
false intimacy. Their motives are strong and rarely
analyzed, which can lead to extreme behavior, many risks, and
How irrational and out of control can a person become in the
pursuit of satisfaction and the avoidance of relational pain? A behavioral
phenomenon called "autoerotic asphyxia," originally thought
to be a form of suicide among teenagers, gives us some idea. In this
condition, a person shuts off his or her oxygen supply while masturbating
or having sexual relations. The purpose? Intensified
orgasm. The consequences of misjudgment? Death.
Sexual addiction is the term commonly used to describe sexual
obsession. A sex addict is willing to be destructive to self and others,
even breaking the law if necessary, to achieve sexual pleasure.
However, we must not assume that sexual addiction is an attempt
to find real intimacy. In actuality, it's an avoidance of the pain often
caused by real intimacy. In effect, a sex addict creates a pseudo relationship
with something or someone who can be controlled, such as
a picture, an actor on the video screen, or a prostitute.
Once we understand that the primary goal of sexually addictive
behavior is to avoid relational pain-essentially, to control life-we
can begin to uncover the core problem. Sexual addiction
occurs when individuals reach a level of sexual activity that they
feel they can no longer control. As addicts become obsessed with
sex, they are in danger of deeply misusing it, and at some point
they lose control over their sexual behavior while trying to gain
control over relational pain.
Core Issues In Sexual Addiction:
Not Just an Addict's Problem
It's misleading to look at the continuum, particularly the obsessive
end, and rather pharisaically think or say, "I may at times be
engrossed with sex, but never to the point of becoming a sex addict."
Instead of simply examining our behaviors to see if they are destructive
or out of control, each of us needs to identify which factors
move us anywhere along the line of deviation.
For example, when my wife lacks interest in making love with
me, how do I respond? If I casually dismiss my own resentment,
however slight, that buried emotion might push me into some form
of emotional and/or physical withdrawal.
What about when we decide to use sex as an attempt to relieve
the tensions of a demanding day rather than as an expression of
love? Plowing through difficult tasks that remind us of our inadequacies
may motivate us to approach our spouse with the subtle
and perhaps unconscious motivation that says, "Come on, make
me feel better about myself-respond!"
As we look at the core issues of sexual addiction, the similarity
between the sex addict and the person who uses sex to relieve stress
or who withdraws when his spouse isn't interested in having sexual
relations is striking. Placed in that situation, some of us may
pout; others may masturbate, move away from relationships, read
pornography during out-of-town trips, or rent X-rated movies in
hotel rooms. Regardless of whether these behaviors in and of themselves
can be excused as harmless, they are still the result of a desire
to use false intimacy to meet certain internal goals-often the same
goals as those of the sex addict!
Internally, each of us is committed to avoiding relational pain.
In the right context, this desire to avoid pain is actually a healthy