Pandemic Perspectives: When Sex gets out of Control - sex addiction in pandemic times
COVID-19 and repeated lockdowns have affected every aspect of life, mental and spiritual health. Many are feeling more stressed, uncertain and afraid of the future. Others are increasingly feeling fed up, bored and a bit angry. Some people have increasingly turned to sex / pornography as an outlet and coping mechanism for the things they are facing. Indeed, Pornhub, the largest porn site there is, saw an 11% increase in traffic between February and March 2020, increasing the number of site visits from 115 Million to about 125 Million each day.
Morality aside, for some a visit to a porn site might be like taking a glass of wine. For others, their use of sex to moderate their emotions and situations can become problematic, compulsive or addictive. It is known that continuous exposure to pornography has an impact on re-wiring the brain and affecting self esteem and decision making. So, what might be the indicators that sex is getting out of control and becoming a problem.
A healthy sex life might be considered to be one that has a positive view of their sexuality and can be embraced with confidence and joy. It flows from a connected place and shows respect for themselves and others. This is sexuality without shame, fear or a need to hide. It upholds and affirms their belief and value system.
People with a problematic relationship with sex paint a very different picture. For them, shame and fear are a hallmark of part of their sexuality. While they know what they are doing goes against everything they believe in and hold dear they do it anyway. When they are not actually engaged in some kind of sexual activity, they may find themselves becoming increasingly preoccupied with doing so. Like the moth drawn to a flame, they find that they can not stop. I say ‘can not’ rather than ‘do not’ because they may have tried many times over and failed. And with each failure comes yet more fear, shame and self hatred.
It is thought that this is true for about 1 in 15 of the general population, whether in church (or church leadership) or in the secular world. Sexual addictions are thought to be more common among men, and greatly exacerbated since the development of the internet and streaming videos.
For these individuals, far from being free, their sexuality has become more of an enslavement, and that it is taking them in a direction they do not want to go. Increasingly they may find themselves drifting into, or drawn towards, sexual practices, appetites or pornography content that they would not have contemplated before. For some this is towards activities that are dangerous or illegal.
These are some of the hallmarks of sexual addiction. To paraphrase Ephesians 4: 17-19, it is a life spent in in the futility of distorted thinking about themselves and God. These people becomes increasingly darkened in their understanding and feel more and more separated from the life of God. Their hearts become hardened with fear, guilt and shame. Loosing sensitivity, those struggling with sexual addiction give themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity with a continual, growing thirst for more. Yet the longing of their soul is never satisfied.
On may consider the life of someone struggling with sexual addiction to be governed by a pathological, habitual and compulsive / obsessive relationship with a mood altering high. Sexual addiction is pathological in that the sexual activity is pursued in spite of the harm caused to self, others and their relationship with God. The pursuit of the activity becomes all that is important. The harmful consequences in terms of broken commitments, vows and promises, the betrayal of others, financial or health considerations are denied and pushed aside.
The addiction may be habitual in that it often follows regular patterns and rituals that may influence the nature of sex engaged. People develop a habit of when they engage in their sex of choice or view pornography. Like a smoking habit, it may become linked a physical routine such as going to bed at night, or getting up in the morning, or taking the phone to the toilet at work. Also like a smoking habit, it may be lined to something less tangible, more emotional, such as when stressed, angry, hungry, lonely or tired. Or to celebrate a success, a sense of ‘I deserve it’. Whatever the motivation, over time the process becomes more and more automatic as the brain develops a neural map for dealing with life.
Sexual addiction becomes increasing compulsive / obsessive in that even when not engaged in a sexual activity the individual may spend many hours thinking about it, longing for it or planning the next cycle of behaviour. This can become increasingly distracting, getting in the way of normal, every day tasks, relationship or work. Eventually the every day may begin to feel like the resented intrusion into the opportunity to either act out or obsess about it. During the period of preoccupation, thinking becomes distorted and the ability to recognise the consequences and costs becomes inhibited and diminished.
Sexual addiction escalates, it gets worse. The biology of the reward mechanism in the brain is such that what used to excite no longer does and something different is required to get the same ‘hit’ or affect. The person has become desensitised to what used to excite them and they may progress to more. More frequent sessions, more time, different types of material, more extreme and risky, even illegal.
The mood altering experience felt within the addiction may begin with the preoccupation, when a rush of adrenaline about the potential. It is the pursuit of a dopamine hit in the reward centres of the brain. It often culminates in orgasm which may release as much opiates to the brain as a drug fix. And with each cycle the biochemistry and structure of the brain is affected slightly as the mind map is reinforced. But then the reality of what they have done breaks back in with the accompanying guilt and shame; all the good feelings are gone. Extensive steps may be taken to cover up their tracks, leading to more secrecy and betrayal. Often as life gets back to ‘normal’ a conviction sets in that they have got it under control, it is OK and this will be the last time.
Until the next time….
So who may these people be?
They are our teenagers, our young adults, the husbands and wives, those who appear perfectly normal on the outside. They may be very committed to their faith or only join the church occasionally. Some may be home group leaders, worship leaders and church elders and leaders. They may have low paid jobs or work at the top levels of industry and society. In effect, they may be anyone around us who are both terrified of reaching out yet desperate for some kind of help.
Many Christians feel too ashamed to acknowledge the issues within their own church communities for fear of being judged and condemned, being told they are not praying enough, not reading the Bible enough, have not repented or even having their salvation called into question. Yet it is these very fears that help keep the doors to change closed. Yet change is very much possible, new neural maps can be formed and with the right support people can find transformation.
So what might recovery from sex / pornography addiction look like? On one level, it simply a matter of embracing the journey that God has laid out before us. I say ‘simple’ but in fact this recovery journey is a step by step process that requires quite a deal of courage to embark upon. It is a process or coming out of hiding and breaking shame. It can really only be achieved in an honest, caring environment with people who believe in your potential. It requires addressing both the behaviours and the reasons that underly them because this is not actually about the sex. That may seem hard to believe, but for many the sex they are engaged with is not actually enjoyable. For many it is about a habit that has formed or a well-learned way of coping with inner pain such as rejection, fear, insecurities or historical trauma. Recovery may take years to establish and will remain a life-long journey.
Think of an iceberg –the sexual behaviour is the tenth visible floating above the water. The nine-tenths lying beneath, out of view often even to the struggler themselves, is the emotional wounding, the shame or desire to be safe and hide, the fear of failure and more that drives the repeating cycles of behaviour. Unless these are addressed then ‘stopping’ may be as futile as blocking up the vent of a volcano while the magma chamber below keeps on filling. Those who have tried to stop on their own know this full well. People may find addressing their sexual behaviours the relatively easy part, with potentially relatively quick results. Emotional and mental improvement may follow. But then the hard work begins, the work of the ‘Nine-Tenths’ and this can be long term work addressing deep pain. It is here that life may begin to feel hard and one may ask if it is all worth it. This is the time when people often feel like giving up.
Whatever the path may be, it will be long, filled with drama and difficulties. But the rewards are great and there to be pursued. Recovery from sexual addiction is far more than just not doing it. It is regaining a life where the thing that I want to do is the thing that I do and not the reverse. A life where, thanks be to God, the past can be forgotten and we can press ahead towards the goal of the full, abundant and overflowing life that God has promised us through the Cross in Christ Jesus. This is life less governed by secrecy, fear and shame and more governed by living in the full knowledge of the glory of being made in His image and likeness.
While meaning well, many church communities need to recognise with they either do not have the capacity to offer effective help, or the competence to do so. Churches can often offer support and accountability as well as space for the individual to be accepted as themselves, not the ‘addict’ or ‘one with a problem’. However, working at depth with addiction is best done by those who have suitable training and support. This may mean being aware of qualified counsellors or organisations working in this field and referring people to them. Anyone seeking a sex addiction therapist could look at those listed within ATSAC (atsac.org.uk). Some people also find self help groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous helpful.
About the Author: Peter Watts (pwcounselling.co.uk) is a qualified counsellor specialising in sexual addiction helping both those struggling with addiction and their partners. He is a member of the BACP, ACC and ATSAC and also runs workshops on these topics for church leaders and youth pastors.
Peter’s next online course for those involved in pastoral care with those struggling with pornography and sex addiction is on Friday, 30th April - for more information see https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sex-pornography-addiction-and-pastoral-care-apr-2021-tickets-136957859645