Sometimes I joke about things I am "addicted" to. Coffee and dark chocolate are definitely on the list. Honestly, we are all addicted to something—there are things in life that we just can't seem to get by without. You may be addicted to your husband's affection, a daily workout, talking to or texting your best friend, or spending time in prayer. At the most basic level, we are all addicted to things like food, sleep, human interaction, and oxygen. We simply can't live without them.
So why are some addictions normal, and others deadly? Why is it okay to joke about my need for a daily soy latte, but there is great shame surrounding a daily need for sexual stimulation?
Because sexual addiction is no joking matter. It has ruined millions of marriages, and keeps Christian men and women shackled in chains of self-contempt and fear. The roots often begin with children as young as eight or nine. When Satan gets a foothold, it seems as if a lifetime of struggle and failure is certain. Yet, many men and women have discovered freedom from sexual addiction.
What is sexual addiction?
A neuropsychologist could give an eloquent detailed explanation of what happens to the brain during sexual addiction. In layman's terms, your body was designed to experience pleasure. There are areas of your brain and body that are wired to bring excitement, euphoria, and feelings of peace and elation. Some people call these the "reward" centers of your brain—God wired your body to reward you and motivate you toward certain actions. For example, after exercising, your body often gets flooded with endorphins that release stress and make you feel great—a.k.a. a "runner's high."
A lot of your body's natural rewards are associated with sexuality. The body's response to sexual excitement and passion is stronger than practically any other natural experience. I believe God designed powerful sexual feelings and rewards to draw us into relationship. If we never had sexual drives and feelings, who would ever want to get married? As Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 7, sexual desire is a primary reason why we are drawn to marriage.
An addiction occurs when we learn to go after the reward without doing the work that the reward is designed to be linked to. Sexual pleasure is designed to be a catalyst and reward for the hard work and risk required in relationship. Enjoying great sex over many years of marriage requires commitment, communication, humility, and effort. Pornography, sexual chat rooms, and erotic novels all allow for a person to experience the physical euphoria without the effort and vulnerability of relationship. They provide a "shortcut" to the powerful reward that God designed for marital intimacy.
Why is sexual addiction a problem?
The desires that lead to sexual addiction are not wrong. Women who find themselves caught up in porn, reading books like Fifty Shades of Grey, or in a sexual chat room, got there because their healthy God-given desires have been twisted. You are supposed to desire sex, intimacy, an escape from stress, and so on. . . . But the enemy has offered you a shortcut that has now taken over your life.
A hallmark of addiction is tolerance. This means that what brought excitement and euphoria last month isn't enough. Now you need something more. Perhaps you began with romance novels. That led to erotica, which led to Internet porn. Now you want to act out on what you've seen and read. You recognize that your appetites are getting out of control, but life without the reward feels dull, empty, and even hopeless.
The tragedy of sexual addiction is that it steals your ability to enjoy the natural rewards God designed you to experience. I've talked to committed Christian women trapped in sexual addiction who have no sexual desire for their husbands and can't enjoy simple things that once brought great pleasure. One woman put it this way:
I became more unsatisfied in our marriage. I was not satisfied by my husband sexually. He couldn't satisfy me, and it was my fault. And, I cannot tell you how much I love my children. I have always wanted to be a wife and mother—more than any career life could offer. But I began to feel like my life was boring and mundane. I had thoughts of packing my bags and living a different life.
How do I get over it?
The first step to addressing a sexual addiction is to bring it to the light. For you, that might seem more like a giant leap. "Tell someone? Are you serious?!" I've talked to missionaries, homeschooling moms, and other women who love the Lord, but are hiding a sexual addiction. The shame of admitting the struggle is enough to keep them silent.
You will never find healing while hiding. God works in light, not in darkness. The enemy wants to keep you isolated. He will tell you lies that keep you stuck in secrecy—lies like, If anyone knew what you did or looked at, you would be a disgrace. Your husband/boyfriend/ family would disown you. Besides, there's no hope. You'll just fall right back into it!
You may also be unwilling to take this step because you don't want to let go of your addiction. Telling someone means accountability. Accountability means that you won't have access to the reward. The "reward" has come to represent life, even while it brings death.
My friend, I can't tell you the chains that are broken when you bring the secret into the light. Please pray that God will bring into your life a counselor or wise friend with whom you can share.
It is important for you to realize you are not alone. Men aren't the only ones struggling with sexual addiction. Because of the stereotype that sex and porn are guys' problems, women feel even greater shame to admit their battle. Crystal Renaud is a brave woman who admitted to her sexual addiction and got help. She is the author of Dirty Girls Come Clean, and the founder of Dirty Girls Ministries. She offers practical help and community for women battling sexual addiction.
Where is victory?
I sometimes wonder if the apostle Paul had an addiction. I wonder if his "thorn in the flesh" (which he also calls a messenger from Satan) was some sort of addiction. In Romans, he certainly describes what it feels like to have an addiction:
I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can't. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15–20)
An addiction makes you feel like you are unable to honor God—that no matter how hard you try, you will fail. Paul doesn't end his monologue with his statement of self-contempt, "What a wretched man I am!" He goes on to say that Jesus Christ has saved him from his sinful desires. This doesn't just mean that Jesus forgives, but he also has the power to free us from all bondage we have.
I believe God can work incredible victory through an addiction, and I've seen it. To admit the struggle of addiction requires humility and repentance. To develop the daily self-control to say "no" to the shortcuts will require absolute dependence upon God. If you are willing to surrender your struggle to the Lord, he will develop in you amazing qualities of a disciple—a broken woman through whom his strength and wisdom can shine.
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Juli Slattery is a widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional. For more on healthy intimacy in marriage, engage with Dr. Juli Slattery's ministry, Authentic Intimacy, and explore her publication, Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?