Ministers not immune from sexual addiction
By Rick Owen
BGCT Counseling and Psychological Services Center
With few exceptions, the men and women who fill the pulpits and ministry positions of our Texas Baptist churches at one time occupied the pews. The churches from which our ministers came have not been immune to the aftermath of the sexual revolution and the presence of cable TV and the internet.
As a result, those among our memberships and in ministry who suffer with sexual concerns, sexual compulsivity or addiction are many. There are both ministers and church members who struggle with impure sexual thoughts; inappropriate, compulsive, offensive, or illegal sexual behavior; internet pornography addiction; or compulsive sexual-acting-out behaviors of various kinds.
Almost all of us have heard of or know a minister who has had an affair, an emotional affair, became sexually involved with a minor, or whose computer was found to have a history of visits to pornographic websites.
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• Ministers not immune from sexual addiction
A 2000 survey by Christianity Today and Leadership magazines found that some 40 percent of ministers reported having visited sexually explicit websites. As is often cited, the problem of internet pornography viewing is greatly increased because of its three ‘A’s: Availability, Affordability, and Anonymity.
Statistics regarding pornography viewing online vary so widely and change so rapidly that they may be hardly worth reporting, but the following numbers were presented in a recent training by one of America’s leading addiction treatment centers: over 4.2 million pornographic websites on the internet, comprising 12 percent of all websites; this 12 percent of all sites accounts for 60 percent of all web traffic; 70 percent of visits to pornographic websites occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Many of us will react with harsh judgment toward ministers or church members who are found to have a problem with sexual addiction. Indeed, we have legitimate concerns for the safety of innocents and are only right to be protective of them. And there are addicts who live in misery and would love nothing more than to be free of their addiction(s)—if they only knew a way.
Recent developments in theory and practice regarding the nature and treatment of sexual addiction have focused on control of the problem behavior and resolution of issues stemming from childhood experiences. Before an addict will have adequate access to his or her own emotional issues, he or she must come out of the mental fog of addiction. Just as meaningful therapy cannot be done with a drug addict under the effects of his or her chosen drug, meaningful therapy cannot be done with a sex addict who is continuing to bathe his or her brain in the neuro-chemical bath created by sexual fantasy, arousal, or acting out. Thus, many treatment programs begin with a period of sexual abstinence and continue with a monitoring process (polygraph) to verify that the patient is not returning to inappropriate sexual behavior.
And then there are the emotional/psychological issues to resolve. Prevailing theory is that most adolescent and adult addicts were either deliberately or accidentally abused as children, resulting in the development of a core-personality of shame instead of value. Deliberate abuse, of course, is abuse that is knowingly carried out by perpetrators with callous disregard or deliberate intent to harm the victim. Accidental abuse—in this language—includes things that parents or caregivers say without thinking, or do without knowing their effects upon children. In this case a child may accidentally learn, for example, to inappropriately withdraw or fantasize as a means of coping with an unpleasant moment; or when being corrected or disciplined come to believe (learn) that he or she is bad, or worthless, or shameful at their very core. No loving parent intentionally gives these messages to their child, but—as in any communication—the message sent and the message received are often not the same. It just happens that, in the case of children, the tablets of their souls may be written over with messages of shame and inappropriate guilt rather than messages of love, acceptance, grace and infinite value.
In clinical terms, abuse constitutes what is referred to as an insult to the psyche—a soul injury. An insult to the psyche will cause a change in the way a person thinks and feels. It will often result in a child growing up with a distorted or skewed view of themselves, others and God. Most addicts, for example, have inappropriate self-esteem (usually low, sometimes inappropriately high), poor boundaries (violating the boundaries of others and allowing others to violate theirs), inaccurate perceptions of themselves, inappropriate dependence or independence, and an inability to do much of anything in moderation.
This child—when grown into an adult—will not view the world in a blurry way that informs them of their need for vision correction. No, their view may be as sharp and crisp as anyone’s, but it will be distorted rather than accurate. He or she will not understand the meanings of relational concepts such as affection, friendship, acceptance, confrontation, grace, value, love, self-love, or sex in the same way that others do. Their images and definitions of these concepts may clash with what others understand or expect.
Adults who grew up believing that they were inherently bad are believed to be more vulnerable to addictive disorders. Often, children who come to believe that they are bad, without value, or shameful-to-the-core will—as adults—continue to believe that they are worthless, and that since they are worthless anyway they may as well do this thing—that they know they should not do—that momentarily relieves the pain of worthlessness and makes them feel comforted or alive. So now—because of their current real behavior—there is legitimate guilt to add to their shame, confirming again their negative opinion of themselves which now must either be accepted in remorse or compartmentalized in denial.
Since these bad feelings are connected to or may arise directly from deeply held beliefs about one’s self, they will inevitably rise again in some moment of failure, rejection, confrontation, or simple error: “I am bad. I am worth less than others. I am not acceptable. I am worthless.” Followed by: “This feels (is) devastating.” And in order to escape the feeling of devastation the addict will soon turn again to their numbing, soothing, or comforting behavior. The cycle repeats.
The addict believes that because he is imperfect, he is unacceptable, and being unacceptable is a devastating experience. The church and much of society find sexual addiction and inappropriate sexual behavior unacceptable. God’s view of sexual sin is made clear in Scripture: unacceptable. People, however, are not unacceptable. The differentiation between sin and sinner remains valuable.
In order for the individual facing sexual addiction to find true peace of mind and joy in relationship, he or she will invariably need to find a safe person [read licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) or licensed professional counselor (LPC)] with whom to share their story, will need to become genuinely involved in treatment, and become a part of an appropriate 12-Step group. Many people with lower levels of sexual concern may find great comfort and freedom through a few sessions with a qualified therapist.
Is there hope? Yes, treatments for sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity, and annoying, depressing, guilt-inducing sexual concerns are available. Effective treatment may be found through a licensed marriage and family therapist or a licensed professional counselor (preferably with training and experience in sexual addictions). Addiction treatment sometimes begins with an intensive component varying from a three-day workshop to brief (up to 30 days) inpatient care (including assessment, treatment planning, education, and various modalities of both individual and group therapy). Following an initial intensive phase of treatment, the individual will need to continue with specialized individual psycho-therapy (LMFT, or LPC) and regular participation in an appropriate 12-Step group.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND RESOURCES
Patrick Carnes cites the following predictors of successful treatment for sexual addiction:
A primary therapist
Regular participation in a 12-Step program
Management of the addict’s other addictions
Therapeutic resolution of childhood issues
Involvement of family
Involvement of spouse
Development of spiritual life
Good physical health
Symptoms of sexual compulsive disorders:
Loss of control (doing more of a behavior than one intended or wanted)
Compulsive behavior (repeating pattern of loss-of-control)
Repeated failed efforts to stop
Significant loss of time to the activity
Preoccupation with worry over the behavior or obsession with thoughts connected to the behavior
Interference of the behavior with work, school, family or other obligations
Losses of hobbies, family, friendships, or work
Continuation despite negative consequences
Escalation of the frequency, duration, or intensity of the behavior
Withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, restlessness, irritability) when the behavior is stopped
Addictions are particularly marked by a cycle including the following:
A ritualized set of behaviors consciously or unconsciously used to reduce bad feelings
Escalation of the activity
Failed attempts to stop
Guilt and shame over the behavior leading to physical or emotional isolation
A return to the behavior in order to drown the feelings of guilt and shame in comfort or stimulation
Beattie, Melody (1987). Codependent No More: How to stop controlling others and start caring for yourself. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Carnes, Patrick (1989). Contrary to Love. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Carnes, Patrick (1992). Out of the Shadows. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Mellody, Pia (2003). The Intimacy Factor: The ground rules for overcoming obstacles to truth, respect, and lasting love. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Mellody, Pia (2003). Facing Codependence. Harper Collins: New York.
Nakken, Craig (1988). The Addictive Personality: Understanding the addictive process and compulsive behavior. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Website of Sex Addicts Anonymous provides information regarding sex addiction and 12-Step Group contacts.
www.covenanteyes.com offers internet accountability software that scores all websites visited for likelihood of adult or pornographic content and sends a list of all websites visited to an accountability partner(s).
www.pureonline.com offers online workshops and phone counseling.
Texas Baptist ministers needing assistance in assessing their needs and locating a qualified counselor may contact Rick Owen at the BGCT Counseling and Psychological Services Center: (214) 826-6591 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.