The main purpose of any addiction is to escape emotional pain – the pain of feeling unlovable, the fear of rejection or self hatred. Sexual addiction provides this escape through sinful sexual activity that ultimately spirals out of control, eventually bringing about devastating consequences. Just like other addictions, sinful sexual behaviour is only a symptom of the problem. That’s not to say it’s not a problem in and of itself, but it’s not the causal problem.

Many believe recovery is just a matter of confessing the sexual sin, repenting and stopping it. This is true, but if the issues driving the sinful behaviour are not dealt with, then trying to stop the behaviour is like using a thimble to bail out a sinking boat. Eventually the boat will sink, no matter how hard you bail.

What is the underlying issue?

The primary underlying issue driving addiction – any addiction – is a broken relationship with God and a loss of intimacy and safety within a loving relationship. If someone grows up in a home devoid of positive expressions of love, caring and connection, they won’t know how to connect deeply with God, themselves and others.

Most sex addicts don’t know how to be emotionally or spiritually intimate and falsely believe that sex will lead to the intimacy they crave. This deficit leaves a vast inner emptiness that at times is so unbearable that addicts scramble to fill it with whatever they believe will bring relief – even if that relief is only temporary. Once the "fix" wears off, they fill the emptiness with more of their temporary solution. They soon find that they need more and more of their "solution" to bring about the same relief.

The need for more

This need for more is a cornerstone characteristic of addiction. Even those who know God find that the drive for a quick fix is so powerful that it can quickly and insidiously take over a person’s life. Sex addicts know that what they are doing is "wrong," but are helpless in the face of the false promise of quick relief. Both sin and addiction share this quality of powerlessness.

Addiction occurs when someone loses control over certain behaviours, deny they have a problem and exert gargantuan efforts to bring it under control without success. For example, a sex addict promises that she won’t flirt with her husband’s friend, only to find herself dressing provocatively when she knows she’ll be seeing him. A male sex addict may promise himself that he won’t log on to an Internet porn site but finds he can’t sleep that night and knows that a few minutes of porn while masturbating will help him drift off.

What is the motivation?

Sexual activity outside the marriage relationship is sinful, but not all sinful sexual behaviour is addiction. The difference between sinful sexual activities and sinful sexual addiction is the motivation behind the sexual behaviour. Is the sexual behaviour a move toward genuine intimacy or an escape from it? Addiction can slowly occur when the man (or woman) begins to masturbate regularly to ward off loneliness, alleviate stress and repress anger rather than dealing with these feelings. Masturbation is now being used as an escape.

Despite a desire to stop, the incidence of masturbation may begin to increase. They may turn to pornography to enhance the experience, desire for sexual fantasy increases, and a mental obsession with masturbating develops, eventually leading to negative consequences as the shame and compulsion grow stronger. As the addiction gains a greater stronghold, life begins to escalate out of control. Sex addicts begin to live parallel lives: the good upstanding, successful Christian and a desperate addict bent only on finding relief through sinful sexual contact. The shame and self loathing are crushing.

Crossing the line into addiction

Sex addiction encompasses many sinful sexual behaviours including infidelity, masturbation, pornography, cyber-sex, buying sex, exhibitionism, obscene phone calls, bestiality, rape and incest. It is important to note that not all people who engage in these behaviours are sex addicts. Certainly sexual desires and the need for love have become bizarrely intertwined and healing is needed, but they may not be sex addicts.

Some people have been deeply wounded and are looking for love and acceptance and believe that they can find it through physical sexual contact. In the same way, a heavy drinker may not necessarily be an alcoholic. So what makes a person a sex addict? Sinful sexual behaviour becomes sinful sexual addiction when a person engages in any uncontrollable, compulsive and repetitive sexual behaviour. Sin crosses the line into addiction when a person wants to stop and believes they can anytime, but never actually does stop, because they can’t in their own strength.

Michele Langmead was a registered counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada at the time of publication. .

© 2010 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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