Hordes of celebrities are heading to rehab these days, and not just for drugs and alcohol. Big names — famous bad boys and famous good boys — are checking into treatment centers for help with “sex addiction.”
But is sex addiction a real disease? There are plenty of people who don’t think so. The DSM-IV (the manual of currently recognized mental health disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association) does not include sex addiction. In a recent poll conducted by WomensHealthMag.com, 63% of women said that sex addiction is “an excuse for infidelity.” And lots of church-going Christians have their doubts about it too.
I was certainly a skeptic when I started attending 12-step meetings a dozen years ago, but my skepticism was temporarily overcome by desperation. Pornography and commercial sex had driven me from the ministry a decade earlier, and subsequent financial success had only fueled my out-of-control behavior. My marriage was in shambles. I’d tried prayer, promises, Bible-reading, seminars, inner healing, self-help, accountability — even deliverance — but nothing had ever worked for long. With nowhere else to turn, I finally went to a 12-step meeting for sex addicts.
I found the meeting in the basement of a church, where a few men and women were telling the truth to each other. Their stories sounded much like mine, and they seemed to have discovered a solution to their common problem, but their language made me uncomfortable. They insisted on describing their dilemma as a disease. Their terminology was medical, almost clinical, and it offended my Christian sensibilities.
Certainly, I could see parallels between my experience and that of, say, an alcoholic or a cocaine addict. I had developed a high tolerance for lust, and like a chronic drinker who eventually consumes enormous amounts of alcohol, my sexual activity had escalated to a ridiculous level. Like a drug addict, I found myself willing to take enormous risks, to sacrifice almost anything to get my fix. My behavior was insane, but — and here’s the thought that had tortured me for years — it was also WRONG.
“Listen,” I said to my first sponsor, “What I have been doing is more than sick It is really, really sinful. My sexual behavior is a moral issue, not a medical one. I am violating at least two of the Ten Commandments every day. What I’m doing is an insult to a holy God, and I will one day stand before God to answer for it. All your talk about the “disease” of sex addiction sounds to me like a loophole, a way to evade responsibility. Maybe my real problem is that I just don’t hate my sin enough, or hate myself enough, or perhaps I just don’t love God enough to stop.”
That, essentially, was the line of reasoning I had always followed, and it had never brought me to freedom. So, with my sponsor’s encouragement, I finally agreed to redefine repentance for awhile and simply do the work of recovery.
Several years later, after I had finally found the freedom that had eluded me for so long, I stumbled across a stunning passage in the Bible. In a familiar section of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, I found a phrase that seemed to illuminate the moral and medical dimensions of my sexual behavior.
“ Now, if I continue to do the thing I hate” Paul wrote, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” (Romans 7:20-23 emphasis added.)
Did you catch that repeated phrase? The Apostle is describing something he says is going on inside his body, something physical, a resident evil that opposes his best intentions and overwhelms his moral resolutions. He is not saying that his body is evil, but he is saying that something evil has invaded his body. It is in him now. Sin is inside him, living at the cellular level, dwelling in the members of his body. It has made him physically sick, and the sickness is manifesting itself in behavior.
Paul’s phrase reminds me of the classic book Addiction and Grace, in which the author, Gerald May, MD, described addiction as “a conditioned physical response.” According to Dr. May, God has designed our bodies to adapt to whatever we’re doing. Over time, he said, we can actually alter the physical structure of our bodies, the makeup of our muscles, nerves, brain and endocrine system, through behavior.
The process, it seems, goes like this: As I initiate a new behavior for which there is some perceived payoff, my body begins to adapt to it. My brain starts to form neural pathways, and chemical receptors throughout my body are conditioned in a way that will make it easier for me to repeat the behavior. If I choose to repeat the behavior, the physical adaptation is accelerated, making it more likely that I will repeat the behavior yet again. I may continue this cycle freely for quite some time, but eventually an invisible line is crossed — and at that point, what began as a volitional act becomes automatic. I may still pretend that I can stop, and I may be able to stop for a while, but I am all but doomed to return to the behavior eventually. Even after I learn that what I’m doing is killing me, I find that I am powerless to stop doing it. Resolutions have become worthless. The sin is in me now. It has made me sick. I may need forgiveness, but I also need healing.
I have come to believe that addiction is a sickness caused by sin. Thankfully, God has provided solutions for both my sickness and my sin. For my sin, there is a forgiveness that comes to me freely, through faith in Jesus Christ. For my sickness, God has designed a healing process that will make me well again. Much like the healing processes in my body — the ones that fight infections, close cuts, and mend broken bones — this process takes time. (God is able to heal me instantaneously, of course, but most of the time he seems to prefer progressive miracles.) He has entrusted this healing process to the collective body of believers, hosting it in what the Bible calls the Body of Christ. The apostle James described the process this way: “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)
I began my journey to healing in the basement of a church, assisted by an odd mix of ragamuffin Christians and believers in a Higher Power. Today, I’m part of a growing mutual aid society for Christian men known as the Samson Society. Not all of us in the Samson Society are sex addicts, but we all know what it’s like to lose our freedom, and we are walking back to freedom together, talking as we go.
NATE LARKIN is a co-founder of the Samson Society and author of Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood.