Counseling Sexual Addiction

Sometimes sex isn’t really about sex. If there is one subject that I have counseled more people on than any other, over the course of my ministry, it’s the subject of sexual sin. And it’s not just men. I have counseled both men and women who struggled with pornography, and the statistics prove just how non-gender related the issue is. 90% of men and 60% of women admit to viewing pornography on a weekly basis. But what I have come to find out through all my years of counseling and discipling people is that sometimes sex is not about sex. Sexual addiction is often a symptom of a deeper heart issue. There are several common heart issues that can lie underneath a person’s sexual sin.

Some people turn to sexual sin because they are bored. Perhaps their life is not as exciting as they want it to be, not as dramatic as they had hoped, and sexual sin, in particular, offers a tantalizing outlet for fun. This can be an especially important trigger for those who have struggled with pornography for years. They train their brain to default to lust when they have nothing else to occupy their mental activity. It’s a default setting. Some people eat when they are bored, some lust. It’s important to help people identify this trigger, and more important for them to see that they are not entitled to be entertained all the time. The idolatry of pleasure lies deep at the root of this tree. It is not their right to never be bored. Begin to help them unpack this, even as you offer them helpful strategies for dealing with their boredom in more God-honoring ways.

Other people turn to sexual sin because they are stressed. A bad day at work does not cause a man to come home and lust. The two are not connected in that way. But sexual climax can provide a sense of relief to stress. In a healthy marriage sexual intimacy between a husband and wife can be a great way to unwind from a hard day. Sexual sin, however, is never healthy. For many a young man and many a woman life’s pressures can be a driving force behind their abuse of sex. People use promiscuity and pornography as outlets for “de-stressing.” One young woman I counseled mentioned that after an especially hard week she would convince herself that she “deserved a little fun.” She saw it as a way to unwind and unload baggage. The problem with such an approach is obvious. It doesn’t really deal with the issues that are causing stress. And sin only compounds the problem. We need to help people see the absurdity of this escapism, and help them address the issues that “stress them out.” As we do, we may find that sexual sin becomes less of an issue.

For still others there is a desire for intimacy. My friend’s biggest fear when dating was facing rejection. When he found those same fears realized in marriage, he turned to pornography. This may sound like it’s about sex, but my friend doesn’t see it that way. In fact as we spent time working through his heart issues he came to see his porn addiction as a type of self-medicating against his own loneliness. The more he indulged in this sin the less he thought about how his wife refused to sleep with him. If I were to have talked to him only about sexual issues, about lust, we would never have gotten to this place where he began to see his real need was intimacy, not simply orgasm. That breakthrough was huge for him, and though lust is certainly an issue (and one he continues to address) there has been greater success for him in fighting temptation as he has sought out a healthy relationship with his wife.

Lastly, some are simply hungry for power and control. It would come as no surprise to many to hear that pornography is often about power. In fact I have argued elsewhere that some porn is simply power eroticized. It’s not the sex, per se, that arouses some men and women, it is the power associated with certain kinds of sexual acts. Many romanticize bondage and sadomasochism, as is evidenced by the recent 50 Shades of Grey mania. But the fusion of hatred and sex should not merely be treated as an issue of sexual lust. There is a power-lust that needs addressing. The long-term damage that exposure and indulgence in this kind of sin can do is serious. All sexual sin views others as objects to be used for our own ends, not as people made in the image of God. But the kind of sexual sin that slaps others, chokes them, or ties them up has profound consequences for how individuals view others. To overlook the heart issues going on here, even if a person is successful in breaking their addictive habits, is to miss the real issues needing attention.

It’s not that lust isn’t part of the problem, of course it is. But sexual sin requires us to see a bigger picture if we are going to actually help others. Porn addiction in particular requires us to look past the computer screen and see what’s really going on. Tim Chester is absolutely correct when he writes:

Porn is never simply a substitute for sex. Indeed, there’s a real sense in which sex is the one thing porn doesn’t offer – not real sex. Your wife may not act like a porn star, but then neither does the porn star – not in real life. Porn is not offering you a real experience of sex. It’s offering a fantasy substitute for power or success or worship or reward. The problem doesn’t lie with your wife, but in your heart. (Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free)

If we only offer counsel based on actual behaviors then we will fail to serve and disciple our people well. To be sure we must help them wrestle with their actions. They must stop looking at porn, stop sleeping around, stop fantasizing about others. But our counsel must promote more than just behavioral modification; we want heart transformation for them.

The heart change isn’t our job. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But we want to help expose the idols of the heart driving them to sexual sin, and then point them to the true promises of God that replace such idols. We want them not to run to porn for reward, but to God, the reward of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). Think of the woman at the well using sex to find satisfaction for her life, and Jesus comes to her and says, I can offer you a drink that will quench your thirst forever (John 4). That’s the kind of transformation we want to set our people up to experience. We want people to run not to a one-night stand for relief, but to God. Promiscuity can’t give you refuge, but “The Lord is my rock, my fortresses, and my deliverer,” cries the Psalmist (see Psalm 18:1-3). The promises of God addressing the real heart issues can help people overcome sexual sin, but if we don’t look past their symptoms we won’t be able to help them.

As you counsel people ask questions that get to the heart of the issue. Don’t just address their symptoms, but probe into the driving force behind their behaviors. We can fight sexual sin in our churches and alongside our people, but only if we stop looking simply at their sex. Sometimes sexual sin isn’t about sex!

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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