Help for the Sexually Desperate
One by one, men trickle into the unadorned upstairs church classroom for their regular Thursday night meeting. But the gathering isn't to discuss plans for evangelism outreach, worship-song selection, or expanding the nursery.
"I'm Kevin and I'm a recovering sex addict," one of the eight men seated around the table says shortly after the meeting begins. Each man talks uninterruptedly for up to five minutes about how he's faced a myriad of sexual temptations. No one is allowed to advise, criticize, defend, or excuse the behavior of another man during this faith-based, 90-minute, 12-step recovery meeting called Operation Integrity.
These aren't convicted pedophiles or registered sex offenders. They are churchgoers, businessmen, and seemingly model husbands. Throughout the country, there are men by the millions sitting comfortably in church pews every Sunday who haven't told anyone about their sexual addiction. But the men in this room have come to terms with their own powerlessness over destructive sexual habits.
After sharing their stories, the men take turns reading paragraphs from When Lost Men Come Home, written by Operation Integrity (OI) founder David Zailer. Lively discussion ensues.
The meeting provides a roller-coaster ride of successes and frustrations from the past week. Words such as "sin," "addiction," "acting out," and "selfishness" are repeated. These men are doing better than when they started the group; none is where he hopes to be.
This OI chapter meets at Coast Hills Community Church, a nondenominational Southern Californian megachurch in Aliso Viejo, where Zailer attends. The men represent four area congregations.
Sonny relates the temptation of seeing a curvaceous female wearing a string bikini at a nearby beach; not only that, she came up to him and started a conversation.
"Why would a woman be wearing a string bikini during the last week of October?" Sonny asks his tablemates, and then tells them he resisted the urge to exchange phone numbers.
By the end of the evening, there are hugs and backslaps. The men have laughed and cried together in Christian brotherhood.
"We're all in this foxhole together," Sonny says after the meeting. "I gain strength from these men."
Zailer, who invited Christianity Today to attend this confidential session, says, "Nothing else will go real well in our recovery until we get as honest as we can. A guy may show up because he feels guilty, his wife demanded it, or he may have good intentions. But if he's not broken, he won't stay. Our program is for desperate men."
The dividing line between sexual lust and addiction is often hard to draw. While not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), sexual addiction is widely recognized as a harmful behavior with a strong biochemical component (e.g., by the Mayo Clinic). An addiction to sex, experts say, is defined by obsessive sexual behavior regardless of the growing negative consequences for the person or their relationships. The sex addict has tried to stop but hasn't been able to do so, despite destructive results and deep feelings of shame. The addict can never hate the sin or himself enough to stop.
A widely recognized authority, Patrick Carnes, author and executive director of the Gentle Path program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health and Addiction Services in Mississippi, estimates that 8 percent of adult men and 3 percent of adult women become sexually addicted at some point in their lives (this article will focus on the greater problem, male sexual addiction). That means roughly 12 million or more Americans may have this disorder. The sex addict becomes hooked on the neurochemical response of the body during sexual behavior, which may include compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex, multiple partners, exhibitionism, voyeurism, viewing Internet pornography, or crimes such as sexual abuse and rape.