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We'd like you to meet some of our friends. Don is a rising young attorney whose future holds great potential. He has a beautiful wife, Toni, three lovely children, a large home, and important social standing in the church and community. Yet despite these outward signs of success and a solid emotional and sexual relationship with Toni, two or three times a week Don compulsively visits porno shops and prostitutes.
Claire is a high-priced call girl. Like most prostitutes, Claire hates sex. But desperate for male affection, she attempts to prove her self-worth time after time by selling "love" to any man who will pay the price.
Jan is a 35-year-old church musician who grew up in a devout home. He attended a small Christian college and went on to seminary. Married with two children, Jan has been involved in homosexual activities since a professor seduced him in college. He came to us after being picked up for sexual imposition in the rest room of a department store.
These three are composites of people who have come to Spring Forth, College Hill Presbyterian Church's ministry for sexual addicts. As you can see, sexual addicts aren't always the dregs of society. Often they're men and women highly successful in their fields, yet they involve themselves compulsively in sexual activities through which they are bound to be caught and humiliated.
To show some of the dynamics of counseling the sexual addict, we've developed a scenario that outlines our ministry to Jan.
Jan called because he'd been arrested. The initial phone call came to Hal, director of our Spring Forth ministry. Hal listened carefully and compassionately to Jan's crisis and agreed to meet with him for more discussion the next night at 7:30. Hal told Jan the session would include another counselor because we always minister in teams of two persons who are usually the same sex as the counselee.
Before the appointment, Hal and Gary spent time in prayer. We wanted to be sure not to show repugnance toward Jan, even though we viewed his behavior as wrong. We asked God to enable us to model his grace, love, and acceptance. Friends of the same sex who relate in caring but nonerotic ways are crucial in the healing of sexual addicts.
Jan, at the first session, blasted the police for their lack of concern about "real criminals." We listened to his strong feelings and irrational thoughts, knowing they covered deeper feelings of guilt and shame.
Our initial goal is to establish trust and openness. We want to model the love Jesus showed to the woman caught in adultery. So, although we didn't agree with Jan's condemnation of the police, neither did we confront his blame-shifting behavior. After about forty-five minutes, we attempted to get Jan to look more carefully at himself: "Jan, how does this make you feel about yourself?" When Jan saw he was not being condemned, he began to show his true feelings of guilt and condemnation. We listened respectfully, again, as Jan turned his full wrath onto himself.
The volcano of emotions that had been directed at others just minutes before now came full force back to himself. Although the battle was far from over, we at least had gotten to the place of focusing on a real enemy.
Jan knew he was the problem but didn't know how to change. As Jeremiah 17:9 states, "The heart is deceitful and corrupt, and no one understands it." Jan was confused about the causes of his behavior. Like Paul, he knew in his mind what was right but found another law in his flesh that kept him from doing what was right.
Our closing prayer in that first session emphasized two points: First, that God would speak love and grace to his son Jan. Second, that the Holy Spirit would reveal the broken pieces of Jan's heart to him in preparation for our next meeting. In addition, we made a covenant to pray for Jan daily for protection and strength.
After Jan left, we decided to spend the next few sessions getting a personal and family history, looking for patterns of rejection, emotional trauma, and family dysfunction. We also wanted to see what role Jan was assigned in his family as he grew up.
Early in the second interview, we uncovered a powerful pattern in Jan's family. There was a long history of fathers who were absent through alcohol, divorce, or work, and the predictable pattern of overly concerned mothers whose presence smothered the children.
Jan was the fourth of six children, with three older brothers. By the time of Jan's conception, the entire family desperately wanted a girl. Jan's grandmother chose the unborn baby's name-Janet (after her mother, the saintly matriarch of the family). The closets were filled with frilly, pink dresses, and everyone excitedly waited for little Janet to be born.
When Jan was born, though they did change the name to make it appropriate for a boy, Mother reinforced the rejection by dressing him like a little girl and introducing him as her little boy-girl. Jan actually learned to live as a female and played the role of a girl in the home.
The more Mother babied Jan and enmeshed him into her own emotional system, the more Father withdrew. He was proud only of sons who were good at hard labor and athletics. He disliked Jan and his "sissy music." Although Jan excelled as a singer, arranger, and pianist, he developed a negative self-image, even to the point of saying he hated himself for being trapped in a man's body.
We also discovered the relationship with his older brothers and younger sister was no better than that with his father. The older brothers continually put Jan down. For example, the oldest brother had a favorite TV chair he guarded jealously. If Jan sat in the chair, Steve would lift him out of it and throw him down on the floor, a gesture that literally, as well as symbolically, put Jan in his place.
By age 6, Jan "knew" he was different from other boys; they were more masculine than he. These beliefs led to feelings of discomfort in the presence of males, and as a result, he ate in order to gain a lot of weight to give himself protection from other boys. However, that led to classmates' jokes and the nickname "Butterball," all of which reinforced the rejection and shame he already perceived and kept Jan from developing friendships with other males.
A particularly devastating experience occurred when Jan was about 13. Being in the nude together in the swimming hole was not unusual for the entire family. On one occasion, his younger sister pointed at Jan's genitals and giggled, "Your thing is so small you'll never be a man."
Sexual addiction is usually the result of perceived trauma, neglect, or rejection at an early age. Such trauma often results in symbolic confusion between sexuality and sexual identity. Although the sexuality (biological gender) of a child is known at birth, sexual identity (masculinity or femininity) is learned from parents-especially the father. In fact, we consider this one of the father's principal roles, because when he doesn't affirm his children's sexual identity, great spiritual, emotional, and sexual damage can result.
Jan's lack of fatherly affirmation caused him to believe he was not good; anybody who really knew him wouldn't love or accept him. Jan was convinced he could trust nobody to meet his true needs, not even God.
Because a homosexual's belief system often causes friendship and warmth to be perceived in erotic ways, we were prepared when Jan made his pass toward Gary just prior to our third meeting. Arriving early, he not-so-subtly asked Gary for a date.
Years before, the first time a counselee had done this, Gary was totally unprepared and told the counselee to "get out of my office and never come back!" Later, through books and talks with fellow counselors, Gary learned the anxiety actually had come from inside, not from what the counselee had said. He'd blown up because he wasn't comfortable talking about homosexuality openly with another man. Gary eventually called the man and asked for forgiveness. Only then was Gary able to deal with the sexual problems of others.
From this background, Gary was prepared emotionally when Jan made his pass, and explained to him he was confusing philia (friendship) and eros (sexual) love. Gary also could see that such a proposition probably indicated Jan's trust, or that he was testing Gary's ability to deal with the subject.
In the third session we sought the nature of Jan's sexual relationships through taking a sexual history. In this, we want to discover how the client found out about sex and what his childhood experiences with it were. How did he learn about boy and girl anatomy? What did he know about his parents' marital relationship? What have been his experiences with sex? How satisfying have they been? How many partners has he had? Questions such as these are hard to ask for most people-and difficult to answer for the counselee-but they supply vital information.
Many times the person has never talked about sex with anyone else and finds such conversations embarrassing. Such was the case with Jan. Although he'd been married and had been actively homosexual for years, his knowledge of sex was limited, and he could hardly look at us when we got specific in our discussions. He was shocked that Christians would actually speak openly about such things as masturbation and oral sex. In fact, Jan, like most sexual addicts, saw sex as being dirty and un-Christian.
Because Jan had been a practicing homosexual for more than twenty years, his was a long, detailed history. Although sexually involved with men in fantasy since a young child, his first actual physical encounter occurred at a Christian college when a trusted, older male teacher, Walt, led him into a caring, emotional relationship that included sex. This was a powerful experience for two reasons: Jan enjoyed the act itself, and he felt acceptance from this father-like figure. He had, he felt, at long last been accepted just as he was.
Although at the time Jan was "happily" married to a strongly committed Christian woman and had a reasonable sexual relationship with her, he had never before felt the love, care, and affirmation that he now received from Walt. This further reinforced and strengthened the symbolic confusion within Jan's mind and convinced him that he was a "true homosexual."
Jan didn't want to lose Walt's support in the music department, so in many ways, Jan was in bondage to the relationship. However, he soon found he wasn't Walt's only partner; several others from the music department found Walt a loving partner. Hurt and angry, Jan began to look for additional sexual relationships at school. Over a two-year period, he set up numerous one-night stands.
This filled him with conflict. He was married, yet found male sex more appealing. He was studying to be a minister of music, yet afraid of God and panic-stricken at the thought of leading worship. He professed to believe in a strict code of morality, yet he was involved continually in acts that caused him enormous guilt and shame.
Jan tried to stop many times. In fact, he had discussed his dilemma with Walt and the other gay students. In general, they hated their lifestyle but felt helpless to do anything about it. They, like Jan, believed they had been born that way and were sentenced to a life of misery.
Jan had asked for help from visiting evangelists on several occasions because he knew what he shared would leave town with them. One evangelist told Jan sodomites would burn in hell and that if he had his way, all such perverts would be stoned. Another man told Jan that he, too, was gay, and they commiserated by having sex. A third cast out demons and told Jan, "To keep your healing, you have to have faith." Jan evidently didn't.
Finding no help, Jan stopped asking. Finding no understanding and compassion (except from other gays), he stayed within the gay community, which reinforced his beliefs and behaviors. Finding no power to change, he developed cynicism toward God, the church, and the Bible that promised a new life. Finding no faith, no hope, no love, he developed a settled hopelessness that turned into a callous disregard for Christian morals and bitterness toward conservative Christians and their "idealistic, naive faith."
However, because the wages of sin have not changed over the centuries, in time things caught up with Jan. He cruised a department store john once too often and got arrested on a police sweep. Wanda, Jan's wife, posted bail, so his secret life came into the light. She had feared for Jan for a long time but was trying to protect him from the pain of being confronted. Fortunately, the police weren't as interested in protection, and Jan began to get help.
All this came out over several sessions dealing with sexual history. It wasn't a pretty picture, but it needed to be uncovered.
In order to heal a sexual addict, we try to hold in tension two paradoxical beliefs: addictive behavior is both a disease and a choice-bondage and rebellion. Therefore, we want to get to the root of the disease-the trauma, pain, rejection, and poor parenting that the child received. In this, the child had no choice; he is in bondage to the sins of others. But we must face concurrently the choices the addict has made along the road-choices toward sin. If both sides of the problem aren't confronted, change is impossible.
While taking Jan's family history, we began to connect what happened in his family and what he was acting out unconsciously in promiscuous behavior. At the same time, we knew Jan did have a choice in determining the exact results of the trauma he received. His choices had resulted in anger toward parents and God.
The Book of Hebrews says, "Be careful lest any of you fail to obtain the grace of God whereby a root of bitterness will spring up and defile many people." Jan had failed to apply God's grace to himself, his siblings, and his parents. As a result, he had developed numerous roots of bitterness.
Jan didn't want to accept responsibility for his sexual behavior. "My father neglected me, and Mom was overprotective," he protested. "It's not my fault." Although it's true he was reared in an imperfect world, we taught Jan that his only hope for healing lay in forgiving his family and in seeking forgiveness himself.
When Jan learned the distance of his father mattered less than his childhood judgments of that father, he was able to confess his sin of judgmentalism, receive cleansing from the Lord, and then forgive his dad. Jan's feelings changed toward his family after his confession and forgiveness.
With the pattern of mutual rejection with his 80-year-old father broken, Jan's relationship with other men improved. Whereas being out of fellowship with his father had resulted in sexualizing the friendship of other men, being in relationship with Dad now allowed Jan to be a friend to men in a healthy way. He was deeply struck by the change: "It's amazing! I can have friends without getting sexual."
As we continued to work with Jan, he began to see places where he went wrong. He gradually understood that he was not hopelessly homosexual, but that deficiencies in personality and lack of affirmation had caused his behavior. He began to see the roots of his symbolic confusion and how these drove him to act out sexually. Best, he started to understand that it was only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and fellowship within the body of believers that he could know true love.
Though Jan had been arrested and confronted by the church and family, and was in counseling, he still was tempted by homosexual activity. He tried to stop but seemed unable to do so completely. A breakthrough occurred, however, when Jan came to see us right after a sexual experience, and we examined the events that led up to it.
Jan related that on Sunday he'd been criticized for the worship music. On Tuesday, he and Wanda had been defeated badly in tennis. On Wednesday, Wanda had criticized his discipline of the children.
In rapid succession, Jan had faced crises in his professional, social, and family life. On Thursday, he went looking for a sex partner. Perceived rejection led Jan to feel depressed, and his drug of choice for depression was sex with a man. The habits of many years were hard to break.
Early in the session, Jan said, "I went into the department store rest room and was tempted." For the next hour and a half, we helped Jan diagnose the disappointing experiences earlier in the week that led him to the department store. We look for patterns in the events preceding a sexual temptation, since real conversion depends upon changing a person's response to perceived rejection. Resisting temptation really means resisting the feelings of condemnation that cause a person to seek sexual relief. Had we not helped Jan renew his mind and emotions around the issue of rejection, in his heart he could not have repented of sexual sin. He may have been able to stop sex physically, but not mentally.
Once he began to see this pattern, progress followed. Weeks and months would go by without a sexual fall. Occasionally, Jan would fail to deal with stress and revert back to the old patterns of using sex as a drug.
When those falls occurred, we found it was his old, unrenewed belief system causing the failure. A sexual addict's belief system is filled with negative, self-rejecting thoughts. In addition, many addicts are performance oriented and live lives full of shoulds and oughts. Their constant failure to achieve irrationally high performance goals reinforces the negative self-talk and low self-esteem. Because of this, we worked to build the new Jan.
One continuing struggle we faced was Jan's negative view of God the Father. He couldn't trust God to meet his needs, because he projected the failures of his earthly father onto the heavenly Father. Over and over we washed Jan's mind with the truth of Scripture in order to overcome the lies of his irrational belief system.
We gave Jan, as we do all our counselees, tools to assist him in analyzing his behavior through understanding his belief system. We showed him the ABCDs of his emotions: that Activating Events (A) are interpreted by his Belief System (B), causing Consequential Feelings (C) in him, which result in Decisive Behavior (D). We have no control over Activating Events, and Consequential Feelings are caused by what we believe about the events. The Decisive Behavior results directly from feelings. Therefore, the place to work is the Belief System.
By hitting repeatedly on his misconceptions, over time we were able to help Jan see just how irrational his belief system was, so his mind could be renewed according to Scripture. Unfortunately, much of his irrational self-talk came from the rigid theology of his youth, and this made our task more difficult.
Another young man's experience demonstrates how the belief system affects us. For six months we hadn't been able to identify any causes of his homosexual tendencies. Then in a routine counseling session, he began to tell us about something that had happened when he was 16. He began, "As usual, my father said, 'Why are you so dumb?' " The "as usual" caught our attention. When we probed, the man told how he often had sought his father's advice and his father had given it to him, but always beginning with, "What makes you so dumb? Can't you remember anything I told you before?"
Because of these words, the young man believed he was inadequate. He'd decided, I'm never going to be capable, to measure up. This became a powerful belief system. Change began when he saw what the Bible had to say about him. In fact, he memorized many Scriptures that affirmed his position in Christ.
With Jan, we worked weekly for about eight months until he was able to handle stress by himself without yielding to the old temptations. After that we saw him periodically for a year. Recently Jan said not only are his temptations becoming weaker and less frequent, but he no longer yields to them. Now he can even worship God in church.
At the same time we were counseling Jan, we also worked with Wanda. Like many mates, she was a codependent who actually facilitated his addiction. When Jan felt temptation coming, he'd withdraw from the family. Wanda saw that as a signal for her to take over. This reinforced the "I'm not a real man" syndrome and encouraged Jan to act out his frustration in homosexual contact.
Early in their marriage, Wanda was ignorant of the depth of Jan's addiction, but she became addicted to taking care of him. After the arrest, she was at a loss. She tended to be angry yet continue as the super caregiver.
We taught Wanda how to communicate with Jan about her own needs and wants so she would treat Jan as an adult. Strangely, we found it harder to get Wanda to change than to help Jan. He knew his behavior was wrong, while Wanda's actions seemed good and caring.
Just as a teeter-totter operates on the principle of balance, so does a family. When Wanda was over-responsible, Jan would edge toward the end of the teeter-totter labeled "irresponsibility."
Making this particular match even more difficult to untangle was the support Wanda received for her martyr compulsions, especially after Jan's perversion became known. Wanda's friends acted like Job's "counselors," encouraging her to be "a strong Christian wife and mother now that her husband had revealed how weak-willed he really was."
Convincing her she was addicted to strength was difficult, but the notion of mutual submission slowly took root and flourished. We learned eventually that her addiction developed when she was the eldest child in an alcoholic family. She had become an expert at being a co-dependent. Although growing, Wanda has much more work yet to do than Jan.
We've used Jan's case to illustrate our work, but perhaps you've wondered what happened to Claire and Don.
Many women who become addicted to prostitution come from families in which they were molested as children. However, Claire revealed instead a childhood filled with rejection from both parents. Claire perceived she constantly was rejected by her father, and her mother sided with him. She was the family scapegoat, making her self-esteem negligible.
Through prayer and Scripture, we helped Claire forgive her parents and accept God's forgiveness. This step posed few difficulties. However, helping Claire forgive herself was much more difficult. It took more than eighteen months to help Claire find her way to substantial wholeness.
Don's story is not unlike Claire's. Being the third of four sons, he also got lost in his family of origin. Because Don was not athletically inclined, his father was displeased. As a result, Don had serious difficulty believing he was a real man. Despite numerous visits to prostitutes-each time with the unconscious assumption that this time he would feel like a real man-it never worked. The counseling process with Don resembled that with Jan and Claire.
The particulars may differ, but the principles remain constant. We always listen carefully for the hurts and beliefs of the deep heart, for Jesus said, "Out of the broken pieces of the heart, the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:45). Once we discover trauma, roots of bitterness, or lack of forgiveness, we move in with prayer, confession, and forgiveness to bring healing and growth. Whenever we discover irrational belief systems, we work to renew the mind.
Don, Claire, and Jan were all particularly responsive clients who worked hard, did their homework, and exposed to us the deepest parts of their hearts. Many resist healing and won't work like that to change. They adopt a victim attitude that says, "You're supposed to heal/counsel/cure me." Such an attitude breeds certain failure, because trying to rescue a victim causes the rescuer to become the victim.
Because these clients worked hard, they were able to achieve substantial freedom from their life-long addictive thoughts and acts. And free from their addictions, they were ready to contribute to life and ministry as whole people. Seeing such results makes the admittedly difficult counseling process worth every minute.
- Hal B. Schell is director of the Spring Forth ministry at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Gary Sweeten is director of equipping at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
- Betty Reid is a free-lance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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