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.
Christian counselors and psychologists say the extent of the sex-addiction problem and the scarcity of treatment programs means millions of churchgoing men and women remain stuck in a cycle of sexual addiction, sometimes for decades. Guilt and shame keep them suffering in silence. A church culture that provides few opportunities to address sexual sin inhibits most addicts from telling anyone else. Often the addict doesn't seek help until a crisis occurssuch as being fired for looking at Internet porn at work.
New faith-based addiction recovery organizations that understand sex addiction are beginning to emerge. There are more than 60 recovery groups around the country specifically for sex addiction. That includes Pure Warriors, Pure Desire, Pure Life, Operation Integrity, and the Samson Society. Most operate on a small scale and are growing gradually.
Their methods differ, but all these programs share the belief that an addict is powerless to change behavior on his own. The OI meeting in Aliso Viejo included:
- Kevin, 53, a real-estate agent caught by his wife looking at Internet porn before a Sunday morning church service.
- Tommy, 35, a political consultant who spent more than three years participating in mate-swapping on Saturday nights, and regularly sitting in church on Sunday mornings.
- Nelson, 38, a self-employed businessman discovered by his girlfriend carrying on an emotional relationship in cyberspace.
- Evan, 43, a building contractor who claims to have had sexual intercourse with more than 1,000 women.
Perceived lack of sexual fulfillment is a common precursor to sex addiction. Nate Larkin, founder of the Samson Society, told CT that an addiction may start with a preoccupying sense of dissatisfaction, followed by a craving for relief. Then comes creation of a plan, followed by deception, and then the compulsive sexual act itself.
"The euphoria would pass, leaving me disappointed, awash in self-loathing, cursing myself for my stupidity, and promising never ever to do that again," Larkin, 51, writes in Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood. "I would step back into my regular life with renewed resolve, but before long my inner emptiness and dissatisfaction would start screaming for relief, and the cycle would begin again."
Douglas Weiss, 45, executive director of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, says an addict's brain doesn't discern whether his sexual behavior is moral or immoralthe addict only knows that this is a place to feel loved, important, and significant, albeit only temporarily.
The average addict is double-minded. Part of him desires to live a holy life. Another part wants to gaze at porn or have casual sex. An addict deceives himself by thinking he can control his improper behavior.
"Satan loves it when we think we can defeat this on our own," says Mark R. Laaser, author of Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction. Laaser, 57, believes anger is the primary reason Christian men commit sexual sin. "They are angry at God, angry at their spouse, angry at church," he says. "They feel abandoned."
Laaser says there is often an "entitlement factor": Many men minimize the sin because they believe they are overworked and underappreciated; therefore, looking at porn and masturbating is no big deal.
Disease or Sin?
Is sexual addiction a disease or simply immoral behavior? Bob Hughes, a clinical psychologist in Laguna Hills, California, speaks for many Christian therapists in seeing sex addiction as both a sinful choice and a biological disease.
One may begin by repeatedly making a sexual choice that turns into an addiction. Then, "as an addiction, it can grab onto a person and rob him of his volition," says Hughes, who helped Zailer in his recovery and has referred 30 clients to OI.
Heart to Heart's Weiss, who has been sober for 20 years, conducts intensive three-day seminars so sex addicts can determine the profile of their addiction, whether its dynamics are primarily biological, psychological, spiritual, trauma-based, or related to sexual avoidance, or a combination thereof. Weiss, author of The Final Freedom: Pioneering Sexual Addiction Recovery, says once a pattern is identified, strategies are developed for treatment.
Although sex addiction has been around for centuries, only in the past generation has it been recognized also as an illness, much like alcohol and drug addiction. Thirty years ago, Pine Grove's Carnes pioneered research that showed how sex addicts' brains undergo changes during the point of orgasm, akin to the euphoria a cocaine addict feels. And as with drug addiction, over time the sex addict chases new highs to try to create the same feeling, a feeling that the brain now craves. In the wake of Carnes's research, groups such as Sex Addicts Anonymous and Sexaholics Anonymous formed.
While Christian men often think of their addiction primarily as a sinful obsession with sex, the compulsive and destructive nature of the problem shows that more is going on. Zailer asserts, "People can't change the sin until they address the disease part," meaning the neurochemical craving that overwhelms them.
As with many leaders of recovery groups, the handsome and muscular Zailer seems an unlikely candidate to be in a recovery group. A family friend from church began to sexually abuse him at age eight. Alcoholism and crack-cocaine dependency followed. He spent five years as a porn actor.
As an alternative to an eight-year prison term for drug crimes, Zailer spent eighteen months in a treatment program. While trying to stop his sex addiction, Zailer says he became increasingly obsessive about sex. "I made repeated commitments to stop," he says. "But no amount of self-determination or religious activity protected me."
Zailer found few in church circles eager to hear honest talk about sexual sin. Zailer began OI on a 12-step model in 2001. There are now six groups in three states. Everyone who attends OI has a phone list and develops his own friendships within the group. A guy who wants help initiates a call to a sponsor, sometimes daily. Zailer earns a living by building swimming pools. His day is full of cell phone calls from men looking for encouragement. He typically signs off with a heartfelt, "Love ya."
Internet Accelerates Addiction
Until recently, those who suffered sexual abuse during childhood have been at a higher risk of sexual addiction. Sexual abuse tends to produce oppressive or repressive behavior. A victim will attempt to change the outcome of what happened through "reenactment." This is often done with subconscious motives. Four out of five sex addicts are sex-abuse survivors, according to Carnes.
Three out of four suffered physical abuse and nearly all have been emotionally abused, he says. Many addicts eventually learn that sexual issues had been a problem in the lives of their fathers.
But now, the Internet has made practically anyone vulnerable, and it has nothing to do with abuse.
"We used to think that the pressure of childhood trauma was one of the essential ingredients in the creation of the sex addict," Laaser says. "But the Internet has changed that. Now there are people without the extensive history [of abuse] who get sucked into sex addiction."
"There are now people struggling with sexual compulsivity who never would have been if not for the Internet," Carnes writes in the third edition of Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction.
Viewing pornography is nearly always accompanied by masturbation. Swirling emotions surround the mood-altering experience. Some men never move past this stage. Addicts bring different beliefs into their views on pornography, based on their spiritual and familial backgrounds. It also depends on how much and what type of pornography is being consumed. Progression will likely be quicker for someone who watches orgy films nightly than for someone looking at a soft-core porn magazine monthly. If sex is the top "medicator" of an addict, progression is rapid. The addict develops a tolerance for new behaviors if they bring temporary relief.
Others progress rapidly to increasingly exotic, perverse, and even illegal sexual behavior: exhibitionism, voyeurism, strip clubs, lap dances, massage parlors, adultery, prostitution, homosexual liaisons, rape, incest, bestiality, or child molestationanything to feed the craving.
"A major factor in progression is what a guy fantasizes about during sexual release," Weiss says. "If a guy masturbates to something it would take a prostitute to do, he's more likely to find one."
Most experts believe recovery should not be one-size-fits-all, but tailored to the individual. In most cases, a personal accountability partner and weekly group meetings are supplemented with professional help from a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or even in-patient treatment.
Christian counselors agree that wholeness must begin with confessing the sin and stopping the behavior. Healing requires the addict to accept responsibility for succumbing to a life of addiction rather than blame his upbringing, wife, or society.
In the early stages of his recovery, Laaser says he needed to have daily accountability and go to weekly support groups. After being sober for two decades, such stringent vigilance isn't required, he says, and depicting someone as a lifelong sex addict can be counterproductive. "People get better," Laaser says. "Am I still a sex addict per se? No, I'm a man who's vulnerable to sexuality."
Still, Laaser believes in safety in numbers. The more in a man's circle aware of his problems, the greater the probability he will get better. "One guy is not enough," he says. "What if that guy is sick, or not home, or not in a good mood that day? Plus it's tough to fool 10 guys."
In an accountability network, participants recognize they will at times be too vulnerable or too weak to call for help. Thus, an addict gives permission to other men to call and check on him.
"I have never met anyone who has experienced sexual-addiction recovery alone," Weiss says. "When you are accountable, sobriety is a much greater goal than just being abstinent."
Some experts suggest reconditioning behavior is the key. Weiss advocates snapping a rubber band on the wrist every time there is an inappropriate thought. Fred Stoeker, coauthor of the Every Man's Battle series, teaches a technique he calls "bouncing the eyes"turning one's attention elsewhere whenever seeing something sexually explicit.
Still others take a different approach. Steve Gallagher, who founded Pure Life Ministries in 1986, isn't enthusiastic about introspective psychotherapy. Gallagher, 53, believes support groups encourage participants to keep that particular sin in the forefront of their identity, even years after recovery. He says, "Biblical accountability was never meant to be a group of men sitting in a circle discussing their failures."
Most men, he believes, aren't willing to sever old habits that lead to sin, such as watching whatever they want on television. "A man can go to psychologists, support groups, or deliverance services," Gallagher writes in At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry. "He can be prayed for by a famous evangelist or commit himself to a sexual-addiction clinic, but if he wants to overcome habitual sin, he must learn to walk in the Spirit."
Tools such as Internet filters and accountability partners can help for a season, Gallagher says, but until a man experiences real repentance, he will remain stuck in sexual sin.
That much everyone seems to believe. Larkin says that only when he surrendered his will completely to God rather than trying to fix things through his own moral efforts did healing begin. "For those of us who spent years resolutely steering our lives from one ditch to another," says Larkin, "one of the most practical ways to surrender to Christ is to pick up the telephone and tell the truth to another Christian."
Zailer says, "It's important to keep a pulse on the problem. Recovery is wasted when we forget our failures."
Not surprisingly, sexual addiction has a devastating effect on marriages. Laaser's wife, Debra, thought she had a loving and stable marriage. Her husband had a career as a respected full-time marriage counselor. He also taught part time as a Christian college professor and served as an interim preacher.
Debra experienced the shock of her life 15 years into the marriage: Her husband had been fired for initiating sex with several vulnerable women clients. At the time, Mark had almost completed a doctorate in religion and psychology.
It's taken 20 years for Debra, 57, to be emotionally ready to write about the experience in Shattered Vows: Hope and Healing for Women Who Have Been Sexually Betrayed.
Initially she asked, Should I make him move out? Will I ever feel like letting him touch me again? Will I ever be able to trust him again? Other worries came after her husband went to rehab. What do I tell the three kids? Have I been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases? Do I really know everything that happened?
Mark admits that he had become a skillful liar. Trust was rebuilt slowly. Ultimately Debra realized she couldn't mother or rescue her husband. "If you will not or cannot give up your role of Director of Husband Security," she writes, "he will continue to find ways to sneak around your devices."
The wife of Pure Life's founder, Kathy Gallagher, learned she had married a sex addict soon after their wedding. Steve told his 20-year-old bride that she was too skinny and not pretty enough. Thinking Steve would truly love her if she acquiesced to his sexual demands, Kathy agreed to look at porn with him.
Then he wanted her to participate in orgies. Afraid to lose the marriage, she complied, but began using drugs to numb her conscience. Two months later, after discovering that her increasingly insatiable husband had been going to massage parlors and visiting prostitutes, she left him. After Steve agreed to get help, Kathy returned. They have been married for 28 years, and she has been administrator of Pure Life Ministries for 19 years.
Whatever form infidelity takes, the spouse is left feeling betrayed, alone, and afraid. Debra Laaser says many wives are hurt more by the deception than the infidelity. How the wife reacts to a husband's sexual addiction is a determining factor in healing. Some women naïvely think a one-time confession by their husband will resolve everything. Other wives, even those who have ignored warning signs, file for divorce at the first revelation of porn use.
There is no blanket answer to when and how much to tell one's wife. While complete honesty is the best policy, some experts say addicts make the mistake of blurting out too much too soon. "Wives should not be the dumping ground for guilt and shame," Zailer says. "If a guy has taken 20 years to mess up his life, it's not going to get better in three days."
On the other hand, Debra Laaser recommends full disclosure up front rather than the installment plan. "Knowing the whole truth is foundational to building a new life together, because the new structure must be built on honesty and openness," she writes. "Your husband can stop living with secrets that keep him hiding his behaviors, lying, and walking on eggshells in fear of your finding out." The Laasers, who have been married for 35 years, now work together helping sex addicts through Faithful and True Ministries.
"I advise guys to give wives a categorical confession, but not subject her to any specifics she hasn't asked about," Larkin says.
Typically, pastors aren't trained to deal with sexual sins, let alone addiction. Many denominations have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to porn use, so a pastor isn't likely to confess his porn viewing to a superior if it means losing his livelihood. Yet can the church be truly effective if it's not a safe place for a man to divulge details about his ongoing struggles? If the struggles are dealt with early, it can't help but slow down the rate of addiction. But talking about sexual problems is difficult in a church setting.
"The church is going to have to decide if it's going to fight to be the pure bride of Christ," says Stuart Vogelman, executive director of Pure Warrior Ministries in Valleyford, Washington. "It's probably going to be the toughest battle the church has ever faced, and most churches are not equipped for it."
Ted Roberts's ministry is an exception. For 15 years, Roberts has led thousands of men in sexual purity classes at East Hill Foursquare Church in Gresham, Oregon. This year, the 63-year-old senior pastor will relinquish the pulpit he's held for 22 years and work full time with Pure Desire Ministries.
In weekly meetings and more frequent phone calls, Pure Desire men spend two to five years stopping unhealthy sexual behaviors. Since 1990, more than 1,000 men have completed Pure Life Ministries' six-month residential treatment program.
Nate Larkin is a low-key, pensive, bookish-looking man, befitting someone who earned a master's of divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary. Following graduation, he became a successful, dynamic pastor in the eyes of his thriving congregation.
Larkin's story has similarities to Zailer's: a strict religious upbringing that included frequent church attendance, a distant father, a mother who committed suicide, a decision to cease sexually acting out at age 41, and brutal transparency about addiction.
For Larkin, the descent from pornography into a series of encounters with streetwalkers escalated rapidly. The first occurred en route to a Christmas Eve candlelight service at which he officiated. In exchange for fellatio, he paid the prostitute the $20 he had earmarked for the collection plate.
Larkin details his former life and return to integrity in Samson and the Pirate Monks. The book tells about the start in 2004 of the Samson Society, a community of Christian believers committed to collaborative discipleship (see "These Guys Are Really Screwed Up," page 30). Larkin, who now earns an income producing technical reports for engineers, doesn't want to fall into leadership traps that led to a swelled head as a pastor.
Every Monday night, Larkin attends a one-hour Samson Society meeting at his home church, Christ Community, a PCA congregation in Franklin, Tennessee. On a rainy night in November, 15 men sit down on blue padded chairs arranged in a large circle in a classroom with mustard-colored walls. Some guys are in their 20s; others in their 60s. Some are handsome and muscular, others scrawny and plain. They are at different stages of healing.
Tonight's discussion is on hope, selected from a list of more than 200 suggestions, a different one of which is chosen each week. After preliminaries, the men count off by threes to break up into random groups of five. The smaller circles provide time for the men to laugh, joke, or cry without being interrupted, confronted, or corrected. It's a time to spew innermost fears, joys, and frustrations. It's a place to be heard and affirmed. Men can share more than once. There might be long silent pauses.
During the meeting within the meeting, Larkin's cell phone buzzes four times, all calls from other Samson attendees around the country. There are Samson groups in 17 states. Scarcely an hour of the day goes by that Larkin doesn't take or make a phone call related to Samson. Usually they are brief check-ins. Occasionally a crisis occurs that will precipitate a long conversation.
Men refrain from offering advice at Samson meetings. That is reserved for private, more involved get-togethers with one's trustworthy traveling companion, called a "Silas." Samson is not so much about what happens at the meetings as in between.
A man usually connects with his Silas on the phone every day, offering encouragement and feedback. It's more about forming real relationships, not oppressive accountability. "If it feels like checking in with a parole officer, it gets old fast," Larkin says after the meeting, when most men head off to a local Irish pub or a Mexican restaurant for further fellowship.
Larkin goes to McCreary's to meet Allie, his wife of 29 years. Nate first mentioned he had a struggle with porn four years into their marriage. She assumed everything was fine because he rarely mentioned it again. But in 1998, Allie, already in menopause, found a condom among Nate's possessions. If she had known the depth of his addiction at first, she likely would have divorced him. Not until 2002 did she learn of his escapades with prostitutes.
Today, Allie knows all the details in the book, although she doesn't want to read it. The Larkins spend virtually every evening together. After years of emotional detachment, Nate's gregarious laugh at the eatery is evidence that his best friend is his wife.
Experts say sexual addiction is bound to worsen because teens are today's largest porn users. Addiction begins with simple temptations or manageable sexual problems. But says East Hill Church's Roberts, "No matter where I travel in the world men have the same problem, but no one talks about it."
While addiction is a crippling weakness, when brought to light, it's a form of empowerment. Laaser says he is weary of retelling his personal tragedy, but it's necessary to offer hope to others. "Silence is the greatest enemy of sexual health," he says.
"There are wounded men in every country medicating their pain through sexually compulsive behavior," says Vogelman, who spent 23 years as an international high-tech healthcare business consultant. "But the very guys that Satan poisons are coming out of that bondage to minister to other men as they recover themselves."
Several therapists and pastors liken sex addiction to a coming tsunami. Larkin thinks they're off base.
"The tidal wave has passed," he says. "We're standing around in our shorts."
Yet Larkin is optimistic. "This new epidemic provides the church with an unparalleled opportunity," he says. "The Enemy has overplayed his hand. Desperate men will do what they have to do to get help."
John W. Kennedy is a consulting editor for CT and news editor for Today's Pentecostal Evangel.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A short article on the Samson Society accompanied this article.
Inside CT: Porn's Stranglehold tells more about what John Kennedy found about Christians and porn in writing about sexual addiction.
More articles on sexuality and gender are in our full-coverage section.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.