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Monday, April 2, 2012

Sex Addiction: an Introduction

Sex has always been a rather embarrassing and clumsy business, even in the best of circumstances.  There is much about it that is embarrassing and undignified, and it leaves in its wake complex emotional situations that are often impossible to accurately describe or discern.

In our present circumstances, sex has become all the more problematic.  Traditional boundaries have been blown through like the walls of Constantinople in 1453.  Marriage, the world-wide human experience, is being shunned in favor of all kinds of bizarre arrangements that are both temporary and unstable.  Now, you can sit in front of your computer and download quantities of pornography that three decades ago would have been impossible to acquire, or you can trundle over to a college dorm and quite easily find volunteers to make your own (and then testify on Capital Hill about it!).  We keep trying to deny the shame of it, all the while feeling it all the more acutely.  Sex toys are sold like hotcakes and erectile dysfunction pills are advertised on daytime TV, yet we blush when caught with either.

Humans continue to yearn for companionship, acceptance, compassion, and someone to care for.  Humans will often fawn over inanimate objects when they have difficulty with human relationships (for poignant examples, watch TV shows like 'Hoarders' to see how bad this can get).

Sex is part of that: it is a form of physical communion with another.  It is so powerful that it unleashes forces which, human experience has told us up until now, only a healthy marriage can contain.

Its desires are, at the deepest level, insatiable.  We can have an infinite capacity to desire more and more, and once we are done it is only a pause.  Of course this is true of all other human desires.  Once you eat, you will only feel full for a short time, then you will desire food again.  We never tire of compliments.  Humans rarely are satisfied for very long.  What is necessary for us is an unending stream of the desired.

Now, these desires are ultimately a desire from God, but our particular desires are the 'consolations' we have until we are united with Him.  They can never be utterly eradicated because they are not entirely unnatural.  They are part of who we are.

The same is true of sexuality.  It is part of the human person, though we all know that human desires come to us in varying proportions.  Some people will desire food less than others, while others still will desire companionship more than others.

What is more problematic, however, is that human desires can easily becomes captivated by the passions.  In our inner suffering, we can develop the habit of dressing our inner wounds with something other than God's love.  This does not heal the would, but gives a moment of relief that eventually aggravates the wound and worsens it.  However, that moment of relief leads to a craving for what is 'unnatural,' in the sense that we are using what is a natural desire but in an unnatural way.

So, we now have the foundation of sexual abuse and addiction.  As with other addictions, the line between abuse and addiction is blurry until one tries to stop.

Over the next few posts, I would like to step into this arena and go through the various aspects of this addiction.  It is a major problem, even in the Church:  the majority of clergy disciplinary situations I have witnessed in my time as a priest have involved sexual misconduct.  It is a tragedy that plays out over and over again.

What is more difficult about this activity is that abuse of sexuality breeds a type of shame which is exceedingly difficult to bear.  The sheer weight of one's shame can often drive one immediately into acting out again.  Although shame is part of all addictions, sexuality abuse is by far one of the most shameful.  Even when sexual perversion is 'permitted' (I live in Los Angeles and grew up as one raised in Sodom!), it still continues to impose an unhappy burden on those who have been 'freed' from moral constraints.

Our modern environment has led to extreme positions in regards to sex: one is Augustinian, relegating all sexual desire to the 'sin bin' and calling humans to live in utter asexual conditions in order to avoid sin (often misrepresented as 'purity' or the 'Angelic Life' as if to say we should act as if we don't have bodies), while the other sanctions every impulse as valid and natural, even going so far as to say that humans have no ability to govern their impulses and must act out.  These are two sides of the same coin: puritanism is not a cure for the passions, but merely a masking of their symptoms.  Them again, hedonism forces you to do everything, even when it is killing you.  Neither of these stands offers healing from the passions that aggravate unnatural sexual desires.

St. Paul has an interesting take on the matter: if you can avoid the drives of sexuality, don't feel like you have to get married to fulfill social expectations.  Then again, don't push yourself into celibacy if you can't handle the temptations-

Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:

It is good for a man not to touch a woman.  Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.  Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband.  The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.  

Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment.  For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.

But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am;  but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1Cor 7:1-9)

Marriage is a lot of work, and sexual acting-out is relatively easy in its selfish orientation.  To St. Paul, asexuality is a gift, and it appears not to be universal.  The rest of us must find a way to deal with our desires in a healthy way.

I may draw some disapproval from certain quarters of both the addictions community (particularly 13th Steppers [], those outside of Sexaholics Anonymous who don't apply the Steps to their sex lives) and even some clergy, where certain segments have been influenced by Augustinianism and seek to encourage Christians to renounce their sexuality.  You can usually tell who these people are because they actually love to talk about sex in graphic and indignant terms.  What I am advocating for here is that we draw a healthy line as described by St. Paul and avoid the extremes advocated by a minority on the fringes.

In future posts, we will examine this topic and the loneliness of porneia.  If you want to email me confidential questions or observations (that's been part of having this blog), I will not divulge your identity.

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