Male sexual addiction is the focus of more and more studies and articles, yet there is often little in the way of information available to women who are dealing with addictive behaviors. As with many other issues, women are often left to read a resource primarily written for men and then try to adapt it to their own situations. Everyone (both male and female) must do a bit of translating when seeking to apply self-help materials, as everyone is different. But the forces driving sex addiction for women can be very different than those driving men. Women need their own resources. I will at least refer to a couple.
The shame of addiction
While there is great shame associated with sexual struggles and addiction in general, it can especially be so for women. Marnie Ferree describes this in her book No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction, “As if the shame of being addicted to sex isn’t bad enough, the stigma of being a woman who struggles with this problem is particularly intense …. Our culture has the attitude that ‘boys will be boys’ or that illicit sexual behavior is ‘just a male thing.’ A female who has a sexual addiction is considered especially perverted. After all, women aren’t even supposed to like sex. We’re the ones with the proverbial headaches.” 1
Lest we vilify sex and those women who participate in it and (gasp) enjoy it, it is helpful to have a common definition of addiction. Patrick Carnes has provided a simple and helpful one, “being addicted is to have a pathological relationship with a mood altering substance or behavior.”2 While sex is intended to be good, the way people use it can lead them astray. When someone begins to use sex to ease their loneliness or to express their anger or to avoid feeling sadness and this is repeated (pathological), one is in danger of becoming addicted to sex. It becomes an outlet and coping strategy for emotions that are not about sex or healthy connection with another.
Later in her book, Ferree talks about the “double bind” that Christian women face in our culture. There are multiple messages that women take on, some of which are completely contradictory. “I must be good to be worthy of love.”3 Many girls are taught from an early age that they must be good, obedient, polite, submissive to men, and humble. While these are virtues that deserve varying degrees of discussion, these are often taught in such ways that are to the detriment of the woman’s personality and personhood.
Mixed Messages about Sex
“If I’m sexual, I’m bad.”3 This message is very confusing. A woman who is sexual outside of marriage is considered a slut or a whore. Men are often praised for the same behavior. That is hardly fair treatment, particularly when “it takes two to tango.” This is not just a religious message, but one that the secular parts of culture adhere to as well. If having sex outside of marriage is in conflict with a person’s values, then acting outside of this value system can trigger deep feelings of shame. It is, however, important to make a distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt says, “I did something bad.” Shame says, “I am bad.” If I did something bad, then I can do something different next time. If I believe I am inherently bad and that only bad people do the things I’ve done, then why bother to try and change something that can’t be altered? With this belief system in operation, one can never stop being “damaged goods.”
The Double Bind
“I must be sexual to be lovable.”3 And here is the double bind! I’m bad for being sexual, but I must be sexual to be loved. This is a recipe for isolation and loneliness (and addiction). If I believe I have to be sexual in order to be loved, then there is a good chance that I will be sexual. People need love and if they believe that the only way to get it is through sex, then they will have sex. See how addiction can be rooted so deeply in this conundrum? A woman who believes these mutually exclusive messages can find herself turning more and more to sex, when what she really needs is love. And the shame she feels about being sexual at all either leads to silence and more shame, or to a complete rejection of the perceived source of the shame (religion, faith, values, etc.).
The bind becomes intolerable with the final belief. “I’m not really a woman unless someone desires me sexually or romantically.”4 When being a woman only matters in relation to how men feel about her, women never have a chance to accept themselves as the image bearers that God created them to be. I’m reminded of WGA’s Founding Director Mary Heathman and her testimony. She says, “My identity and self-worth were wrapped up in my ability to attract men sexually.” Hollywood seems to endorse this belief system. How many movies are there where the women are just extras for the men? Or if the story is from the woman’s perspective, her life doesn’t begin until the man of her dreams arrives on the scene. These stories are popular because of the widespread belief that a woman is not really a woman unless she is desired by a man. When this belief holds sway, a woman might find herself sacrificing more and more to be the object of desire. Addiction is just a stepping stone away.
If you are a woman and find that some the points I’ve made about addiction stir you, I encourage you to pick up Marnie Ferree’s book. I also encourage you to talk to someone, whether a friend, pastor or counselor. The greatest contributor to shame is secrecy. Talking to a person you can trust is the antidote to shame.
1 Marnie C. Ferree, No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010), p. 30.
2 Patrick Carnes, Out of the Shadows (Minneapolis: CompCare Publishers, 1983), p. 4.
3 Ferree, p. 40.
4 Ferree, p. 41.
In the spring of 1995, the conflict Roger felt between his faith and his sexuality, as well as an addiction to pornography, led him to WGA. His personal journey has provided him unique insights into sexuality and the pain of adversity, which he shares through his testimony, facilitation of small groups, writing and public speaking.
Roger began working with WGA in October of 1996 as the Assistant office Manager. Since that time, he has worn many hats and served in several different positions, including Assistant Program Director and Operations Director. In April of 2007, Roger assumed the position of Executive Director.
Roger attended West Texas A&M University, where he studied Music Business. Much of his training has been “on the job,” where he was mentored by the ministry’s Founder, Mary Heathman, and the Program Director, Scott Kingry. He holds a BA from West Texas A&M University.
Roger, his wife Jill, and their daughter Julia and son William, attend Celebration Community Church where Jill serves as Associate Pastor.
I really appreciate the blog written about women and sex addiction.
I want to share this testimony in gratitude for this subject being written about here. It means so much that Christians here are showing such Christ-like unjudgemental compassion.
I started to develop a habit of comforting myself as a lonely child. I grew up adding sexual fantasy and pornography to this in my teens. By my twenties, I had become unable to stop. I was addicted. I was aware and ashamed so when I heard the gospel, I embraced the freedom from the guilt of sin and felt the power of God at work in my life.
As a new Christian, I married and thought this was God’s answer to my prayers for the frequent problems with temptation and the relapses. It helped somewhat but I was still ashamed that no matter how I prayed, I still had such impure thoughts and problems with comforting myself. I had problems keeping close to the Lord.
This shame caused me to turn on myself and show another form of the addiction, the total denial of my sexuality which God wanted me to be able to express with my husband. I became sexually anorexic. I was revolted by any sexual contact and did anything to avoid it.
This lasted years, until my mental health broke down and I was diagnosed with Bipolar. My spiritual life fell apart. I was back to comforting myself during times of deep depression and unrestrained in my sexual behaviour when manic.
I could not find my way back. I was so full of shame and isolated that my understanding of God’s love and grace was totally over shadowed by my utter hatred for myself. I was close to taking my life.
I am so thankful that God intervened and brought me help for my mental health and also help with recognising my addiction and finding a recovery programme. I kept beating myself up that my faith was obviously not strong enough for God to free me of my addiction at once but now I can see his hand at work.
He has given me a ministry among other female addicts and a compassion for those whose addiction has brought them to the point of offending.
I have to take it one day at a time. I have to hand over all my difficulties to God every day. I cannot afford to stop that. This addiction has become a blessing because it makes me rely upon God daily. Because of an understanding of my total powerlessness I totally surrender to God. He keeps me from returning to this insanity and helps me to abstain from addictive sexual behaviour. It is something I both need to do and want to do.
I have accepted that keeping in recovery from this addiction may well be for life, unless God has other plans. I can honestly say ‘blessed be the name of the Lord’. I can approach God without all consuming shame.