Hidden Shame: The Growing Problem of Sexual Addiction

Understanding the past and patterns of a secret sin.

by Carol McGalliard

The final strains of the wedding processional ring through the sanctuary. A radiant bride gazes into the eyes of the beaming groom and vows that she will “love, honor, and cherish this man . . . in sickness and health, for better, for worse . . . until death.” Little does she know the test her vows will be given by something her groom has concealed from her: his addiction to sex. With 6-8 percent of the U.S. population (16 -21.5 million people) classified as sex addicts [1], this scenario repeats itself hundreds of times yearly.

God made sex for procreation, so how can it be addictive? Webster’s dictionary defines addiction as the condition of giving oneself up to some strong habit. Quantity is not the issue; addictions are defined by the effects on the person’s life. Dr. Patrick Carnes, a pioneer in the field, defines sexual addiction as any sexually related, compulsive behavior that interferes with normal living and causes stress on family, friends, and one’s work environment [2]. Sex becomes the organizing principle of addicts’ lives.

Addictive behavior

A sex addict receives the same euphoric high from the endorphins released during orgasm that one receives from using drugs. “We have learned that addictive obsession can exist in whatever generates significant mood alteration, whether it be the self-nurturing of food, the excitement of gambling, or the arousal of seduction,” says Carnes.

Sexual addicts engage in persistent and escalating patterns of sexual behavior despite increasing negative consequences to themselves and others. This goes beyond sexual lust. Dr. Mark Laaser, a recovering addict who conducts workshops for recovering sexual addicts, says, “[Sexual addiction] is unmanageable. It gets worse as an addict needs more and more to achieve the same high, it serves to medicate and escape feelings, and it leads to severe consequences, even death.” Addictive sexual behaviors include

  • compulsive masturbation
  • multiple affairs
  • consistent use of pornography
  • indecent phone calls
  • sexual massage, escorts, prostitutes
  • prostitution [3]

Early causes

What happens to make sex addictive? Biological, psychological, and spiritual factors combine in a peculiar mix. William Murphy, Ph.D., directs the Child and Adolescent division for the study and treatment of adolescent sex offenders at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. Murphy describes sexual addiction as an early onset disorder, one rooted in childhood and adolescent problems. If a child’s need for love is unmet, that unmet need will resurface later as addictive or inappropriate behavior. When sex is portrayed as filthy or forbidden, the child’s feelings about his sexuality become distorted and later result in inappropriate sexual behaviors. When sex and love are separated from one another and sex is used to fill the emptiness, addiction begins.

Sex addicts are often dealing with traumatic memories. According to the National Council for the Protection of Children and Families (NCPCF), 83 percent of sexual addicts report being sexually abused, 75 percent physically abused, and 97 percent emotionally abused/neglected as children. Abused children view themselves through the stigma of abuse, a shame-based perspective rather than God’s perspective. Their spiritual beliefs are interwoven with their shameful beliefs about themselves. A core healing issue for addicts, therefore, is learning to accept God’s love.

Other issues

Generational addiction is another issue related to sexual addiction. Carnes reports that 87 percent of the sex addicts in his study indicated they had parents or siblings who were sex addicts. Kim Whitehurst, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in treating sex addicts, also believes it is a generational problem. “I rarely treat a male who doesn’t have sexual addiction in his family of origin. I hear stories about a granddad who was caught in adultery or had a pornographic stash. Sometimes I’ll do a genealogy with a client and we’ll look back and see that there were sexual problems for generations.”

Pornography use is another common element in sexual addiction. In Don’t Call It Love, Dr. Carnes cites a study of 932 sex addicts. Ninety percent of the men and 77 percent of the women questioned said pornography was significant to their addictions [4]. Dr. Doug Weiss of Heart to Heart Counseling Center says that pornography combined with fantasy masturbation is the cornerstone for most sex addicts’ behavior.

Progressive pattern

Sexual addiction is progressive. It starts with mild forms of sexual behavior and then escalates. The addict starts with fantasies, then looks for ways to act them out. He reaches the point where he cannot exist without the high received from his sex habits. The addict becomes dissatisfied with this high and progresses to more serious behaviors. Eventually, he becomes immersed in extreme behaviors that he cannot stop. Many addicts want desperately to quit and promise themselves they will, but most experts agree that they cannot do so without intervention.

Most sex addicts begin with fantasy masturbation, usually associated with pornography. Some escalate to a severe addiction to masturbation. Others progress to affairs, some to prostitution (either hiring prostitutes or becoming one), and a few to criminal behaviors like incest and rape.

Double lives

The shameful nature of sexual addiction compels addicts to lead double lives. Most of them struggle with honesty. Laaser was a minister, a respected member of the community. But he was trapped in a secret addiction to lust on which he spent more and more time and money. “I desperately wanted God to remove all my lust . . . I became angry with God that He wouldn’t do that . . . Many addicts have an agenda they want the Lord to do. We want God to be the person who magically fixes the problem. That’s why the first step is to admit that I have no control over my life or over God or over my addiction.”

Many addicts marry expecting the marriage relationship to eliminate the drive for porn, fantasy, and masturbation. Eighty percent of all married sex addicts believe this. Because a sex addict lacks the skills or the desire for true intimacy, he soon returns to his habit.

Keys to recovery

Many experts believe the key factor in recovery is breaking silence. Secrecy perpetuates the problem and allows it to escalate. An addict also needs to find a safe place to reveal his secret, a place where his soul is important and he can escape his shame. A recovery group like Sexaholics Anonymous (SA), where an addict is encouraged and held accountable, is essential.

A recovering addict needs an individual accountability partner, or sponsor, who will help him devise a protection plan. This plan addresses how the addict will stay away from addictive conduct. It involves educating himself about the addiction and establishing healthy ways to entertain himself. Christian counselors consider Bible study and prayer basic parts of recovery. Professional help is imperative.


Many sex addicts shy away from the church because they fear rejection and condemnation if they reveal their secret. Addicts who are involved in church often continue in secrecy, hoping that exposure to “spiritual” things will take care of the problem. While some accuse the church of being too judgmental about sexual sin, others have found help and healing there. Many churches open their doors to groups like SA. After sex addicts feel accepted in their support groups, they often find courage to venture to church sanctuaries. Two recovering addicts noted the greatest demonstration of God’s love has been the willingness of the church to forgive them and then hold them accountable. “I can believe in God’s forgiveness because I see forgiveness acted out by His church,” said one.

Paul instructed the Galatians, “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. . . . Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1, 2, NIV). Christ summarized the law in two commandments: First, love the Lord, and second, love others as you love yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).

“The most loving thing a person can do for a sex addict,” says Whitehurst, “is to confront him about his problem without being judgmental. Insist he seek help. Wives need to make it very clear that they will not tolerate this kind of behavior.” Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family calls this tough love, and a problem this tough requires tough love. Ignoring the problem is not love, nor is turning away the needy. Love seeks out the broken and offers healing and restoration.


  1. Cooper, Alvin, Dana E. Putman, Lynn Planchon, and Sylvain C. Boies, “Online Sexual Compulsivity: Getting Tangled in the Net,” Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 6:79-104
  2. SexHelp.com
  3. “Definitions: Sexual Addiction, Sexual Compulsivity and Sexual Offending,” Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health, www.sash.net/
  4. 4. Dr. Patrick Carnes, Don’t Call It Love, p. 57