The number of people in the United States living with sex addiction is estimated to be anywhere from 12 to 30 million people. Sex is, of course, is an important part of our human relationships. So no wonder that so many families are struggling with sex addiction these days. Porn is a big factor of addiction, and studies have shown that starting to use pornography during marriage increases the likelihood of divorce. (See the study findings here.) Some even state that porn contributes to 500,000 divorces annually. Why is sex addiction so pervasive? What is it, and what opportunities for treatment are available if you or someone you know is struggling with sex addiction?
These are just some of the questions I’m going to be talking about with my guest today. Sam John John is a licensed professional counselor and certified sex addiction therapist He has a practice at Breaking Free Solutions located here in North Texas but offering services to couples around the country.
- What is sex addiction?
- How young are our kids accessing porn these days?
- What impact does porn have on their developing brain?
- Are filters effective for parents trying to control a child’s access to porn?
- What are some of those indicators that point out that one is addicted to sex?
- What steps should a concerned spouse take if their partner seems to be struggling with sexual addictions?
- What is the role of shame in the addiction cycle?
- What resources are available for partners who discover that this is now part of their life?
- What are the available opportunities or treatments for sex addiction?
- How do you work on building back the trust between couples affected by addiction to sex?
- Why is sex addiction not recognized, and how does that impact our cultural view of what’s happening in the throes of sex addiction?
- A message of hope for people with this in their lives or family.
What Is Sex Addiction?
Sex addiction is two things for me. One, it’s an illness of escape. It’s how men and women – but mostly I’ll talk from a male perspective – escape from the realities of life, and the more they escape, the more their reality becomes distorted. Secondly, is the compulsivity of the need and the desire for looking at porn or acting out in some form or another. And porn is the gateway to really maladaptive behaviors like having affairs, prostitution, strip clubs, things of that nature.
Back in the day, it used to be that maybe somebody’s dad would have a stash of Playboys, but now if you have a handheld device, you have access to porn.
Yeah, exactly. It’s everywhere and anywhere. And it’s right there at your fingertips. And so what used to be just a magazine that you used to stash away is a lot more accessible because of the technology that we have. You’ve got your cell phones, you’ve got your iPads, laptops, you name it. And even gaming devices have access to pornography as well. And so there’s a wide variety of ways to be able to view porn and get really entangled into that world.
A mistaken belief that I had was that porn was accessible only if you paid for it. So I thought kids wouldn’t be able to access it unless they had a credit card, but it was a big shocker to realize that that’s not the case.
Yes. A lot of the porn sites like Pornhub and other sites give free access to little video clips; maybe it’s 5, 10 minutes, or whatever to hook you in. And if you watch that – and they’ve got quite a few of the free ones – if you get entangled in those videos, they know you’re going to want more. And if you want more, you’re going to have to pay for the full access.
I think it’s really important for parents to know how available this is.
How Young Are Kids Accessing Porn These Days?
A lot of clients that I’ve dealt with over the years stated that they started watching porn as early as 8, 9, 10. The clients that I deal with are obviously a little bit older. So they started with the porn stash of magazines and things of that nature. The younger clients that I see in their twenties have acceseds it just by going online. And mom and dad don’t know what’s going on. In our culture today, there is a lot of detachment in the family. Kids go off into their room, close the door, and supposedly do homework or just talk to friends. Mom and dad don’t realize what is really happening behind that closed door.
What Impact Does Porn Have On the Developing Brain?
A lot of addictions start from some form of trauma. And what I mean by trauma is like exposure to addictions at a very young age. Perhaps they grew up seeing mom and dad having alcohol issues, drug issues, maybe even porn addictions as well. So it has been modeled to them that when mom and dad fail to deal with life stressors, they turn to something else to find relief. That is one of the things. Another is that sometimes when a child grows up in a very authoritarian household, there may be a lot of rules and regulations, but there’s not a whole lot of grace in that house. And so, there’s always this need to be perfect at everything that they do.
And if they can’t achieve perfection, they get overwhelmed by emotions that they don’t know how to deal with. And then they find and slip into porn at a very young age: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; whatever the age may be. They find porn through their friends. Then they get entangled in that, and then the brain finds a sense of relief from everything that they were going through. This creates the addiction cycle for that child in that, “Every time I get overwhelmed by the things that are going on in my life, I go to this thing, and it helps me to feel a sense of relief.”
And another reason why kids go into porn is that sex has been shamed at a very young age. Mom and dad do not have the words to talk to their kids about sex. Mom and dads are kind of like, “Hey, look, I don’t know what to say about that, so you take that one.” Right? And so they’re always kind of divvying up. ” Well, you take it.” “No, you take it.” And so there’s just difficulty about having that conversation around sex. And so sex has become this forbidden fruit. Because they can’t seem to find the words, mom and dad will sit there and say, “Just don’t do it. Sex is bad.” Right?
So then when they are curious, instead of being able to turn to mom and dad, the kids look for answers elsewhere.
And, of course, that’s not really anything new. I mean, in terms of kids, asking each other about sex or passing notes. But now, the information that’s available can be really overwhelming for a young person since they don’t have the framework to put it in. So, family conversations are super important. It sounds like one of today’s takeaways.
Super important. But even before you have those conversations with the child, mom and dad have to be able to have the conversations with each other. Because if they can have those healthy conversations, then the conversations with the child will go well because the child sees mom and dad are comfortable with the topic. They’re relaxed and united on this conversation or topic. So then the child can talk freely with mom and dad about this topic because they don’t have any shame around it. But if mom and dad have some shame, the child picks up on the fact that this is a forbidden thing and that there’s something wrong with this topic. So the child just says, “Okay, sure, whatever.” And then everyone goes on their way. But if the child picks up that they can have a two-way conversation with their parents on the subject, rather than the parents just telling them about sex and not to do it – that helps out a lot.
Are Filters Effective for Parents Trying to Control a Child’s Access to Porn?
Yeah. Look, it’s a lot better than no filters, right? One of the things that I tell my guys to put on their devices is Covenant Eyes. That’s one of the apps that you can install on any technology. There’s another one called Accountable2You. Those are the two apps that screenshot whatever they are looking at. It takes snapshot of their screen, and looks for certain trigger words like sex, hot, babe. The app then captures that information and sends it to their accountability partner, which tends to be me.
That help a parent know what their child is looking at and how to have those conversations. And I would think the important thing would be to open up the lines of communication, not to heap piles of shame on your kid.
Correct. And once again, I’m going back to being able to have those healthy dialogues. So it’s healthy conversations normalizing the fact that a child is curious rather than shaming that child for their curiosity. It’s very common for a child at a very young age to start to be curious about their own bodies and their sexual organs. ” How does this play out?” “What does this mean?” And the feelings that come from all of that. Parents should be able to normalize that for a child and say, “This is normal; this is part of child development.” “We expected this, so let’s have a conversation.”
What Are Some Indicators That One Is Addicted to Sex?
In a relationship, just because somebody is accessing porn doesn’t mean they have a sex addiction, right?
Correct. Just because an individual is looking at porn doesn’t necessarily mean there’s an addiction there. I’m going to use an example of chocolate cake. I love chocolate cake, but just because I like chocolate cake doesn’t necessarily mean that I have a food addiction. The addiction comes from the compulsivity that I’m constantly thinking about and wanting that chocolate cake.
That’s where it becomes more pervasive as an addiction. And if you go to breakingfreesolutions.com we have a free assessment that anybody can take to determine if you have a sex addiction or not. There are 10 criteria that you have to meet, and out of those 10, all you need to do is just meet three out of the 10 to classify as having an addiction.
One indicator of sex addiction is if you are looking at porn and know you shouldn’t be, but you can’t stop. When the compulsion to go back is really overwhelming for you. And you just can’t seem to break that.
Another indocator is that there’s an escalation as you tend to go into porn and start to act out in sexual behaviors. That it’s no longer just looking at porn, but now you’re going into prostitution. Now there are affairs, now there’s online apps, right? There’s an escalation.
Another indicator is that you can’t seem to stop that cycle, and it starts to permeate into your relationships. That you’re no longer being able to connect with your family. You’re no longer able to be as productive and effective at work. You are no longer attached or involved in social activities. Those are some of those signs that say that there’s probably an addiction taking place.
What Steps Should a Concerned Spouse Take if Their Partner Is Struggling With Sexual Addictions?
There’s a book that I would recommend for the sex addict’s partner. That book is called Mending a Shattered Heart by Stefanie Carnes. It’s a great book that gives the partner a really good perspective of what’s going on, what is happening to their partner and how is it impacting the relationship, and some things that he or she needs to be considering as they think through, “Does my partner truly have a sex addiction?” That’s one resource that I would recommend.
Another one is just being able to have an honest conversation with your spouse – and not shaming him or her – just expressing concern, “I don’t know if this is real or if this is true, but it seems like based on what I’ve heard and what I’ve learned about sex addiction, as small as it may be, that there may be something here that we need to look into.” “And that we are not able to connect concerns me. I would love for us to be able to have the opportunity to go look into this and see if there’s something that we can do to get help.”
If that doesn’t work, then what I usually tell that partner is to come in and get help for themselves and to find ways to get their partner to potentially come in and talk about it. And then that partner also needs to learn how to set boundaries with the ‘addict.’
What Is the Role of Shame in the Addiction Cycle?
One of the things I know from working with a lot of partners through the divorce process is that there’s so much shame for both people. I know for the person who is in the throes of the addictive behavior and then also for the partner feeling like he or she is not enough or whatever it is.
Shame is the main driver behind the whole system of addiction. It’s the genesis of it. The addictive cycle is two cycles. The top cycle or the original cycle is the belief system. And the belief system that generates the addiction is ” I’m not good enough.” Or “I feel like I’m not smart enough, handsome enough, good looking enough,” whatever it may be that causes the person to have impaired thinking about themselves, about the world around them and the relationships that they are in. “That I’m only good if I do these things and if I can’t or I’m making you disappointed, I feel shame.” “And I can’t deal with the fact that I feel so much shame inside of myself that I need to find something or someone else to help me escape this feeling of shame.”
Whatever the addictive behavior is, it doesn’t make you feel like you’re good enough. It doesn’t bring you to that place. It makes you just feel more of the shame; it perpetuates more.
Absolutely. And then that’s why I love using the chocolate cake analogy, right? Everybody loves chocolate cake, but there are emotional eaters; they’d go to chocolate cake and eat that chocolate cake and feel so good afterwards. But then immediately afterward, there’s this deep sense of guilt and shame about the fact that I just ate, not a slice, but two or three slices. And they feel so bad about the fact that they did that, that they say, “I’m never going to touch this again. I’m never going to eat chocolate cake.”
Then they go about as normal for a few days, until they get into a stressful situation, and then their brain immediately goes to, “Hey, that cake helped. Let’s go back there again because I can’t seem to deal with all of this.” So there’s shame in that as well. And then you’re right. The betrayed partner has a deep sense of shame and confusion, and their identity gets turned upside down.
Acknowledgment has to happen that this is a part of our life, and by the way, it’s a part of a lot of people’s lives. So, if we could have more conversations about it, we could really help demystify and take away the shame and shine light because sex addiction is something that is happening in a lot of marriages these days.
What Resources Are Available for Partners Who Discover That This Is Now Part of Their Life?
One of the things, as I said, is the free assessment. You just answer 10 questions. And if you’ve answered yes to three or more of those questions, there’s a likelihood that there is an addiction going on. And if that’s the case, we would love for you to be able to come in and meet with us and meet with me specifically, and do a full assessment on what’s going on. “What’s the situation? What’s your life like?”
And then give you two assessments that you can also take online that really get under the hood. “What are the things in addiction that you struggle with?” And then that is where our work is, to be able to unravel all of that and address that in a more healthy way.
The thing that I tell a lot of my guys that come in to do this work is, they say, “I just want to get sober.” “I just want to beat this thing.” “I don’t want to struggle with this anymore.” And so what I tell those guys is, “Hey, look, my goal here is not to try to get you to a place of sobriety.” However, that is a by-product of what I want to do for them. But the main goal for what I want to do for these guys is to be able to help them have a connection because if they can have a healthy connection with human beings, not just with their partner, but with people, their need to go to this thing when they are in distress is going to start to go away.
Because they will find a healthy attachment to an individual that cares for them, loves them, and wants the best for them. And if they can find that healthy attachment to a real person, the attachment that they created to this virtual world starts to dissipate.
You know, it’s interesting as you talk about that; it brings to mind that we often focus so much on the couple who’s dealing with sex addiction but from what you’re saying, the addiction impacts broader relationships. I imagine the parent-child relationships and relationships with other family members.
Absolutely, I’ve had wives that have come in and said “My husband is no longer engaged with the kids.” Like to get him to come to the soccer games, to the recitals, to this activity, to that activity or social activities, is so difficult because he just isn’t present. And it’s not just physically he’s not present, but emotionally, mentally, he’s just not engaged. And one of the goals behind the work that I do is to help build that connection of engagement, of attachment, and being able to really express verbally and emotionally what’s going on with you so that your partner can be a resource to you being able to find a healthy solution.
What Are the Available Opportunities or Treatments for Sex Addiction?
For the many people who are dealing with this and just feel completely hopeless and overwhelmed, let’s discuss the hopeful side of the work that you’re doing.
Yeah. So, we take a three-prong approach at Breaking Free Solutions. One is we work with the addict, really opening up that box that they’ve closed up for decades. And that means is going back to their childhood, looking for any kind of trauma that they’ve experienced, any shame that they experienced at a very young age, maybe mom and dad could have been very hypercritical and demeaning, or just distant, neglectful, abandoned.
Those kinds of traumatic moments play a huge role. So there are a lot of therapies that we do to help deal with that trauma from their childhood. And then it’s also helping that individual to start to cope, coming up with healthier coping strategies rather than going to porn. It’s to exercise, to do mindfulness, to be able to have conversations and identify your emotions and express those emotions.
A lot of men don’t really understand what emotions they have other than happy, sad, and angry. That’s their vocabulary, right? That was me. I mean, that was the extent of my vocabulary. And I had to really extend that vocabulary and learn more about, “Wait, what’s truly going on inside of me?” And then being able to be comfortable and safe enough to be able to express that to my partner. So that’s a lot of the work that we do with the addict.
The second prong is dealing with the betrayed partner. She or he is going to be going through a lot of disappointment, betrayal work, boundary work. They don’t really understand what the situation is and “why would he do this?” There are a lot of insecurities that come for that individual. They feel very less than, they don’t feel very attractive. “There must be something wrong with me,” and so their identity gets rocked. And it’s very similar to as if they found out that they were adopted.
Yeah. I mean, that’s interesting because I definitely have seen so many people struggle with that because it is a total identity shift. The person you thought you were married to, the life you thought you were building together, that feels like a complete lie.
And that can be so hard to overcome. It’s really hard not to take it personally. Sex is so personal, and it can be so hard when you find out that your partner is having sex with other people, whether in the throes of addiction or not.
Yeah. Or even just the videos the guy’s watching and comparing his partner to those women on the screen. It’s just like, “I can’t even compare to that.” And so there’s a deep sense of insecurity that comes from all of that, that she or he needs to work through. The betrayed partner has to come out of that situation having learned to set boundaries, to really settle into his or her own identity and what that means. They have to do betrayal work and grief counseling, which is another component to helping the partner heal.
If we’re working with the addict and we’re working with the partner, then the third prong is to be able to bridge that gap, bring them together and do couples therapy and learning and teaching them how to communicate, how do we rebuild intimacy emotionally, mentally, physically, and just creating a safe space for both of them. So that’s the three-prong approach that we take.
One of the things I’ll just comment on is that a lot of times, there’s a lot that wasn’t right with a marriage right before we even discovered the sex addiction piece of it. This is an opportunity if people are willing to roll up their sleeves, reach out, and engage with a therapist like you. This can really be an opportunity to develop the authentic relationship that you both yearn for.
Correct. The authentic relationship comes from two authentic people. When you can bring two authentic people, you’re going to have a really great attachment with them. Because they have learned who each person truly is. “Now I know who you truly are, I get to have a choice in choosing you.”
How Do You Work on Building Back the Trust Between Couples Affected by Sex Addiction?
So whether it’s pornography or not, we deal with a lot of couples that come in with broken trust because of infidelity or just lies and secrecy. And so, a lot of that is rebuilding trust by boundaries. We’ve got to really put some nice, healthy boundaries around that relationship for both of them to feel like, “Okay, I feel safe enough to move forward.” Because if we can’t create and establish that foundation of healthy boundaries, there’s just no way that any one person will be able to trust in that relationship. So boundary work is like one of those first steps that we have to do.
Accountability. Another thing that we have to teach both individuals specifically, the man or the addict, is the ability to take accountability for what it is that he has done. A lot of men feel so much shame about what they’ve done by acting out in certain ways. Their partner is still stuck at square one. “Because you’re still stuck at square one, you’re always grieving. I don’t like the fact that you’re grieving all the time, so let’s just move forward.” And I have to teach the man to be able to say, “Hey, let’s just sit here.” And just grieve with your partner rather than pushing your partner two steps ahead when she or he may not be ready.
It’s really, really important work. There is some controversy over the issue of sex addiction. In the last manual, the DSM, I know it wasn’t recognized as a formal diagnosis.
Why Is Sex Addiction Not Recognized in Psychology?
So a lot of that is due to the battle in the psychology world of whether this is truly an addiction or not. I tend to believe that it is because it fits the exact model of all the other addictions out there, whether it’s heroin, cocaine, or alcohol, whatever it may be. There’s this compulsivity that aligns with all the other addictions. So I’m not sure why we don’t call this sex addiction either, but I’m in that camp that believes that we need to treat this very similar to the other addictions. Sex addiction is one of those topics that has a co-morbidity with the other addictions.
So if you’ve got sex addiction, you most likely have other addictions as well. And that’s what I’ve seen with a lot of my men; there’s alcohol addiction to it, alcoholism. There tends to be a lot of use with drugs, street drugs, or just prescription drugs. And then there’s also emotional eating, food addiction. A lot of these guys can’t seem to break the sex addiction very well, which leads straight to other forms of addiction.
One of the things that’s important too is that just because it is labeled as addiction doesn’t mean it’s excusable. It doesn’t mean that there’s no personal responsibility associated with that.
How Does Calling Something an Addiction Really Inform How We Respond to It?
It’s a brain issue. It’s a chemical in your brain that creates this compulsivity towards the thing that you are addicted to. You can’t just will your way through it, right? You have to be able to look at this as a brain science and neuroscience approach to being able to wean an individual off of that thing that there’s this compulsion towards. And so a lot of it is really being able to see it as truly an addiction because if you don’t see it as an addiction, then you’re going to minimize and dismiss the severity of what really is needed. I’ve seen many guys come in here and say, “Well Sam John, hey look, yeah, I don’t think it’s an addiction. I think it’s just something that I struggle with, but I can beat it anytime I want.”
And we hear that with other things, just like alcohol and others.
Correct. And so just being able to deal with the 12-step approach or coming to terms with that, that’s like huge for a lot of guys. Luckily I have a lot of guys, not luckily for them; they come in here getting past the denial. They’re like, “Okay, I got a problem,” because everything blew up. Their wife found out, their friends found out, whatever it may be, and their world has just completely blown up.
And now they’re coming in saying, “Okay, I’ve got an issue. How do I deal with this?” I’ve got some guys that come in and say,” Okay, I don’t think it’s an addiction like my wife thinks, but I may have some issue with this porn thing. But look, Sam John, I can beat this in a couple of months. So let’s do these sessions just to appease my wife, and then I can get through this.” And they come to realize, “No, I truly do have a problem here.”
Are You Working Through a 12-Step Program With Them?
It is a 12-step program. It’s a 30-task model that we use from Patrick Carnes, who is the creator of this approach. And it has been tested and is evidence-based. And so that’s the reason why I got certified to be a sex addiction therapist. He has been using that approach for decades, and it has been very effective. And it does follow the 12-step process as well. Just like you would see at AA.
A Message of Hope for People With Coping With Sex Addiction in Their Lives or Family.
My statement of hope to any individual that is struggling with this, male or female, is that you can take your life back. You don’t have to be shackled to this thing anymore. You can start to come out of the fog and really see life the way it was meant to, and then really start to attach to people and connect with people in a way that you will truly feel safe, loved, and accepted by those who want to love you, rather than being detached from this world and living a distorted life. There is so much more; there’s abundant life on this side. You just have to take that first step.
That’s a great message of hope. Thank you so much for being here. And if you want to learn more about Sam John John and his practice at Breaking Free Solutions, we’ll include a link to his website, and we hope you’ll follow up with him. Thank you so much for joining us today.