Sexual addiction

It is interesting to note how admitting one is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or gambling has in a way become socially acceptable. Celebrities and political figures who get into trouble routinely check into rehab centers. This has become a sort of secular confession. They hope to receive public absolution for foolishness and in some cases for criminal behavior by admitting they have a problem. We should not be cynical about this. Although for some the door to treatment centers is a revolving one, many -- often those who are less public about their problem -- do recover their sanity and go on to live clean and sober lives.

The 12 Step Program that began with Alcoholics Anonymous really does work. Millions have started on the road to a new life by following its 12 steps. The 12 steps are spiritual but not specifically religious, however, through the steps many have found their way back to the faith they fell away from. The program was designed for alcoholics but it has been modified to deal with other addictive behavior and also to help the families of addicts to cope with the insanity of addiction.

There is still one addiction, however, that is still beyond the pale -- sexual addiction. Those celebrities who are caught “in flagrante” often conceal the real nature of their problem by claiming that they are really substance abusers and the sexual misbehavior is the unanticipated outcome of their drug or alcohol use. This is sad because the first step to recovery is admitting the true nature of the problem.

Their reticence in admitting to a sexual addiction is understandable, because while alcohol and drug addiction are now understood for what they are, sexual addiction is for the most part treated as a joke. There is nothing funny about compulsive sexual risk taking.

Sexual addiction has very little in common with the act of marital love. The sexual addict receives a high similar to that caused by drugs, not so much from the sexual act as from the anticipation, risk of discovery, or fantasy. This “high” becomes addictive. When it wears off, the addict feels depressed and needs another fix. Once is never enough.

While there are treatment programs, they are not as available as substance abuse programs and recovery is a difficult process. This is in spite of the fact that sexual addiction -- particularly addiction to Internet pornography -- is growing exponentially. The negative effects on marriage and family life are real. In addition, we are in the midst of a pandemic of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual addiction certainly contributes to the problem.

It is time for us to stop laughing and take this problem seriously. As a country and specifically as Catholics we need to understand the nature of sexual addiction and to be sure that treatment and recovery programs as well as spiritual support are available for the sexual addicts and their family members. We also need to look at the causes. Prevention is always better than treatment.

There is evidence that sexual child abuse and early exposure to sexually explicit materials play a part in the development of sexual addiction. It is essential that we protect the innocence of children -- no easy task in our sex-saturated culture. While we certainly need to monitor television and Internet use, we also must protect children from inappropriate and sexually explicit “sex education” programs in public schools -- programs, which encourage unhealthy curiosity and experimentation, programs which give children the impression that the only risk involved in sexual activity is disease and pregnancy. Condoms will not protect the child against sexual addiction.

While an adult that exposes himself to a child is arrested, sex education teachers who expose innocent children to age inappropriate materials are paid to do so. We are rightly outraged when adults molest children, but some sex education programs encourage sexual experimentation -- and on whom will the children experiment? On other, younger or more vulnerable children. There is nothing innocent about this.

Parents are often unwilling to remove their children from inappropriate sex education programs because they fear that the child will experience teasing or be deprived of other useful information. I faced this problem with my own children and I can assure those parents that, looking back, neither my children nor I regret the decision.

While the shame involved in sexual addiction will undoubtedly cause most addicts to stay in the closet, we need to pray for those so afflicted even if we don’t know their names and to make sure that they know that there is no sin so shameful that it puts them beyond the grace and mercy of Our Lord.

Dale O’Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of “The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality.”