an interview with Mark Laaser
Mark Laaser, author of Faithful & True: Sexual Integrity in a Fallen World, has been a friend of the NACR since it’s inception. He understands sexual addiction from both personal experience and from working with sex addicts in several treatment programs. In his books and seminars Mark has offered hope and healing to thousands of co-strugglers. We interviewed him recently by phone from his home near Minneapolis, Minnesota.
STEPS: I’d like to start by talking about some of the common myths and misunderstandings about sexual addiction. First of all, there have been quite a few stories in the news recently about sexual offenders. In several conversations about those news reports I have been struck by the fact that people in the Christian community are often unable to distinguish between sexual offenders and sexual addicts.
Mark: It’s a common misunderstanding. But only a very small percentage of sexual addicts become sexual offenders. The cases that make the newspapers are, however, the most perverse cases and therefore have an exaggerated effect on people’s perception of the problem of sexual addiction. But offenders are only 1 percent or less of the people who struggle with sexual addiction. It’s important to remember than a sexual offender is a person who has used physical force to gain sexual access or who has used some kind of emotional or even spiritual force to gain control over a person physically, emotionally or spiritually in order to gain sexual access. That improper use of force or authority is what, in my mind, puts a person in the category of sexual offender. For example, a pastor who uses the authority of his role to gain sexual access to people who respect that authority – that’s what we mean by sexual offender.
STEPS: Most sexual addicts are not in that category?
Mark: No. For a person to commit a sexual offence there may also have to be other emotional or spiritual problems present. It may not be just pure sexual addiction. There have been a couple of studies that have suggested that among incarcerated sexual offenders, people in jail for their actions, only about 50% are sexual addicts. So there are obviously some other dynamics going on with sexual offenders in addition to sexual addiction.
STEPS: Another myth I suppose, and this is a strange one, is that sexual addiction is a desirable thing. I had one person recently tell me that, if there were such a thing as sexual addiction, he’d really like to know how to get it. His understanding, obviously not very well informed, was that sexual addicts were probably people who really enjoyed sex and had a lot of it.
Mark: That’s kind of an old and not very funny joke. The idea that sexual addicts are somehow having a lot of fun is just not the case. Repetitive sexual activity that looses all of its meaning and spontaneity is very, very destructive. I suspect that comments like this are just a reflection of feeling kind of left out of the sexual circus in our culture – but if you’ve been to this particular circus you would know how much pain is involved. Sexual addiction offers no pleasure – only loneliness, emptiness, hopelessness and despair. Not the kinds of things anyone would want.
I worked with a man recently whose family owns one of the largest production companies for pornographic movies in the country. He has been involved in the production of every kind of film imaginable and consequently has been involved in every kind of sexual activity you might dream of. After 20 years of this kind of life he said that what he is really longing for now is a committed, normal relationship with one woman. He would trade all of his experiences to be able to find the simple joys of faithful, heterosexual monogamy. Like all of us who struggle with sexual addiction, he did not look back over his years of addiction with fondness. They are lost years. Years of emptiness and pain.
STEPS: A third misconception I run into periodically is that sexual addiction is just a problem which men have.
Mark: It’s certainly not. We’re still in the early days of research on this so good statistics are not really available. But it’s abundantly clear that sexual addiction does not discriminate with respect to gender. It’s an equal opportunity addiction. Two weeks ago we did the first intensive workshop that I’m aware of in the Christian community for female sex addicts. The women who came had essentially the same kinds of problems which male sex addicts experience – problems with pornography, compulsive masturbation, multiple affairs and so on. I came away from this workshop reminded that we’re all in this together.
STEPS: A final misconception is one that is shared with other kinds of recovery I suppose – I still meet people who think that even naming sexual sin as ‘sexual addiction’ is part of an attempt to avoid responsibility for your own actions, your own choices. How to you respond to that kind of concern?
Mark: Well, I think that there is a general attitude in the Christian community that addicts have a moral problem – an unwillingness to really repent and turn your life over to God. Unfortunately, this really misses the point. Most importantly it misses how desperately most addicts have sought salvation, have tried to repent, have tried diligently what their pastors have told them to do but still found their lives to be unmanageable. Most Christian sex addicts have repented sincerely – usually many times. They have turned their lives over to God – usually many times. But the problem remains.
As you know, and the whole recovery community knows, practicing the 12 Steps is the opposite of avoiding responsibility for your actions. When you start working the steps, you work very hard at accepting your own behaviors as yours – rather than working hard at blaming others for your problems. Making a searching moral inventory and making amends to people you have harmed – that’s what it really looks like to be responsible for your own actions and that’s what people in recovery programs do. The last thing the recovery community wants to do is to give an addict another excuse for continuing with their addictive behaviors.
STEPS: I suspect that this concern about recovery comes from hearing about some bizarre legal defense strategies. “I’m innocent by reason of addiction.” But that’s just not what recovery is about is it?
Mark: That’s right. It’s one of the paradoxes of recovery that it is when you admit that you are out of control that you can begin the process of building responsibility back into your life. Coming to terms with the fact that I have no control brings me to the place where, now that I have made this admission and surrendered, I can work on repairing the damage, work on becoming a moral person again, and work on becoming accountable for my behaviors. Recovery is not at all about avoiding responsibility. It is just the opposite.
STEPS: Talk to me a bit more about the person who thinks that sexual addiction is just a spiritual problem.
Mark: Well it is a spiritual problem. There’s no question about that. Addicts feel a great deal of shame, they believe that God has forgiven everyone else but them. But they don’t know how to accept God’s love. So it is clearly a spiritual problem. But we also know enough about sex addiction to understand that there are lots and lots of emotional dynamics involved as well. Family of origin issues are significant – according to the most recent studies available 81% of all sex addicts were sexually abused as children. Now, just to reemphasize what I’ve just said about responsibility, saying that sexual abuse predisposes you to become a sex addict does not excuse the behaviors of sex addicts. But it does emphasize that it is not just a spiritual problem. Sex addicts are often dealing with traumatic memories. There is also growing evidence for a genetic component which predisposes addicts to addiction. When you look at the emotional dynamics and biological dynamics in addition to the spiritual dynamics you have a fuller picture of what is really going on.
Having more than just a moral focus is also important because you can be a sexual addict but never engage in sexually immoral behaviors. Take, for example, the case of the sex addict who never engages in sexual activity with anyone outside of his marriage, yet who engages in sex with his spouse as an escape from intimacy, not as an expression of it. On the surface, he is faithful. But God, looking at his heart, discerns his motives. These “morally correct” sex addicts don’t know how to be emotionally or spiritually intimate with their spouse and believe they will find intimacy in sexual contact. Using sex to mask their loneliness, they are unwittingly driven deeper into loneliness, never revealing their feelings. These sex addicts might even say to themselves, “As long as I remain faithful to my spouse and as long as sex is ‘good’ in our relationship, I don’t have a problem and our relationship is good.” In fact, the relationship is not good, and the sexual activity becomes addictive as a way to avoid the pain of the poor relationship.
STEPS: Every Christian addict I have ever known has done at least two things. They have all decided not to be an addict – most of them have made this decision many times. It’s part of the definition of addiction: to decide not to use but then find yourself using in spite of your decision. And secondly, they have all “given it over to God.” They have tried to remedy the situation by being more devout or more spiritual or more sincere but it didn’t work.
Mark: My own story illustrates that. When I came into recovery I was a minister. I’d been saved since I was a child and I felt like I had surrendered my life to God. But as I look back on it, some of the spiritual stuff that I was doing was an attempt to try to manipulate God. One of the things I desperately wanted God to do was to remove all my lust. I wanted God to take away the problem completely so that I’d never have to struggle with it again. And I became angry with God that he wouldn’t do that. That’s part of the nature of the spiritual problem. Many addicts when they come to the Lord have an agenda for what they want the Lord to do. That’s why the first step is to admit that I have no control over my life, or over God or over my addiction.
STEPS: I have a friend who, early in her recovery, said she really wanted God to take away her addiction to alcohol so that she could keep on drinking.
Mark: Right. Exactly. We want God to be the person who magically fixes the problem. As long as we ‘surrender’ to God but still have expectations of God, that’s not the kind of surrender that the first step is talking about.
STEPS: What kind of advise would you give to someone who knows that something about their sexual life is not working? Suppose someone is anxious about their sexual behaviors, they have heard about the concept of sexual addiction and they want to figure out if that is the problem.
Mark: I would say ideally what you would like to do is to get a very thorough assessment of your situation by a Christian counselor competent enough to be able to do this. I would not try to just read about it or to take my own inventory. I’d try to find someone who could help me figure out what’s going on.
STEPS: Why is self-diagnosis dangerous here?
Mark: Well, we tend to go to either extreme. We overdiagnose ourselves, we worry about having things we might not have. Or, if we’re really an addict, then denial is a major issue and it prevents us from getting clarity about the problem. If a person really is an addict they’ve probably been through so many forms of delusion and denial that they’ve lost all objectivity about what’s really going on. They need a caring person on the outside who can be more objective for them.
The person who helps you make an assessment will also probably be the person who suggests a course of action for the future. And that might involve some very difficult things that I probably want to avoid. It’s kind of like me trying to exercise if I don’t have someone to coach me about how hard to work. Left to my own resources I’m probably not going to work as hard as I need to in order to improve my performance.
STEPS: Talk to me more about overdiagnosis. I’ve met a number of people who have decided that they are sex addicts but when I listen to their story it sounds more like a person who has a lot of sexual shame but is not necessarily an addict. In situations like that, naming yourself as a sex addict may just be another way to add to your sexual shame.
Mark: I’ve seen that a lot too. I’m dealing with a situation right now where a man had a one night affair while on a business trip. He’s never been involved in pornography or other forms of sexual acting out. In part because of the enormous guilt which he feels (and which his wife thinks he should feel!) he has gone to the extreme of calling himself a sex addict. He’s really not. He has committed a sexual sin and he and his wife have a lot of hard work to do to repair their marriage. But to call this an addiction is entirely inappropriate.
STEPS: It’s a serious problem but not sexual addiction. What are the features which help you to distinguish between an addiction and other problems?
Mark: Well, the classic features which apply to any addiction would also apply to sexual addiction. First, addictions are ‘unmanageable.’ This means that there have been numerous attempts to stop in a variety of ways that have been unsuccessful. This implies a repetitive behavior over time – usually over several years. If you look at pornography just once or twice – that may be a problem but it’s not sexual addiction. If you have an ongoing relationship with pornography, have tried to stop and been unable to – then we’re getting into the territory of sexual addiction. Now, the repetition doesn’t have to be every day or every week or every month. Some addicts have a binge type use where they are out-of-control for a day or two or a week and then they stop for a while and then come back to it. So repetitive doesn’t mean that you have a daily habit, it means that over time you have repeatedly come back to it.
Another feature of addiction is that it is destructive over time. There are consequences. Since all addictions are attempts to medicate some unwanted emotional realities, the first consequence is often an emotional numbness. But the consequences cover a huge range – from shame to physical diseases. If it’s an addiction, there will be negative consequences.
A third feature is an increase in the severity of the activity over time. For example, if you masturbate once every couple of months, over time you may see that increase to once a week and then every day and then some people I see in treatment are up to multiple times a day. The progressive nature of the problem doesn’t necessarily mean that you will graduate to new activities or to more serious activities. It might involve that, but it might also mean that you stay with a certain activity, like using pornography, but that you need more and more of it, using it more frequently or spending more money on it.
And then a final feature is that we know that an addict is trying somehow to medicate or escape unwanted feelings. Because sex addicts can’t tolerate painful feelings, they seek to escape the feelings through sexual activity. Research has shown that sexual activity and sexual fantasy can alter brain chemistry and produce profound feelings of pleasure. This can be a beautiful experience between two committed people. Sex addicts, however, are in the business of altering their brain chemistry, and thereby their mood, all the time. They use sex like a drug to produce a high. As the disease progresses, the sex addict cares less and less who the sexual partner is. The main pursuit is the high. Sometimes the danger inherent in promiscuous sexual activity will produce adrenaline that can also be addicting. Sex addicts may pursue dangerous sexual liaisons, such as men who have sex with married women when her husband is due home shortly. They get a high from the sex, from a new partner, and from the danger. In their excitement, they temporarily forget their anxieties, fears, sadness, loneliness or anger.
STEPS: So sexual addiction has a lot in common with substance addiction. It must be really common for people to be cross addicted – to be addicted to both alcohol and sex for example.
Mark: Yes. The research we’ve seen suggests that half of all alcoholics struggle with sexual behaviors and many of them are sexual addicts. The percentages are higher for some other drugs. For example, there have been two studies with inpatient cocaine addicts and roughly 80% of them have been shown to have sexual addiction. So that’s a huge correlation. If you look at the neurochemistry of cocaine it effects the same centers in the brain that are involved in sexual pleasure. So, it’s not too surprising in that sense. There are a lot of other cross addiction as well. Eating disorders are, for example, very common among sex addicts.
STEPS: I remember in your book that you mention Pat Carnes’ comparison of eating disorders and sexual addiction.
Mark: The comparison is basically that there are two opposite extremes with addiction. One is . . .well Pat’s newest book that just came out recently is called Sexual Anorexia. He talks about the fact that there are people who in an attempt to control their sexuality often turn their sexuality off completely. That’s no different than the food addict who is desperately trying to control something by not eating. At the other side of the spectrum is the overeater who just can’t stop eating. Just like the sexual addict who is unable to stop engaging in sexual behaviors. A special case of this extreme would be the food addict who after acting out does something to get rid of the food — purging. This is just like the sex addict who acts out sexually and then does something either to punish themselves or, more commonly in the Christian community and I was in this category, I would do ten wonderfully Christian things to try to make up for the acting out. Addiction is about extremes. Normal healthy eating and normal healthy sexuality lies in the middle somewhere between these extreme options.
STEPS: Talk to us more about the progressiveness of sexual addiction. The image on the cover of this issue of STEPS is of a man climbing a ladder and he’s broken every rung so far but he still keeps climbing.
Mark: I think there are a lot of dimensions to the progression. The climbing up image captures the need for more and more to cause the same effect as well as the futility of the process. And the unmanageability of it all — continuing the same behaviors thinking that the results will be different. But you could also have a climbing down image which captures the spiral down into more degradation and hopelessness. Both are powerful images. Once you have sinned it becomes easier to do it again. That’s one element of the progression. Once you’ve crossed a certain barrier it’s easier to cross others. Once you’ve broken a taboo it becomes easier to break. The other factor is that there is an excitement that sexual activity produces. Just like your first kiss may have totally exhilarated you and then later on you need to kiss for a little longer to get the same effect. That’s the same kind of entrapment that sexual addicts experience in a magnified way. We need more and more and more to just get the same ‘hit.’ Addicts have a very deep connection to ‘if some is good more must be better.’ The neurochemistry of sexuality accounts in part for this because the brain adapts. Just like in alcoholism there is a tolerance factor because the body adapts to exposure.
Sometimes the progressive nature of the problem expresses itself in strange ways. One man I worked with recently started out picking up people for anonymous sex in relatively tame bars. But that got dull and boring after a while. Gradually he moved from bars in the west part of town to bars in the downtown area that were a little more dangerous. By the time he got into recovery he was going to bars in the middle of a most dangerous part of town. He was still basically into one night stands but you could see the progressive nature of the illness and even graph it out on a local street map. He needed increasingly more dangerous situations to get the stimulation he needed.
STEPS: You’ve made the point that progression doesn’t always mean changing behaviors but isn’t it true that many sex addicts also find themselves moving along a path that leads from fantasy to pornography to affairs?
Mark: For most sex addicts there are some basic themes. I think that fantasy is basic for all sex addicts. As a result, one of the central tasks in therapy for sex addicts is to ask what the roots of these fantasies are. What do they point to? Where did they start? What are the basic themes of these fantasies and what do they mean about the emotional and spiritual health of the person. But fantasy is always a corner stone or main building block of sexual addiction. Masturbation is closely connected to fantasy. And pornography is a common element as well for most sex addicts.
In the workshops I’m doing now with the American Family Association this is what we’re mostly seeing. Some people ‘graduate’ to prostitution or being a prostitute or having multiple affairs or on up the ladder of behaviors. Usually there are other underlying problems with people who move on to exhibitionism or what Pat Carnes calls “Level 2” behaviors. Many people never move beyond the basics of fantasy, pornography and masturbation.
STEPS: The level of harm done by those basics can be quite staggering though.
Mark: Absolutely. All these basic elements of sexual addiction are what keep people from facing the underlying problems in their emotional and spiritual life. They are part of a process of not feeling. And the numbness can be devastating emotionally, spiritually and relationally.
STEPS: I know a lot of people when they start to educate themselves about sexual addiction feel a kind of heaviness or hopelessness about these kinds of problems so I want to talk about reasons for hope. There really is help available, isn’t there? This is not a hopeless kind of problem is it?
Mark: Absolutely not. We have learned a lot over the last 20 years about sexual addiction and how to deal with it. Treatment for sexual addiction really began in the late 1970’s. We really didn’t have much to offer sexual addicts before that. So we’re really only 20 or so years into developing helpful strategies but a lot has emerged. Today there are a variety of 12 Step fellowships available, there are a number of high quality inpatient treatment programs, there are a number of organizations that do outpatient intensive workshop programs and there are also many more therapists qualified to work in this area than has been the case in the past. When I went into treatment there was really only one facility available in the nation, Golden Valley Treatment Center in Minneapolis. It has since closed but that place trained many different clinicians that have fanned out across the country to start new programs.
STEPS: Any advice on how to find a counselor who understands these issues?
Mark: Yeah, I’d first call the National Counsel on Sexual Addiction. They maintain a list of therapists around the country [770-989-9754]. Also the Outreach Division of the American Family Association has a list of Christian counselors that might be helpful. (601-844-5128).
STEPS: There are also a number of 12 step fellowships available for sex addicts. Any advice about finding a support group or about the differences between the kinds of support groups which are out there?
Mark: The main distinction between any of these groups is in the specifics of how they define sobriety. Remember that the definition of sobriety for sexual addiction is more complicated than it is for alcohol addiction. You can abstain from alcohol for the rest of your life, but it’s not necessarily the goal for sex addicts to abstain from sex for the rest of their life. This is another way in which sexual addiction is like food addiction. Food addicts can’t stop eating forever, but they can learn to eat when their body is hungry to nourish themselves. Married sex addicts, likewise, will learn that sex with their spouse is appropriate and beautiful when, instead of being a way to avoid intimacy or escape negative feelings, it expresses the intimacy of the marriage.
Because defining sobriety is complicated for sex addiction different support groups sometimes have different attitudes towards sobriety. But even this is not a hard and fast rule because in 12 Step fellowships it is the local group conscience, not some kind of national policy, that shapes the group character. Stereotypically, SA has the strictest understanding of sobriety – believing that any sex outside of marriage is a violation of sobriety. SAA doesn’t, in general, take a moral position with respect to marriage. And SLAA tends to have an even more flexible understanding of sobriety. The main point though is that most of us sex addicts are in such deep trouble with our sexual behaviors that we are not helped by arguments about the definition of sobriety. We need help to get any kind of sobriety at all. So if there is a group of any kind available to you, I’d see it as an important resource. If you are fortunate enough to be in a part of the country that has groups from more than one fellowship available, then visit them all and try to discern from the character of the local group which will be most helpful to you. What you are looking for is people who have managed to sustain their recovery over time – not just people who have certain ideas or convictions. Look for people who have been where you are now but have successfully moved to a healthier place in life.
STEPS: I know that when you began your recovery there probably weren’t any groups like this available.
Mark: That’s right. They existed in some parts of the country but there weren’t any where I was living. So I went to AA for a while. Several of the guys eventually asked me what I was doing there and I explained that I was a sex addict and it turned out that they were all sexually addicted as well. So, we started a group. In many parts of the country people still may need to be creative and maybe even start their own groups. Another possibility for Christians is to find a Christian 12 step group like an Overcomers Outreach group that welcomes people struggling with any kind of addiction.