Sexual Addiction and Christian College Men: Conceptual, Assessment, and Treatment Challenges

Article excerpt

The sexual addiction concept, which conventionally assumes partnered sex, creates a dilemma when young, unmarried Christian men, such as those seen at Christian college counseling centers, eschew partnered sex because of religious pressures but are silently addicted to solo sex behavior, e.g., masturbation and using pornography. We argue that these men are sexually addicted when they depend on solo sex behaviors to regulate their emotional state. The unique characteristics of this group create challenges in assessing for sexual addiction using the standard quantitative screening instruments, the limitations of which are discussed followed by suggestions for contextualizing assessment and treatment.

Christians and the controversy of sexual addiction

An increasing number of clinicians and researchers recognize the presence of a syndrome marked by compulsive and addictive sexual behavior that affects a component of the population. Although the precise designation of such a condition is the subject of considerable disagreement and debate (Barth & Kinder, 1987; Goodman, 2001; Kafka, 2001; Shaffer, 1994), many clinicians are in one accord that the condition warrants treatment due to the distress and functional impairment that it causes. Nevertheless, the existence of such a syndrome of driven sexual behavior (which we hereon refer to as "sexual addiction," its most common designation in the literature) is by no means universally accepted among clinicians and researchers. While we acknowledge that there are many socio-cultural and nosological disputes around sexual addiction, these controversies are beyond the scope of this article. For the purpose of our present discussion, we simply state our belief that sexual addiction is a disorder that exists but suffers from a lack of diagnostic clarity.

One ramification of the conceptual vagueness surrounding sexual addiction is the mistaken belief among some evangelicals that all sexual behaviors of a driven and unwanted nature represent sexual addictions that require treatment. The somewhat uncritical use of addictions nomenclature to describe problematic hypersexuality is perhaps reflected in an article in Today's Christian Woman (Richards, 2003), which described the female analog of sex addiction as a syndrome of internet-related activities organized around romantic fantasy. One thing is clear whether one agrees or disagrees with this author's assertions: the label "addiction" lends itself to particular beliefs about "addicts" and how they should be helped. These beliefs are rooted in an ideology that has been shaped to a large extent by the disease model of alcoholism and the Twelve Step model of recovery, but increasingly they are used to conceptualize excessive behaviors that are morally problematic.

Questioning sex addiction among Christian college men

One group of people for whom the term "sexual addiction" is problematic is male students at evangelical Christian colleges who are distressed by masturbation and pornography use.1 The problems of these young men reflect the issues faced by the broader group of unmarried evangelical persons who are unsure about the place of sexuality in their lives, and experience tension and discomfort with their sexual feelings because their value system and religious beliefs preclude engagement in partnered sex. As counselors at the Wheaton College Counseling Center, we (Ferrell and Kwee) dealt significantly with issues of male sexuality, including running therapy groups for men distressed by masturbation and pornography use and wishing to develop a healthy understanding of sexuality. While we believe that some of our clients (a minority) struggle with an actual addiction, we are surprised by the number of clients who are disposed to believe that their developmentally normative struggles with masturbation are of an addictive nature. Approximately 60% of male students who indicated that they were consulting a counselor because of sexual concerns believed or suspected that they struggled with sexual addiction, whether or not they were actually assessed to have an addiction. …