A conference to survey cultural viewpoints, beliefs of the Church, and the moral challenges facing our youth. Held at Antiochian Village, in Ligonier, PA, November 1-4, 2012. Keynote Speaker is Dr. Peter Bouteneff, podcaster of “Sweeter than Honey” on Ancient Faith Radio, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary, and author of the book, “Sweeter than Honey”. Featured Presenters include Dr. Vigen Guroian and Dr. Philip Mamalakis.
Fr. David serves St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, Falls Church, Virginia. Fr. David was the Principle Writer on such Study Units as “And the Two Shall Become One: A Teenage Study-unit on Sex, Sexuality and the Sacrament of Marriage” and “Matters of Life and Death” and “The Case for Christ” (a study of Lee Strobel’s popular apologetical work). In this talk, he calls internet pornography the dirty little secret of humanity with major ramifications.
November 3, 2012 Length: 1:10:45
Fr. David Subu: While I intend to be straightforward about my subject matter, perhaps in a way you’re not accustomed to hearing a priest speak about these things, it’s not my intention to describe in detail or catalogue at length the various means by which sexual addicts may act out their addictions or their compulsive behaviors, but rather for us to take a look at what is the underlying spiritual state of somebody who is struggling with the spirit of lust to the point that it has become an addiction or, perhaps better in the language of the Fathers, a passion.
This is at the heart of the problem, and the treatment of this affliction of lust is at the core of healing and recovery for anyone suffering from addiction. While informed by psychotherapy, of course, my approach, because I am not a psychotherapist, is pastoral, because I am just a humble village priest, but I do encourage anyone who is interested in more detail about this information to look into what are the psychotherapeutic resources that are available. I am happy to say as I was doing my research just in preparation for this presentation, there is more and more available, both in print, but also online, on this subject that I found very helpful and very useful, and some of which I’ll shamelessly borrow from in order to set the stage.
First of all, when speaking with our youth about issues of sexuality, especially how our faith informs and inspires our sexuality towards a godly expression, we need to put aside, and I think we already have a little bit over the other courses, our naïveté about what our children know or don’t know, our young people. In the current culture, children, not just teenagers—so when I say “children,” I mean not only tweens but also pre-pubescent children—are exposed at an earlier and earlier age to sexual imagery and content, including graphic sexual content, such as that of hard-core pornography, not to mention the fact that we are surrounded by suggestive imagery that is ubiquitous on television, on the internet, in the stores, on the radio, wherever you go. Of course, any home that has an internet connection has full access to the complete and full gamut of wares provided by the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry, and children, if they are not protected from that, have immediate access.
These images burn themselves into the minds of those who see them for the first time. I’m sure any and every one of you who has ever seen a pornographic image can probably remember the very first image you ever saw, because it is a shock to the soul. It stays with you. It makes an imprint, and thus our children may be sexualized more quickly and more powerfully than in any generation that came before. I’m not going to be talking about how directly you can talk to your kids about sexuality. We’ve been talking about that in different sessions all along. I’m hoping that what I give you will give you some tools and some knowledge base from which you can approach your young people, but it’s really about helping you to get your own house in order and be prepared for dealing with this kind of subject.
I want to say, because I think I neglected to say it before I gave the first presentation yesterday, there’s some very simple things that you really need to do to protect your children from pornography. Children should not probably have smart phones with full internet access, or laptops, or computers in their bedrooms. Any internet access that is in your home needs to be public, visible to you, and trackable by you, and if that makes you not cool, that’s cool. So please take it seriously.
You already, hopefully, know, and hopefully the people that you minister know, about the dangers of sexual predators in addition, people who will talk with your children. It’s a pretty shocking statistic—if I can find it here in my notes—of the number of children solicited online. The percentage is actually pretty shocking. It’s one of many shocking statistics I hope to share with you. Let’s see if I can find it. Average internet exposure to pornography, of the first exposure, is 11 years old. Eight- to 16-year-olds having viewed porn online: 90%, most while doing their homework. Sexual solicitations of youth made in chat rooms: 89%. Youths who received sexual solicitation: one in seven.
So this is happening to your kids, not just some kids in some other community or some other church, where maybe they don’t take care of these things. It’s happening to your kids in your Orthodox churches, your family members.
Let’s consider some more of these staggering statistics. First of all, the availability of pornography. There are 4.2 million—and growing—different websites online providing pornography. Each one of them, on average, has 100 pages to choose from within. That is about 12% of the entire internet. However, it gets about 30% of all internet traffic. That one porn site receives a staggering 4.4 billion page views and 350 million unique visitors per month. The only sites that surpass the biggest porn site in traffic are sites like Google and Facebook, so it is up at the top.
ExtremeTech, a website which is not in any kind of cultural war fight—it’s just a technology site that monitors trends in technology—notes that one of the major differences between porn and non-porn sites is the average duration of a visit. For top news sites, the average visit is three to six minutes: if you get on, maybe you have your homepage like I do at MSN or something like that, you get the latest updates on what happened in the sports or in the hurricane or what have you, it’s just enough time for most people to catch up on the news: three to six minutes.
But so captivating is the menu served on one of the largest porn websites that the average time spent on the site is 15 to 20 minutes, with about 35 to 40 petabytes of pornography being transferred per month, equivalent to 50 gigabytes per second, worldwide. I don’t know, what’s the average size of a hard drive these days? 50 gigabytes, maybe, or close to it. About a thousand gigabytes, a terabyte nowadays, or something like that? So every second, that much is going through.
While most news sites are predominantly based on text and images—you have to read them—porn sites feature streaming video, and the volume of data involved is astronomical. The only sites that come close to porn sites in data volume are YouTube and Hulu, but then just one of the porn sites is about six times larger than Hulu, and that’s just one of the top porn sites.
So let’s be honest about what we’re talking about here. What are people doing? Are they reading articles? Are they just trying to understand how the body works? Are they just trying to maybe get some inspiration so they can go back to their spouses and live a chaste, Christian marriage? No. 99.9% of the time people are watching these videos, and if they’re not masturbating while watching these videos, they’re storing the lust within them so that they can go act out later or with another partner or multiple partners.
They are getting drunk on fantasy, on lust, and not everyone who does this, just as everyone who gets drunk does not become an alcoholic, of course, many people are putting themselves at risk for sexual addiction, because it’s not the same thing as getting drunk on alcohol. It’s more like getting drunk or high on crack cocaine, and the percentage of people who become addicted to crack after getting high on crack, I think you know, is much higher.
Very few walk away unscarred or unaffected. For some it may be only a rare or occasional slip, something that they feel horrible about later, and they come to confession and they promise never to do it again, and for the most part it doesn’t affect their life much more. For others it’ll become something that’ll become an occasional problem, something that they go back to in difficult times, a limited habit, not one that disrupts their life. But then there are those for whom it becomes a full-blown addiction, consuming hours a day, destroying their relationships, marriages, careers, lives, leading them to even more dangerous sexual behaviors with people instead of just by themselves, including sexual abuse, prostitution, addiction, and any number of possible things you can imagine. This can happen just like alcoholism, at a young age, but also at a later age in life, and in people that would have otherwise been considered very stable or normal in their sexual lives.
What is sexual addiction? And as I talk about this, I’m going to pass out the first of our handouts. Take one down and pass it around, please. Don’t look at it while I talk, though; just pass it down. There is a debate even now among clinical psychologists as to how to classify compulsive sexual behaviors, whether it rises to the definition of a classical addiction, like alcoholism, or not, but for the purposes of pastoral care, I’m going to assume that whether or not it does, it does rise to the classical definition of a passion: a habitual spiritual negative behavior, which continues regardless of negative consequences to the person.
The Fathers, in fact, included lust or fornication, pornea in the Greek, as one of the main passions, and recognized that, left unchecked, lust can dominate the human personality and certainly become compulsive and self-destructive. Among those who are most well-known and visible in the field is Dr. Patrick Carnes, whose pioneering work, Out of the Shadows was probably the first mainstream work on the subject.
He describes sex addiction similarly, as a pattern of behaviors—compulsive behaviors—where there’s a loss of control, loss of contact with reality, continuing the activities despite adverse consequences, and affect-regulation problems and family dislocation. Fairly technical, but hopefully you understand, right? Loss of contact with reality, loss of sense of right and wrong, loss of sense of the effect that it’s having on you and your family. And, of course, isolation, most of all. If the typical pornography addict is spending three to four to five to six hours a day online, they’re not spending too much time doing anything productive, and they’re not spending it with their family.
When he began his work, Out of the Shadows, the internet did not yet exist. Consider now what he has to say about sexual addiction. He writes, just recently, “It’s historically been about six percent of the population” of people had sex addiction before, and that would be people who had what I would call classical sex addiction, which would be serial adulterers, addicted to pornographers, going to strip clubs, prostitution, etc., whatever you want to imagine. Now “for every three men with this issue, there is one woman,” so this is not just men doing this. He writes:
But the real wildcard for us now is the advent of the internet. The numbers are on the rise for women, because they can have access in a way where they don’t feel at risk, e.g., a woman would not typically go into an adult bookstore, but online she would feel freer to do that,—to explore what’s there.
All addictions have some shaping in availability. For example, the more casinos you have the more gambling problems. In the generation that is now emerging into adulthood, we see wide availability of sexual access, which has an incredible impact on this illness. Al Cooper, one of the original researchers in internet sex, described—listen closely—internet sex as the ‘crack cocaine’ of sexual addiction because it is an accelerant for adults of all ages of the lifespan. He felt that people would never have the problem if it had not been for the internet. There’s a complicated matrix of factors for why someone becomes an addict, but—he says—I tend to agree: it seems like internet sex taps into underlying, unresolved issues. It exposes you to things you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
Back in my youth, if you wanted pornography, you had to go through some hoops to find it, and it usually involved shoplifting or something like that. You couldn’t just ask somebody to give it to you. Now a kid can go anywhere and find it. Forgive me if you know that I know this. I do.
It’s worse with kids who nowadays say that they don’t date.
And one of the presenters was talking about [that] last night. Dating is obsolete almost now.
They look at children. Children look at children online…
They look at the people closer to their own age, because they themselves are children.
...and a variety of factors arise. According to the University of New Hampshire we have two thirds of junior high students looking at pornography while doing their homework.
Junior high. Remember, I said before: 90% when you take it up to teenagers.
...looking at pornography while doing their homework, and about 34% of those who continue use become at risk for sexual compulsivity.
Do your math, and that’s about 20% of all our junior high students are at serious risk for sexual addiction, not just one kid, not the parents who are good parents or the one whose dad or mom sleeps around. It’s every kid in that twenty percent.
He says, “Unfortunately, the parents are largely unaware.” That’s why, again, I emphasize: Not only talk to your kids about these issues and talk about pornography because they know what it is; don’t think that they don’t know what it is. Don’t think that they have never seen it or at least heard of it, because the kids talk about it with each other. Kids swap things together; they sext each other. They’re doing these things whether you like it or not or know it or not.
Not only talk to them about it, but put those safety nets in your home. I’m not a big fan of filtering software, because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get around those. Again, putting your computers in limited-access places where they are public is the most important thing, just like, “Don’t go into a room with somebody and close the door where no one else can see you.” It’s the same principle.
I see patients now in their mid-twenties who started this in the fifth or sixth grade. We are probably 100 years from understanding what this will really do to our species.
Species. Brothers and sisters, this is not America’s dirty secret. This is humanity’s dirty secret. Pornography does not exist only in English, only on American websites. It’s in every language in every country. Anywhere you have bandwidth and wifi, people are looking at pornography. This is where we live.
Do I have your attention?
Please take a look at this handout that I have given you. The first handout is entitled “Number Six.” You missed the first five, I guess. It’s only because it’s the order of handouts as I type them into the computer, and I haven’t had time to rearrange them. Anyway, I’d like you to look at [an] excerpt from St. John of the Ladder, excerpt number three from his step 15 on chastity. If you haven’t read St. John of the Ladder, you should, but you should also read it with a more experienced guide or with a group of people you can talk to, because it’s written in the fifth or sixth century, and it needs some unpacking. But this one is pretty good. These excerpts are pretty straightforward, I think you’ll find. Could I have somebody read excerpt number three nice and loud for the [class]?
Matt: Among the discerning Fathers, distinctions are recognized between provocation, coupling or intercourse, assent, captivity, struggle, and a disease called passion, which is in the soul. These blessed Fathers say that provocation is a simple word or image encountered for the first time which is entered into the heart. Coupling is conversation with what has been encountered, whether this be passively or otherwise. Assent is the delighted yielding of the soul to what it has encountered. Captivity is a forcible and unwilling abduction of the heart, a permanent lingering with what we have encountered and which totally undermines the necessary order of our souls. By struggle they mean force equal to that which is leading the attack, and this force wins or loses according to the desire of the spirit. Passion, in their view, is properly something that lies hidden for a long time in the soul and by its very presence it takes on the character of a habit until the soul of its own accord clings to it with affection.
Fr. David: Thank you. What’s your name, sir?
Fr. David: Thank you, Matt. Let’s unpack this just a little bit. What he’s describing to you is how does something become a passion, how does something become compulsive, and it’s basically the description of all sins and temptations, but in particular it shows itself very well with the spirit of lust.
The first is provocation. Provocation is any kind of trigger. It could be simply seeing somebody walking down the street, seeing something on a billboard, on the television. It could be something completely nonsexual at all, but something that irritates a person’s soul so that they want to do something about it, and therefore maybe they choose pornography as the means of assuaging their discomfort or their dis-ease.
Coupling, intercourse. You have intercourse all day. Did you know that?
Commenter: Intercourse, VA.
Fr. David: Intercourse, VA, of course. “Intercourse” is not a dirty word, just so you know. Sexual intercourse is what people think of when they hear the word “intercourse.” Intercourse means conversation, and we have conversation all the time, even if there’s nobody around. We’re conversing with our own thoughts, which is a very bad thing to get in the habit of, by the way. Your thoughts are not your friends. They live with you, but they’re like bad roommates. They’re not your friends. If we let ourselves engage in this dialogue and intercourse, unquestioningly, undiscerningly, all the time, we will very quickly be led into many different bad ways. That’s the second step.
Assent, meaning we say, “You know, I’m right.” We think it’s ourselves telling ourselves this. We don’t realize it’s the devil half the time. “Yeah, you know, that’s a good idea. I think I will... click on that website. I think I will... open that magazine. I think I will... turn to that SKINeMAX on Friday night or whenever it is. I will do all those things I know I shouldn’t. It’s okay, right? I’ve convinced myself. It’s just me. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m not doing anything wrong.”
Commenter: I can control it.
Fr. David: “And I can control it.” And that leads to captivity. A fall takes place. Something happens, and we are changed as a result. When we give in to these sins, we cross a threshold, and we are not the same afterwards. A part of our soul becomes captive to the sin, to the spirit of lust.
Struggle, then, ensues—maybe. Hopefully, it does, because we immediately realize we are no longer free. We are no longer ourselves any more. We are no longer the person that we thought we were. We’ve crossed a boundary. We want to somehow change. We want to get back, and sometimes we are able to. This is the time we struggle, through prayer asking for God’s forgiveness and going to confession and starting over, cleaning the slate. But sometimes we don’t, and that’s why St. John says struggle either wins you a crown or a punishment based on the desire of the spirit.
If we have the right disposition, the right attitude in our souls, we’ll choose the right thing, and we’ll get out of it, but if we don’t, and we continually return instead, like a dog to his vomit—probably the best image in the Scripture for this: bleaugh!—we become captive perpetually. It becomes a passion. It no longer becomes something we freely choose or not. It becomes the default setting on your computer of the mind.
So that’s the definition of a passion, and that’s what we’re really dealing with in terms of sexual addiction, at least from a pastoral point of view. What can we do about this? What did I ask you to come here… I didn’t actually ask you to come here at all. You came of your own choice! But I don’t want you to leave here thinking, “Well, that stinks. I guess we’ll just all lock ourselves up in a convent and not walk outside or something.” That’s not going to help. For some, it might.
What do we do? What can we do? What steps can we take, to free ourselves if we struggle with it, or what steps can we help others find if they themselves are struggling with it? And I guarantee you you know people who are struggling with it. You know people in your parish who are struggling with it, and you know clergy who are struggling with it. I gar-on-tee it.
Another reading from St. John perhaps will give us a cue, because the first and simplest answer, though not complete, but the first and last answer is always what? Prayer. Prayer, the act of prayer. St. John has something to say about prayer against the spirit of lust. He’s very down-to-earth about it, and I really appreciate that he is. It’s excerpt number four. Would somebody be willing to read that?
Reader: The effort of bodily prayer can help those not yet granted real prayer of the heart. I am referring to the stretching out of the hands, the beating of the breast, the sincere raising of the eyes heavenward, deep sighs and constant prostrations. But this is not always feasible when other people are present, and this is when the demons particularly like to launch an attack and, because we have not yet the strength of mind to stand up against them and because the hidden power of prayer is not yet within us, we succumb.
So go somewhere apart, if you can. Cry out to God, who has the strength to save you. Do not bother with elegant and clever words. Just speak humbly, beginning with, “Have mercy on me, for I am weak” (Psalm 6:3). And then you will come to experience the power of the Most High and with help from heaven you will drive off the invisible foes. The man who gets into the habit of waging war this way will soon put his enemies to flight solely by means of spiritual resources, for this is the reward God likes to bestow on those who have put up a good struggle, and rightly so.
Fr. David: Thank you. Do you know what he means by “prayer of the heart” and the “hidden prayer”? He’s talking about the Jesus prayer, primarily, just the interior prayer. When our inner spiritual disposition becomes so attuned to prayer that that is our default setting… That doesn’t just happen, though. That takes a lot of discipline, a lot of practice, a lot of guidance. And if you already have that, your chances, obviously, of falling into this disease are incredibly reduced, and I’ll tell you why: simply because when your default setting is a mindset of prayer, you’re not even at that intercourse stage with your own thoughts. You’ve realized: those thoughts aren’t your friends, and you immediately, when you are provoked, don’t even engage, the next step, but you turn your attention elsewhere.
However, that only helps if you have that, right? So he says: What do you do if you don’t have the interior spirit of prayer in that sense? You have to get physical: beat your breast, make prostrations, yes. That’s good, because that gets you out of yourself. Take a walk. Get away from the computer. Get away from the television. Get out there. Do something. Be physical. That certainly helps.
But most importantly, I love that he says don’t try to be clever, don’t try to be articulate, don’t think that you need to know some incredibly long Orthodox prayer. If you know it, great; that’s wonderful, and if you like to do it, great; that’s wonderful, but in that moment of temptation, you need to be honest with God and say, “Have mercy on me, for I am weak.” You admit your helplessness. You admit your powerlessness, and you begin to climb out through trusting and giving it over to God.
People come to me. “I don’t know how to pray.” Tell God exactly what it is that you’re going through. We think that we have to have the book in front of us, we have to be standing in front of an icon… Just say, “God, help me!” One of the most holy people I ever met was an old lady who just sat there all day: “God, help me. God, help me. God, help me.” That was her prayer, nothing fancy. She had holiness.
This is the beginning and the end, I say. This helps if you have that wonderful context that St. John is talking about, the life of prayer, and the discipline. What about people who don’t even know God, or their idea of God is fundamentally flawed, even if they’re Orthodox? If they’re afraid of God, because they’ve never known him as a loving and kind God? How do you help people, especially young people who are so ashamed of themselves for what they’ve done? They know that they’re far from God.
I don’t think I need to go through a whole theology of why pornography is wrong, do I? I think we all intrinsically know that it is dark and evil, it just unsettles the soul so immediately.
There’s another prayer I’d like to share with you. It’s a simple prayer, but maybe a little bit longer, but it’ll maybe give the context for the next part of my talk. It’s called the Serenity Prayer. Have you ever heard of the Serenity Prayer? If you know it, say it with me now.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done.
That’s usually added to it at the end, the Lord’s prayer at Gethsemane.
This prayer, though it comes to us out of Alcoholics Anonymous, should be adopted in all your Orthodox prayer books. Write it in the margin. Let’s stop fooling around. That’s a beautiful prayer. Put it right next to Metropolitan Philaret’s prayer; it’s the same brilliance.
So a few years ago I decided to put together a series of sermons, reflecting from an Orthodox Christian perspective, on the insights that have been gained through the struggles of those who lost everything, maybe, who found themselves completely captive to their passions, and through the help of God and a spiritual program of recovery, were restored to sanity. I began mining in particular the literature of the 12-step fellowships, the first and most famous of which is Alcoholics Anonymous, but also includes things like Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, and a number of sex addiction fellowships.
“The Big Book” of AA, which looks like this—it’s not very big now, but it used to be a much bigger version—is just called Alcoholics Anonymous. If anybody is listening, I would say this should be mandatory reading in all of our seminaries, hands down. Another priest I know said it’s inspired; that’s the way he put it. I think that’s absolutely true. My sermon series was entitled “Sinaholics Anonymous.” I think you can find it on my parish website still. [It] also spawned a church camp series that I did using the concept of 12-step, so we worked with teens, because teens are also in Alcoholics Anonymous, and there are even fellowships for young people, because they’re struggling with this.
In addition, pertaining [to] today’s topic, I can also kind of endorse here very easily this book which has no print on its cover. It is called “The White Book,” and it is the 12-step main texts for one of the fellowships, called Sexaholics Anonymous. Just like Alcoholics, Sexaholics Anonymous. Why do I pick Sexaholics Anonymous, besides the fact that it’s a clever name? Like I said, there are several national and international 12-step fellowships that deal with sexual addiction, but I pick on Sexaholics Anonymous for one simple reason. Each of these sex-addiction recovery groups all have to define sexual sobriety in their own way, and that’s really what distinguishes them from each other.
In something like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, your definition of sobriety is going to be pretty easy to identify: the last time you drank or the last time you used, right? From that point on, that’s your sobriety day. If you haven’t used since then, you’ve been sober. Well, what about sex? What if you’re married? If you’re a sexaholic and you’re married, can you never have sex again or will it always be destructive? Will it always not be sober? Will you always be getting “drunk” on sex, if you will? Just like Overeaters Anonymous: how do you define sobriety for an overeater? Well, I ate; did I eat too much? It gets kind of very murky.
Sexaholics Anonymous has a very clear and definite bottom line, and one that I think you may find coincides very well with and Orthodox definition of chastity, so I’d like to share with you that now some of the literature from Sexaholics Anonymous so we can take a look at it. What I would like to do is I would like to ask—what’s your name?
Fr. David: Karen, would you start reading this, and read one paragraph and then maybe pass it down. You can pass if you want, if you don’t want to read.
Karen: What is a sexaholic and what is sexual sobriety? We can only speak for ourselves. The specialized nature of Sexaholics Anonymous can best be understood in terms of what we call the sexaholic. The sexaholic is taking himself or herself out of the whole context of what is right or wrong. He or she has lost control, no longer has the power of choice, and is not free to stop. Lust has become an addiction. Our situation is like that of the alcoholic who can no longer tolerate alcohol and must stop drinking altogether, but is hooked and cannot stop. So it is with the sexaholic or sex-drunk, who can no longer tolerate lust but cannot stop.
Reader 1: Thus for the sexaholic any form of sex with one’s self or with partners other than the spouse is progressively addictive and destructive. We also see that lust is the driving force behind our sexual acting out, and true sobriety includes progressive victory over lust. These conclusions were forced upon us in the crucible of our experiences and recovery; we have no other options. But we have found that acceptance of these facts is the key to a happy and joyous freedom we could otherwise never know.
Reader 2: This will and should discourage many inquirers who admit to sexual obsession or compulsion but who simply want to control and enjoy it, much as the alcoholic would like to control and enjoy drinking. Until we had been driven to the point of despair, until we really wanted to stop but could not, we did not give ourselves to this program of recovery. Sexaholics Anonymous is for those who know they have no other option but to stop, and their own enlightened self-interest must tell them this.
Reader 3: Sobriety definition: In defining sobriety, we do not speak for those outside Sexaholics Anonymous. We can only speak for ourselves. Thus, for the married sexaholic, sexual sobriety means having no form of sex with self or with persons other than the spouse. In SA’s sobriety definition, the term “spouse” refers to one’s partner in a marriage between a man and a woman. For the unmarried sexaholic, sexual sobriety means freedom from sex of any kind. And for all of us, single and married alike, sexual sobriety also includes progressive victory over lust.
Fr. David: Please recognize the first insight. Even though it’s called sexaholism and sex addiction, what’s the real addiction? Lust. Sex itself is just the means by which lust enters into the [picture]. Some lust addicts or sex addicts don’t particularly get involved in sex, but it’s maybe romance; maybe it’s dependent relationships with other people.
There’s also another fellowship called, by the way, Love Addicts Anonymous, which is actually really good on this. There’s an emotional addiction people can have on other people, through infatuations, through just obsessing. We’re talking about obsessive thoughts, which is the real problem. So they recognized that they could not tolerate lust. It’s like an allergy. If you’re allergic to something, if you take even a little bit of it, your body reacts. You swell up; your body overcompensates. It’s the same kind of idea. Lust itself becomes a triggering to an overreaction.
They understood that they were powerless, that they had gotten to the point, one way or another, that they could no longer stop of their own free will, and they needed a power greater than themselves.
Lastly, the sobriety definition, as I said, is clear, it has a clear bottom line, and it’s something that, as an Orthodox priest, I would say, that’s the goal I want for all of my parishioners. By the way, the only requirement for membership in Sexaholics Anonymous, if you’re interested, is a desire to stay sexually sober and have progressive victory over lust. Well, that’s great. That’s something we can all plug into, I guess.
In the first of the 12 steps… If you flip you page, you’ll see the 12 steps of SA. If you’re familiar with the 12 steps of AA, you know that these are going to be identical, with one exception, and that’s the first step. In AA, the first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable.” The first step in SA is almost the same. “We admitted we were powerless over lust, and our lives had become unmanageable.” It’s an understanding that lust is an inner disposition of the soul, a negative disposition that breaks us from communion with each other, with God, and is a continuous darkening of the soul, and only a spiritual plan of recovery can bring long-term healing and sobriety for someone who’s struggling with this.
What they call recovery in the 12-step fellowships is basically very similar, if not identical, to what we talk about as a life of repentance. A life of repentance in the Orthodox tradition is not sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. There’s nothing repentant about that at all. That’s just being glum and despairing. Repentance is actually joyous and free. It’s the turning away from sin, away from despair, towards the light, and walking as children of the light. It’s a joyous acceptance of God’s grace. That’s real repentance. So recovery is also [of] the same nature. It’s not a glum thing.
If you look at St. John, though, I’d like us to look at excerpt number one. Could we have somebody read this nice and loud for us?
Reader: Do not imagine that you will overwhelm the demon of fornication by entering into an argument with him. Nature is on his side and he has the best of the argument. So the man who decides to struggle against his flesh and to overcome it by his own efforts is fighting in vain. The truth is that unless the Lord overturns the house of the flesh and builds the house of the soul, the man wishing to overturn it has watched and fasted for nothing. Offer up to the Lord the weakness of your nature. Admit your incapacity, and, without your knowing it, you will win for yourself the gift of chastity.
Fr. David: Thank you. What St. John was saying, back in the sixth century, is essentially the same thing that SA is saying now. If we try to fight it on our own—and by the way, he’s saying the period of lust, period, not just for someone who considers themselves an addict, but for anybody to fight the spirit of lust on our own is doomed to failure. We’ll read another section from him. It’s like: how do you fight your own body? It’s part of you.
We need the Lord, and we need to offer our weakness to the Lord. So we admit our incapacity or our powerlessness. We come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, and we surrender the care of our lives, weakness and all, to our good and loving God as we understand him. This is essentially the first three steps of the 12 steps.
A major part of recovery is, in effect, to rehumanize also those who had been objectified into lust objects. By the way, I’m not just talking about treating people as lust objects, just body parts. For example, about 30% of internet pornography is now being consumed by women, and many, as I said at the very beginning, one out of four sex addicts in treatment were women as well. Women often don’t recognize that they have a sexual addiction, because they are putting it more in terms of relationships and emotions, unhealthy attachments and obsessions with people, that might have a sexual component.
These are also massive consumers of pornographic material. If you go to any store right now, Costco or Target or whatever, what’s on the front shelf in full display for everybody to buy? Fifty Shades of Grey. Fifty Shades of Grey is erotica. Does anybody deny that? It used to be the thing behind the counter; now it’s right there, and not just one, but a whole series. That’s not to mention the huge, multi-million [dollar] industry of romance novels, or, as I like to call them, the “bodice-rippers.” These are feeding lust, because they feed through fantasy. Even though they’re not hard-core, maybe they’re soft-core, they still have the same effect on the soul, the darkening of the soul.
So you have to be really aware of what we’re talking about: rehumanizing by taking reality back, not fantasizing about people, including people we think we know, because we think about them all the time, so they’re real people, right? They’re not real. We’re obsessed with our fantasy about them, so it could be not only sexual, but, again, emotional.
I just passed out, now, two readings from Essay that I thought were very instructive in describing what this addiction does to people and what they discover about themselves when they start to come into recovery. The first reading is handout number two, called, “The Problem.” “The Problem”: would somebody like to [start]? Where did we end? Would you start and read a paragraph and then pass it down?
Reader 1: Many of us felt inadequate, unworthy, alone, and afraid. Our insides never matched what we saw on the outsides of others.
Reader 2: Early on, we came to feel disconnected—from parents, from peers, from ourselves. We tuned out with fantasy and masturbation. We plugged in by drinking in the pictures, the images, and pursuing the objects of our fantasies. We lusted and wanted to be lusted after.
Reader 3: We became true addicts: sex with self, promiscuity, adultery, dependency relationships, and more fantasy. We got it through the eyes; we bought it, we sold it, we traded it, we gave it away. We were addicted to the intrigue, the tease, the forbidden. The only way we knew to be free of it was to do it. “Please connect with me and make me whole!” we cried with outstretched arms. Lusting after the Big Fix, we gave away our power to others.
Reader 4: This produced guilt, self-hatred, remorse, emptiness, and pain, and we were driven ever inward, away from reality, away from love, lost inside ourselves.
Reader 5: Our habit made true intimacy impossible. We could never know real union with another because we were addicted to the unreal. We went for the “chemistry,” the connection that had the magic, because it by-passed intimacy and true union. Fantasy corrupted the real; lust killed love.
Reader 6: First addicts, then love cripples, we took from others to fill up what was lacking in ourselves. Conning ourselves time and again that the next one would save us, we were really losing our lives.
Fr. David: My first question is: Has anyone ever felt inadequate, unworthy, alone, and afraid? Has anyone ever felt that their insides never matched what we saw on the outsides of others? I heard it put really well recently. The reason we’re so miserable is we compare our blooper reel to other people’s highlights reel. We see the best in others, and we see the worst in ourselves. This is the fundamental human condition of our fallenness. The only difference between the addict is that somewhere down the line our coping mechanism goes horribly astray and horribly self-destructive, but how many of us can also say we tune out with distractions, with fantasy, with Facebook, with whatever?
We all have our little ways of escaping our discomforts. We all want to be wanted. It’s important to realize that people who struggle with this are not so fundamentally different [from] other people. It’s just that, in their case, this particular manifestation of coping has gone awry, an instinct gone awry. That’s what passions are. Passions began as something normal within the human being, but then became corrupted or perverse. You can compare that, if you will, to excerpt number two from St. John, when he talks about “our relentless enemy.” Would somebody be willing to read that, nice and loudly please? Go ahead. Thank you.
Reader: Our relentless enemy, the teacher of fornication, whispers that God is very lenient and particularly merciful to this passion, since it is so very natural. Yet if we watch the wiles of the demons we will observe that after we have actually sinned they will affirm that God is a just and inexorable judge. They say one thing to lead us into sin, another thing to overwhelm us in despair. And if we are sorrowful or inclined to despair, we are slower to sin again, but when the sorrow and the despair have been quenched, the tyrannical demon begins to speak to us again of God’s mercy.
Fr. David: I call this the devil’s one-two punch. The first softens you up, says, “Ahh,” just like in the Garden, right? “You will surely not die if you eat of that fruit. God didn’t mean what he said. He’s… Naw, go ahead. It’ll be okay.” And then we assent, we become captive, and we say, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then: wa-bam! “God hates you! How could you do such a horrible thing? How could you? How do you think you’ll stand before God? God is just. He’s inexorable. He’s harsh and strict.” This cycle is so destructive for all of us. It’s what keeps a lot of us from going to confession on a regular basis, right? We’re afraid; we’re afraid of God, in the wrong way. We’re afraid of our priest, maybe, or we’ve gotten the wrong idea. For the addict, it becomes a perpetual cycle.
Dr. Patrick Carnes and his work identified four ideas which are intrinsic to any addict’s thought process. I call them the four “ignoble truths,” in a nod to the Buddha. The first idea that every addict has is: “I am basically a bad, unworthy person.” The second is: “No one would really love me if they knew what I was really like.” Three: “Therefore, I can’t depend on others.” I can’t depend on God, I can’t depend on you or my family or my church or whoever. So four, what will I depend on? Booze, alcohol, drugs, fantasy, lust, the high of gambling, the high of whatever. That will become my dependency. That’s why we call it dependencies.
St. John recognizes that. For a healthy person, if they do fall, that second punch hits them and they have that sorrow and remorse, but it’s healthy sorrow. It’s one that leads them to repentance; it’s freeing. For somebody who fundamentally believes that they’re not a worthy child of God, whom God really loves, and that they can depend on God, what do they do with that? What do they do with that sorrow and despair? It cycles back in and feeds the addiction until you have a downward spiral.
That’s why it’s so fundamental that we’re preaching and teaching to our kids that God is a good and merciful and loving God. The beginning and the middle [and] the end of everything that we do, even when we talk about hard subjects and morality and setting rules, and we have to believe it. If you don’t really believe it, if you don’t trust God, for not only some distant future but right now—I trust God with my life—then what can you give? What can you give to others?
As a priest said to me when I was in seminary, and it’s convicted my conscience then and it still does today, he said that people will not come to a well if there is no water to drink. The water that you have within, the living water, is that faith and trust in Jesus Christ, that he loves you. You believe in him, not intellectually so much, but completely. You trust in him.
The second reading, on the flip side of that, is called the Solution, and here’s where we can talk about how now you have an idea of what is somebody who’s struggling with this is going through. Now how do they get out of it? And that is the Solution. Would somebody like to read the Solution, and start and pass it down, whoever was last last time? Go ahead.
Reader 1: We saw that our problem was three-fold: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Healing had to come about in all three.
Reader 2: The crucial change in attitude began when we admitted we were powerless, that our habit had us whipped. We came to meetings and withdrew from our habit. For some, this meant no sex with themselves or others, including not getting into relationships. For others it meant “drying out” and not having sex with the spouse for a time to recover from lust.
Reader 3: We discovered that we could stop, that not feeding the hunger didn’t kill us, that sex was indeed optional! There was hope for freedom, and we began to feel alive. Encouraged to continue, we turned more and more away from our isolating obsession with sex and self and turned to God and others.
Reader 4: All this was scary. We couldn’t see the path ahead, except that others had gone that way before. Each new step of surrender felt it would be off the edge into oblivion, but we took it. And instead of killing us, surrender was killing the obsession! We had stepped into the light, into a whole new way of life.
Reader 5: The fellowship gave us monitoring and support to keep us from being overwhelmed, a safe haven where we could finally face ourselves. Instead of covering our feelings with compulsive sex, we began exposing the roots of our spiritual emptiness and hunger. And the healing began.
Reader 6: As we faced our defects, we became willing to change; surrendering them broke the power they had over us. We began to be more comfortable with ourselves and others for the first time without our “drug.”
Reader 7: Forgiving all who had injured us, and without injuring others, we tried to right our own wrongs. At each amends more of the dreadful load of guilt dropped from our shoulders, until we could lift our heads, look the world in the eye, and stand free.
Reader 8: We began practicing a positive sobriety, taking the actions of love to improve our relations with others. We were learning how to give; and the measure we gave was the measure we got back. We were finding what none of the substitutes had ever supplied. We were making the real Connection. We were home.
Fr. David: There’s a lot in this. You could spend a lot of time. We could spend a lot of time looking at each section. I just want to highlight a few things. The first problem was three-fold—physical, emotional, and spiritual—healing had to come about in all three. We’re going to take a look at a reading from St. John which shows the same principle. Another point here: there comes a point, obviously, where you have to stop doing what you’re doing. You have to stop drinking. We think, “Why don’t they just stop drinking? Why don’t they just stop doing what they’re doing?” All of this was scary, they point out, this fear.
Most addicts, if not all addicts, especially those who have not entered into any kind of recovery program suffer from what has been called “terminal uniqueness.” Do you know what I mean? “No one would understand my problem. No one’s like [this]. No one’s as bad as [I am]. And all those people, all that light talk and that forgiveness talk and that prayer-in-God talk, you know, that’s for them. That’ll never apply to me. I’m just, I’m a child of the devil.” And there are people who accept that from themselves, even children baptized in the Orthodox Church, and young adults, especially.
In the fellowships here, one of the most powerful things, and why these fellowships often do what our churches cannot, is because they break through the barrier of terminal uniqueness. Somebody comes to the priest and confesses their sins: that can give a reprieve; that can help. Absolutely, but in the back of that mind, the person is still thinking, “But that’s the priest, and he’s not going to tell anybody, and he’s holy, and he’s not like me, and I’m just going to go back and fall again and again and again and again.”
And there are people who go to confession again and again and again, and they get no healing. Then they wonder why their faith isn’t working. It’s only when they get the insight and the help from people who have already walked the same path. There comes a point where we have to be able to direct people to those who understand what they’ve gone through and help them through the wilderness that they find themselves [in]. As priests we have to know this, because we are not filled with the answers for every problem. We have our strengths, we have our gifts, but we also have our weaknesses, we also have our inadequacies. And as sooner as clergy and youth ministers and educators that we are admitting them to ourselves and recognizing them, the better we’re going to be. Fellowships like this help people, because they give them a roadmap that we cannot.
Notice he says, “a positive sobriety,” at the end. We can define sobriety as “You didn’t do this; you didn’t do that,” and that’s a lot of what we do with educating our youths about sexuality. “Well, if you want to know the right thing: don’t do this, don’t do that,” right? And they think, “What is... What am I supposed to do?” That’s not positive; that’s negative sobriety. It’s “Thou shalt not"s. Positive sobrieties are: what are the blessings that you gain from a life of purity, a life from chastity. St. John says chastity makes you more like God and more familiar to God as anything else. It makes you close and like God. It makes you like God, to be pure and to be chaste.
Let’s look at St. John real quick. Which one? We’ll leave St. John to the end, because he deserves the last word.
Let me just share with you two examples of what we talk about when we talk about positive sobriety. These are two classic readings from Alcoholics Anonymous now which are used in all of the 12-step fellowships, and I just absolutely love them, and I want to share them with you, because I find them absolutely inspiring. The first is called “A Vision for You,” and the second is “The Twelve Promises.” Compare this to what you’ve already heard from St. John. Would someone start by reading “The Twelve Promises”? Maybe you could start here, read the first promise, and then pass it down.
Reader 1: If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. 1. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
Reader 2: We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
Reader 3: We will comprehend the word “serenity.”
Reader 4: We will know peace.
Reader 5: No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
Reader 6: That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
Reader 7: We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
Reader 8: Self-seeking will slip away.
Reader 9: Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
Reader 10: Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.
Reader 11: We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
Reader 12: We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Reader 13: Are these extravagant promises?
Fr. David: We think not.
Reader 14: They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.
Fr. David: I want this in my confessional on the wall—it’s one of the many things I have yet to do—because this picture of blessings is what the Christian life calls us to. If you read that and say, “That’s something I don’t have. That’s something I would want,” then maybe you should look at those 12 steps and say, “In my Christian life, am I missing anything?” Most AAs will tell you [that] you cannot begin to experience those 12 promises until you’ve at least gotten to step 10, because as long as you’re carrying your load of guilt from your past that comes from not having made amends to those you’ve wronged, you won’t experience that serenity. You won’t experience that peace and that freedom, but it is real, and it does come, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, if we work for it. And that’s absolutely true. That’s the water we should be able to share with others. If we don’t have that in us, what are we offering?
Would you read “A Vision for You”?
Reader 1: We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the great fact for us.
Reader 2: Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the road of happy destiny. May God bless you and keep you until then.
Fr. David: Amen. At the beginning of the talk, I said, “I’m Dave. I’m a sinaholic.” You take your 12 steps there and just replace alcohol, lust, whatever, with the word “sin.” You can now be a member of Sinaholics Anonymous. If you want that vision for you, if you want those promises in your life, apply those principles, the principles of traditional Christian repentance in your life, and you will transform your Christian life. I gar-on-tee it.
But, returning one last time to St. John, I’d like to share [this] with you. The thing—I really respect St. John of the Ladder;again, you should read him if you haven’t—[is that] St. John does not mince words. He is honest, and throughout all the steps of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, he admits freely that lust in the end is probably the most baffling, and that achieving chastity is probably the most blessed, if you can in this life. He doesn’t admit defeat or a lack of an answer, but in this case, I think you’ll find that he’s very humble and recognizes the complexity of what we’re dealing with here. I’ll read to you the final excerpt, number six.
By what rule or manner can I bind this body of mine? By what precedent can I judge him? Before I can bind him, he is let loose. Before I can condemn him, I am reconciled to him. Before I can punish him, I bow down to him and feel sorry for him. How can I hate him when my nature disposes me to love him? How can I break away from him when I am bound to him forever? How can I escape from him when he is going to rise with me? How can I make him incorrupt when he has received a corruptible nature? How can I argue with him when all the arguments of nature are on his side?
If I try to bind him through fasting, then I am passing judgment on my neighbor who does not fast, with the result that I am handed over to him again. If I defeat him by not passing judgment, I turn proud, and I am enthralled to him once more. He is my helper and my enemy, my assistant and my opponent, a protector and a traitor. I am kind to him, and he assaults me. If I wear him out, he gets weak. If he has a rest, he becomes unruly. If I upset him, he cannot stand it. If I mortify him, I endanger myself. If I strike him down, I have nothing left by which to acquire virtues. I embrace him, and then I turn away from him.
What is this mystery in me? What is this principle of the mixture of body and soul? How can I be my own friend and my own enemy? Speak to me! Speak to me, my yoke-fellow, my nature! I cannot ask anyone else about you. How can I remain uninjured by you? How can I escape the danger of my own nature? I have made a promise to Christ that I will fight you, yet how can I defeat your tyranny? But this I have resolved, namely, that I am going to master you.
And this is what the flesh might say in reply: “I will never tell you what you do not already know. I will speak the knowledge we both have. Within me is the begetter, the love of self. The fire that comes to me from outside is too much pampering and care. The fire within me is past ease and things long done. I conceived and give birth to sins, and they [when] born beget death by despair in their turn. And yet if you have learned the sure and rooted weakness within both you and me, you have manacled my hands. If you starve your longings, you have bound my feet, and they can travel no further. If you have taken up the yoke of obedience, you have cast my yoke aside. If you have taken possession of humility, you have cut off my head.”
This is the fifteenth reward of victory. He who has earned it while still alive has died and been resurrected. From now on he has a taste of the immortality to come.
Physical, emotional, spiritual—healing had to come about in all three. We have to starve the longings, stop our acting out, stop our giving in to our sins. We have to take up the yoke of obedience to Christ, turn away from our resentments and our angers and our willfullness and our pride and all these negative emotions, and take possession of humility, which is our spiritual freedom, this freedom of knowing the truth of ourselves and who God really is. Through the prayers of St. John, Lord, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.