Sex, God & The Conservative Church: Book Review

Charity (The United States)’s review of Sex, God, and the ...

I was asked to teach the graduate human sexuality course last fall at the Moravian Theological Seminary. As it had been years since I taught, I was on the hunt for new books for the course.  Because this course was being taught at a seminary, we had to at least touch on religion and sex.  I found Sex, God & the Conservative Church:  Erasing Shame from Sexual Intimacy, by Tina Schermer Sellers, Ph.D. at the AASECT conference and thought it might be a perfect fit.  Once I started to read the book I thought “WHERE HAS THIS BOOK BEEN ALL MY CLINICAL LIFE?”

As someone whose primary clinical practice involves issues related to sexuality (Sex addiction, sexual offending and other problematic sexual behavior), issues of faith are frequently brought into the treatment room. It seems, that for many, faith and sex are intertwined.  As someone who is not a Christian counselor, I didn’t always have the perspective or language to help some clients work through this as much as I could have.  This book is an exceptional resource both for clinicians and clients or church groups.

Sex, God & the Conservative Church takes the reader first through a journey of the history of how sexuality and faith became derailed.  Of particular interest to me, working with sexual addiction, was her discussion of Saint Augustine, who she labeled a sexually troubled soul.  This is of interest to me as one of the main 12 step fellowship groups for sex addiction is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).  This fellowship is an Augustine Fellowship, named after the saint.

“While Augustine offered much that was foundational in the formation of Christian Theology, sexual desire and his own desire for women, which he was never able to completely escape, tortured him until the end.  His legacy of shame, fear of the body, and suspicion of its desire is with us today” p 33-34

The author suggests that a great deal of the root of sexual shame that Christians struggle with is rooted in his teachings.  I find it ironic, or perhaps a bit upsetting, that one of the main 12 step fellowships for recovery from sexual addiction is rooted in sexual shame.

Once past the history, the book delves into tangible ways to help people heal from their sexual shame and pursue sex positive messages from God and a sex positive Gospel.  Dr. Schermer Sellers frames the healing of sexual shame in a four-step process which will be very helpful for all people who are struggling with sexual shame, not just those that identify as Christian.

  1. Frame – provide sexual education to a client that they did not receive
  2. Name – help the client get their story heard by someone important to them.
  3. Claim – the client works to accept and own their body as a wonderful unique thing to undo the harmful messages inherited from religion and culture
  4. Aim – help the client write a new story of what they believe and what their legacy is to become.

Another aspect of this book that I really enjoy is the authors emphasis on normalizing childhood sexuality and the need for real, accurate and frequent sexual education being taught to children.  When families do not talk about sex and sexuality to children, they often assume it is something to be kept secret.  Worse yet is when a parent or care giver overtly shames a child for expressing normal sexual behavior or curiosity.  This can create a go to thought process of sex being dirty and bad.  If I (the child) have a sexual thought or feeling, I must be bad. Those of us who do this work know that so much of the struggle is rooted in shame and secrets.  If we normalize and teach children about healthy sexuality we can erase the shame that is often at the core of sexual problems.  To again quote the author:

“A culture that shames children for normal sexual expression plants seeds that manifest themselves in adult life in the form of disturbances in relationship, libido, and sexuality.  Sexual shame can sever the experience of sensual pleasure in a deep, loving attachment because it eclipses the person’s ability to feel seen, known, loved and accepted with and through their sensual body.  “ p. 106

I don’t think I can express strongly enough how wonderful this book is.  It should be a required reading for anyone who works with clients who struggle with sexual issues, be they sex therapists, sex educators or sex addiction therapists.  One of my strongly held beliefs is that we have to be sex positive in our work and not perpetuate sexual shame in our clients (see previous writing on being a sex positive sex addiction therapist).  Learning to integrate a sex positive Gospel for those of the Christian faith will go a long way to reduce sexual shame and reduce problematic sexual behavior.

 

For more information on Dr. Jennifer Weeks and her practice, head over to Sexual Addiction Treatment Services.  

Book Review: Tell Me What You Want

Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life by [Lehmiller, Justin J.]

Earlier this year, Dr. Justin Lehmiller published his book Tell Me What You Want:  The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  Dr. Lehmiller is a researcher and writer about human sexuality. I became familiar with his work from his blog, Sex and Psychology and use his textbook in my graduate Human Sexuality Course.  I was excited to see him write something for the general public as his previous writings have been more academic.

Dr. Lehmiller wrote this book based on the results of a survey he conducted in which he asked more than 4,000 Americans over 350 questions about sexual fantasies.  He also obtained information about sexual histories, psychological profiles and demographics.  What emerged from the data is that Americans fantasize about sex a lot and many things that might not seem “normal” are quite normal after all.

When people come in to treatment for anything relating to sex, I always get questions about what is normal.  How often do people have sex? How much porn viewing is normal?  I have a fetish, does that mean I am not normal?  For some reason, we are worried about our sexual appetites and arousal templates not being normal.  I always answer that there is no such thing as normal but after reading this book, the “normal” that so many people assume about American sexuality is not terribly normal at all.

So, what are the top seven things Americans fantasize about?  The number one sexual fantasy is about multi-partner sex.  Coming in at number two is power, control and rough sex.  Third is novelty, adventure and variety.  Fourth is taboo or forbidden sex.  Rounding out the bottom three are partner sharing and non-monogamous relationships, passion and romance and erotic flexibility (homoeroticisim and gender bending).

Instead of summarizing the entire book (go read it for all the juicy details), I’ll give you some fun facts.  Men and women are different in how they fantasize.  Interestingly, Dr. Lehmiller found that when women fantasize, they don’t really fantasize about a particular person but in their fantasies, women frequently see themselves as the object of desire.  They are the focus of the fantasy, not the other person.  Men, on the other hand, tend to be the actors in a fantasy, acting on an object of desire.

What do your politics say about your sexual fantasies?  Well, if you are a Democrat, you are more likely to fantasize about things like intimacy, bonding and BDSM.  The Republicans, on the other hand, were much more likely to fantasize about things that are a bit more taboo such as orgies, infidelity and swinging.  Republicans were also more likely to fantasize about things like exhibitionism and voyeurism.  Why you ask?  Dr. Lehmiller suggest that we tend to want what those in positions of authority tell us we can’t have!!!

Dr. Lehmiller’s book is a helpful resource for both therapists and non-therapists alike.  Many Americans deal with a great deal of sexual shame.  They either have been told or believe that their sexual fantasies, desires or behavior are wrong, sinful, perverted etc.  The fact is, the opposite is quite true.  When we hold sexual shame, we tend to repress our true sexual feelings.  This can cause problems in relationships but also in our own mental health.

I will end this short review with the following quote from the book:

“What all this tells us is that we need to stop judging whether sexual desires are healthy or unhealthy based only on how many people in the population have them.  Instead, what we really need to do is look at sexual interests on a case by case basis and ask ourselves two questions that have nothing to do with how many people have them: (1) is this sexual activity consensual or non consensual? (2) does it pose an unacceptable risk of harm to one or more people that goes well beyond the usual risks of having sex?” p181

Dr. Lehmiller has a slightly different take on what I say frequently to my clients and students about sexual desires.  I don’t care what it is as long as it is consensual and legal!

I encourage you to read Tell Me What You Want:  The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life.  If nothing else, maybe it helps erase some sexual shame, which is something our culture needs more of!

 

What Young Women’s Experiences with Sexting can tell us about Compliance, Coercion and Consent

The #MeToo movement has brought much needed attention to the experiences of women, of any age, of sexual abuse and harassment.  If you look behind the sensational headlines, the movement has sparked a much-needed conversation about consent.  I have previously written about how we teach consent in our practice in a blog on the topic.  The #METOO movement combined with some recent research published in the Sexuality Research and Social Policy journal can help us shed some light on how young women navigate sexuality and consent in the digital realm.

Dr. Sara Thomas recently published a research study in the journal of Sexuality Research and Social Policy that looked at how young women handled pressure to send them a nude or semi-nude photograph from a peer.  Dr. Thomas’ study analyzed stories from teenagers about their experiences of digital drama.  She then identified three main dilemmas that young women experience in relation to sexual photographs.  These were interpersonal negotiations, consequences and self-concept.  She then identified six different categories of behavior for how women were induced to send nude photographs.  These were desire, personal gain, asked, relational scripts, bombardment and coercion.

One of the first dilemmas faced by a young woman is the decision of whether to send a photograph.  The study found that 2/3 of young women reported that they engaged in this ongoing struggle to decide if they should send a picture, if so to whom and when should they do this.  When a woman decided to send a nude photograph, the motivations ranged from it being consensual to giving in to pressure or threats from the person asking for the picture.

The young women in this study knew that if they chose to send a nude picture there could be consequences.  These consequences ranged from the picture being seen by people they did not want to see (mass distribution) to social ostracism, rumor spreading, legal consequences, emotional distress and getting in trouble with parents.  The study found that the biggest concern was the possibility of the image being spread without consent.

Why do young women send nude or sexual photographs?  In this study, only 8% of the young women sent the photograph because they wanted to.  If they didn’t want to send the image, why did they?

Compliance:  The study found that many young women were sending nude images because they wanted to please the person asking for the image or because they wanted to avoid negative consequences from the young men that were asking for the images.  One of the troubling findings from the study was the tacit nature of the compliance by the young girls.  The young women justified the compliance by saying that they liked the young man who was asking for the image.

“..compliance was frequently accompanied by an assertion they liked the young man who requested them.  These stories did not express coercion by the asker, but they also did not express a desire to send them.  Rather the decision to send was a compliant “so I did” to a male-initiated request for a photograph.”

Coercion:  The majority of the women in the study experienced some form of coercion.  The level of this coercion ranged from milder “If you loved me” statements from the young man requesting the image to more intense forms coercion.  When a woman was unsure of sending an image, they reported feeling guilty that their partner questioned their love by not sending a nude image.

Many of the women had experiences of coercion that were more intense.  The study found that some young men pressured, threatened, got angry or cut off contact with the young woman in order to try to obtain nude images.  The women also experienced threats of blackmail.  Some of these women were blackmailed into sending more images after they sent a first image.  The blackmail threat was often that the images would be mass distributed.  The young women who experienced these situations didn’t feel like they had any options and that they had to send the images.

Can young women refuse?  The answer to this is yes.  In the study about 30% of the women refused to send a sexual image.  Of those 30%, 79% of those women faced consequences for not sending images.  Partners would get angry.  Relationships would end.  Based on the consequences, several of the young women reported they ended up sending images to the young man who requested them.  Only 12 women in this study refused to send nude images and did not experience any negative consequences for holding their boundary.

What does this study show us?  In this study, 25 of 314 young women engaged in sexting with a partner because they truly wanted to, and the experiences were devoid of compliance or coercion.  This means that most of these young women engaged in sexting that was truly without consent.  Their behavior was induced by compliance or coercion.

We, as parents, teachers, educators, need to do a better job at many things.  First, we need to teach all young people the true meaning of consent.  We need to empower young women to say “no” to coercion and to feel strong enough to not feel the need to comply to an unwanted request.  We need to give young women access to resources to help them make decisions about their sexuality.

The young women in this study did not seek adult help but turned to peers for advice.  They often cited fearing an adults’ response as why they didn’t talk to parents or another adult in their life.  As adults, we also need to create an environment where our children feel safe to come to us with their challenging dilemmas and we need to react calmly and lovingly.

Thomas, Sara.  (2017) “What do I do?”:  Young Women’s Reported Dilemmas with Nude Photographs.  Sexuality Research and Social Policy.

For more information on Dr. Weeks please check out our website www.sexualaddictiontreatmentservices.com

 

Parents – Get Your Kids off Adult Dating Apps

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I started engaging in prevention and education work as a direct result of my experiences working as a forensic psychologist in the field of sexual addiction and sexual offending. Despite my efforts and the efforts of many others more well-known than myself, we continue to see an increase in cybersex issues with teens.

This month, I have had several new forensic cases involving teens and dating apps. These new cases involved adult men who were found to be having sexual contact with minors that were met via the adult dating app Grindr.

First, let’s talk about dating apps. The most well-known adult dating apps are Tinder and Grindr. Tinder is used more for those who are attracted to the opposite sex and Grindr is targeted at the gay male audience. Other names you need to know: Jack’d, Scruff, Adam 4 Adam, Growlr, Plenty of Fish, Ok Cupid.

Why do you need to know about these apps? Because under age teens are on these apps, using them and meeting with adults for sexual encounter. Any and all of these apps are for people over the age of 18. They specifically state in their information that you cannot be under 18 (or 21 in some places) and use the app. The apps are for adults. The problem is that often all you must do is enter a birthdate or check a box that affirms you are at least 18 years of age and there is no age verification. Anyone under the age of 18 can do the math and figure out what birth year they need to enter to comply. If someone mutually swipes and connects with your child, they will text or chat to see if they are compatible and arrange a hook up or meeting. Sometimes, during these chats, the child may disclose that they are under the age of 18. Many times, they do not.

There are two ways your child could end up having sex with an adult via an adult dating app:

  1. They could be targeted by an adult who is specifically seeking a young or young-looking man or woman on the app. However, there is an assumption that all on the app are of legal age. During the chat, the child could disclose that they are underage. Obviously, at this point, the right thing for anyone to do is to discontinue the conversation with the minor and NOT meet them, connect with them and surely not have sex with them. However, some people will ignore what is right and hook up with the minor for sex. In this case, the person meeting the minor has full knowledge that they are underage when they are hooking up with them and knows this is illegal.

  1. A child could go on an adult dating app and create a profile that says they are at least 18 years old. They could engage with men or women on line and meet up with them for sexual encounters. The child could never disclose that they are a minor to the person they are meeting for sex. Therefore, the person who is meeting them for sex is under the assumption that they are at least 18 and they are not knowingly having sex with a minor.

What can you do if you are a parent?

  1. Talk to your child. Talk to them about dating apps, hook up apps and any social networking apps. Ask what they use and how they use it. Ask if they are on the sites. Discuss with them the inappropriateness of being a minor and being on an adult dating site. I have had clients tell me they were on these apps when they were as young as 13 years old.

  1. If necessary, block your child’s access to these sites. I am not usually a fan of blocking sites completely, but in these cases, where there are such serious risks, I say, block your child’s access until they are the legal age to use the apps.

  1. Be open to your child’s curiosity about sex and sexuality. Many of these issues occur on same sex dating sites. This is likely because adolescent men are exploring their sexuality and may not be out, feel safe doing so in their school or social network and/or have no one to talk to about their questions and feelings. Be that safe person for your child to talk to and help them find appropriate resources to answer their questions.

What can you do if you use a dating site?

  1. If you find out someone you are talking to is under 18, stop talking to them IMMEDIATELY. Report their use of the app to the administrators of the app per the app’s instructions. DO NOT MEET THE UNDERAGE USER.

  1. If you think someone is younger than 18, ask for some form of ID to verify their age. Ask for a driver’s license. Yes, someone can get a fake ID If they are underage, but you need to do this to protect yourself and not make a life altering bad decision.

Does the app bear any responsibility when a minor is preyed upon in an adult dating app or ends up having sexual encounters with an adult? The answer to this is, NO. They do not. This has been challenged in court and the apps have won, meaning that the stated age requirements and acknowledgment of the user of the rules removes them from any liability in these cases. I would urge the makers of these apps to do more to try to remove under age users from their platforms.

As always, the key to prevention is awareness and communication. Talk to your child!

For more information on Dr. Weeks please see our company website. You can find The New Age of Sex Education: How to talk to your teen about cybersex and pornography in the digital age on amazon.

Something’s Missing in the Current Drug Prevention Rhetoric

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I have been an addiction therapist for approximately thirteen years.  While for some professions that may not seem like a long time, for a substance abuse professional, thirteen years in the trenches is a very long time. It is thirteen years of being underpaid, overworked, and underfunded.  It is also thirteen years of working with lost and often traumatized souls who may never ever get better.  Thirteen years as a substance abuse professional can make you weary.  However, you don’t end up in this profession and last for any length of time unless it is a calling.

Unless you are completely cut off from the outside world, you have seen many a news article lately about what is being called the heroin or opiate epidemic.  The apparent meteoric rise of addiction problems due to a prescription pill problem that for many turns into a heroin problem.  In March of 2016, the Centers for Disease Control issued new guidelines for doctors who prescribe opioids for chronic pain.  In 2015, hydrocodone combination products were moved to a Schedule II drug classification, indicating their highly addictive potential.  These changes were made in the hope of curbing the opiate addiction problem in our country, but with little effect.

This blog is not meant to be a discussion of anything related to why the situation continues to decline or what to do about it now.  What I want to talk about is prevention.  Most resources, even good resources like www.PASTOP.org, spend most of their page space talking about prescribing, what to do with unused medication, overdose and treatment information.  While all of this is very useful information, it is what I would call secondary prevention.  This is prevention of use by teens or adults, frequently who are prescribed medication initially by a doctor for a legitimate medical issue.  What is missing from the big picture of this prevention discussion is childhood.

Earlier this year, I finished reading both Dr. Gabor Mate’s, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s, The Body Keeps the Score.  Both are must reads for anyone who works in the addiction field.  I would like to share with you the line from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts that inspired me to write the post.

“The prevention of substance abuse needs to begin in the crib – and even before then, in the social recognition that nothing is more important for the future of our culture than the way children develop.” P. 443

What is missing in almost all current talk about prevention is that, unfortunately, for all the people already addicted or prone to addiction, it is potentially too late.  Why do people become addicts?  Trust me in that no one wants to be an addict when they grow up or enjoys addiction.  Maybe, in the beginning, they liked the effect of the drug, but that quickly wears off.  What many addicts like is the escape.  The ability to take a substance that makes them not feel feelings they don’t like or can’t handle.  They like the fact that when they are taking the substance, they don’t have to sit in reality.  They like that the drug makes their flashbacks go away.  They like the fact that many drugs make them forget for a period of time.

In 13 years, I have yet to meet a drug addict who, at some point in their life, and most likely in childhood, did not suffer from at least one form of abuse or neglect.  Many drug addicts and alcoholics (gamblers and sex addicts too) endured verbal, physical and/or sexual abuse by their parents or family members growing up.  Many endured neglect in childhood as well, whether that was physical or emotional.  Many addicts were bullied in school and had no one safe at home to talk to about their experiences.  These childhood experiences mean that often, they looked for ways to self soothe, ways to cope or ways to feel better even if it was for a short period of time.

The ACE studies (Adverse Childhood Experiences) have shown scientific proof of what addiction counselors have known for years.  The more ACE events in a person’s life, the more likely they are to not only have physical issues but also mental health issues.  People with higher ACE scores are 2 to 4 times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs and to do so at an earlier age.  If a person’s ACE score is 5 or higher, they are 7 to 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs, report addiction or to inject illegal drugs.

So what do we do?  Addiction prevention starts before a child is born.  The in-utero environment of a child affects their neurobiological reaction to stress as an adult.  To stop drug addiction, we need to stop child abuse.  How do we do this?  Obviously, this is a tall order.  Make parenting classes more accessible to all expecting men and women.  Teach not only about physical care of a child but their mental health care as well.  Talk about attunement to a child and how that affects his or her ability to regulate emotion later in life.  Work to create safe spaces in a home and healthy attachment.  Teach communication skills from the start.  Teach healthy coping skills to even very young children.  Teach healthy coping skills to the adults so that they can model these for their children.  Work as hard as we can to prevent physical, sexual and emotional abuse of everyone.

I realize that my goals are idealistic.  I have always said that if the world gets healthy, I would happily change professions.

We need to start addiction prevention from the beginning by having discussions about childhood abuse, neglect and trauma.  We need to work to take away the stigma of therapy and getting help for emotional problems.  We need to teach everyone how to effectively communicate and cope.

I know that this is a tall order and that many do not have the resources to learn all these skills.  We need to work to provide these resources to everyone.  As a society, we need to do more……….

 

For more information on Dr. Weeks please go to our company website www.sexualaddictiontreatmentservices.com.

Photo credit.  The Watsons, NYC, NY.

Why is a Good Couples Counselor So Hard to Find?

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I am going to start this post by adamantly stating that I am not a couples counselor. It’s not my thing and I just can’t do it. I have a great respect for those therapists who train in this area and devote their careers to helping couples find their way. Since I do not do couples therapy, I must refer my clients out to other couples therapists. You might think that this is an easy task. There are many Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists in this world. Then why do I hear so many horror stories from my clients? Why is my list of people to NOT refer to longer than my list of people TO refer to?

I will share with you the story of a newer client’s experience in couples counseling. First, I should share that I work with sex addicts and sexually addicted sex offenders. It is a rather specialized population and perhaps, a controversial one. Many of my clients are caught by the authorities for viewing child pornography. For many of them, this behavior is an escalation of their addiction to pornography.

This man and his wife, not long after her “disclosure by police”, went to see a couples therapist. This was not someone our program recommended but a therapist that they found via their insurance. The therapist had no stated knowledge or expertise in working with pornography addiction nor with offenders. This was glaringly obvious. My client reported that he was very open with this therapist. He told the counselor all about his addiction and how it led to his use of illegal images and arrest. (Let me tell you this is a big deal to share at a first session with anyone!).

When a client comes to you for this type of work, their level of shame gives them an amazing radar for judgment. They are sharing their deepest secrets with you, the therapist. If you move an eyebrow they will know it and likely interpret it as you judging them. Well, my client immediately felt as though the couples therapist did not believe that pornography addiction was a real thing. All from a vocal expression of the therapist. My client continued the session for the sake of his partner.

This therapist asked to see the partner alone during the initial session. Granted, what I relate to you is third party information, relayed from the partner to the client to me. However, even allowing for interpretation of the event, there is some truth here. That truth is very bothersome.

What the partner heard: the couples therapist thought that her husband (my client) was lying. The couples therapist felt that my client was not sorry about anything only that he was caught. The couples therapist then advised the partner that she should leave the relationship. All this assessment was garnered after only an hour intake session.

One can only imagine what this did to the partner.

What this also does is taint the idea of couples therapy for both of them.

As counselors, therapists and psychologists, we are only supposed to treat within our area of expertise. I treat sexual addiction, sexual offenders, addiction, and trauma and addiction. If someone comes to me with an eating disorder, for example, I don’t treat them. I refer them to a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. If someone comes to me with schizophrenia, I refer them to a specialist. You get the idea.

When we do not abide by this and treat people out of our area of expertise we can do damage to the client. This happens frequently when it comes to sex addiction. Sex addiction is a very controversial topic. Many people think it doesn’t exist and many people do. Personally, the label does not matter to me. For some clients, the label matters very much. If a client feels they have a sexual addiction and identifies with the label in a healthy way and a therapist tells them that it doesn’t exist or treats them in a manner biased by their own beliefs, they can do harm to the client.

If there is a stigma about sex addiction, then the stigma against sex offenders is there tenfold. Even less therapists are trained in treating sex offenders than sex addicts. There are studies that show therapists won’t treat pedophiles. In a profession where we are supposed to be open and nonjudgmental, many of us are just that, judgmental.

I do not write this to bash well-meaning couples therapists. I reiterate that I have the utmost respect for your work! My plea to couples therapists is this: If you do not believe in sex addiction, do not treat a couple where one partner feels they are a sex addict. If you do not believe in sex addiction or pornography addiction, please don’t shame the person with the addiction. If you do not want to treat sex offenders, then simply say that. Please don’t go behind one partner’s back and tell them that their husband or wife is lying and they should leave.

My advice for those seeking couples counseling (or any counseling for that matter) is to investigate your potential therapist. I understand that therapy out of network can be costly. The list of therapists you get from your insurance company means nothing other than they are in network with your insurance. It is your job to do some groundwork on us. Check out the therapist’s website. Consider what their specialties are. Call and ask if they specialize in working with couples (or individuals) who are going through what you are going through. If they don’t, then find another therapist.

Ultimately, we work for the client. Therefore I end every one of my intake sessions with a new client with one question. “Do you think that you can work with me?” I want to know if they feel comfortable with me. If not, even if I have the right training for the client, I am not the right therapist.

For more information on Dr. Weeks and her practice, visit our website:  www.sexualaddictiontreatmentservices.com 

What’s My Stuff? How to talk to your child about sex when you are the partner of a sex addict

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In my book, The New Age of Sex Education: How to Talk to your Teen about Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age, I write about the baggage that can interfere with a parent talking to their child about sex, pornography, masturbation or any other sexual topic. This topic recently came up in one of my therapy sessions. I have a long-time client whose husband is in recovery from problematic sexual behavior and she has worked a strong program of recovery and self-discovery herself. She and her husband have several wonderful children, the eldest of which is entering pre-pubescence and the age of sexual curiosity. My client is a great mother and knows she needs to talk to her son (after recently accidentally finding him touching himself). She is also introspective and self-aware so she knows she is having a hard time even thinking about the conversations.

Why is my client struggling to talk to her child? Is it more than the normal incoming awkward conversation? My client thinks so. Being the partner of someone with out-of-control sexual behavior (they identify as sex addiction) means that, for her, sex and sexuality no longer have the same meaning that they once did. Being in a relationship with someone who engaged in secretive and betraying sexual behavior has skewed how she thinks of most things sexual. She no longer thinks that pornography is an “ok” thing. She struggles with what the obsessive objectification of women by her partner has done to her self-esteem. She wondered if she even knew what was normal sexuality for an adolescent. Could she bring herself to say that masturbation was a healthy behavior? Could she talk to her son about sex without inducing shame? Does she trust her partner to talk to her son about sex given his past issues?

What did we come up with? First, I offered my client resources. Both my book and the 30 Days of Sex Talks books by Empower Kids. These are great resources for parents. Second, we practiced talking about sex and what is healthy. It is normal for kids to find touching themselves pleasurable. She felt she would be able to talk to her son about this behavior and add a discussion of boundaries to it. Masturbation is something that should be done in private. He needed to agree to shut his door, lock his door and not touch himself around others. She also would agree to no longer just open his door but respect his privacy and knock before she entered. She also decided that she wanted to talk to her son about reasons for masturbation. She wanted to let him know that using masturbation to quell a sexual urge was a normal thing. She wanted him to know that doing so to self soothe bad emotions could be problematic. In this, she also will talk to him about other, non-sexual ways to self soothe.

Her next struggle was to talk about pornography. Her son is 12 and the average age of first exposure to online pornography is around 10 or 11. It is likely that, even though all her devices are locked down, he has either seen or heard about it. My client struggled to separate her own feelings about pornography from the discussion. We settled on just talking about facts. Pornography is something that is around and a lot of people look at. Has he seen it? What reaction has he had? We also talked about discussing with him what pornography portrays. Today’s mainstream pornography does not do much to show safe sex, mutuality, or anything relational. She decided to talk to him about how it does not portray what often goes on between partners. Most people do not look like porn stars nor do most people act like porn stars when being sexual.

As we have not yet had our next appointment, I cannot share the results of these conversations. I share them with you to show one of the many ways a parent’s sexual “baggage” can interfere with the education of their child(ren). I am grateful that this mom was willing to spend an hour working through the hard stuff, namely her own issues with sex, to find a way to provide an educational and non-shaming way to talk to her son.

Compliance, Coercion and Consent: Everyone Needs to Know This

coercion

American news and social media feeds have been consumed lately with the comments of a presidential candidate regarding the sexual exploitation of women. As someone who works with both sexual abuse survivors and sexual offenders, the responses of many people truly bother me. Therefore, I feel compelled to share on my blog one of the basic teachings that all of my sexual offender clients both know and understand.

We can all seem to wrap our head around the idea of non-consent when it involves sexual behavior with a pre-pubescent minor. Outside of this instance, there appears to be some confusion. Why do we talk about this in sex offender treatment? Because it is imperative that the person who committed a crime come to an understanding of how they hurt their victim as well as how they allowed themselves to engage in the behavior. Though I mostly work with non-contact offenders, everyone I work with has engaged in a non-consensual sexual act. Someone who exposes him or herself forces a victim to view something sexual that they did not consent to view. Someone who takes a video of a person that was unaware they were being filmed has done so without that victim’s consent. Even child pornography offenders who did not produce images and have not had a contact offense are engaging in a non-consensual act. The children in the pornography did not consent to being abused, to being videoed or to being viewed by others. Because the human brain is brilliant at justification and rationalization, we need to talk a lot about consent.

What is the difference between compliance, coercion and consent?

Coercion – This might seem obvious to most people. The most obvious form of coercion is actual violence and force. While this is what most people think of when they think of non-consensual sex, coercion can come in a more subtle or non-obvious form. If one party uses drugs or alcohol to influence a sexual outcome, this is coercion. A person cannot truly give consent if they are impaired. Another form of coercion is unreasonable pressure from one party to engage in a sexual act. This can be both personal or social pressure. If one party has to pressure or really talk the other party into a sexual act, this is not truly consent, but coercion. If one party has to get the other party drunk in order to get them to engage in a sexual act, this is not consent but coercion.

Compliance – Compliance is often seen in the context of relationships as well as other encounters. A person may comply to a sexual encounter if they feel that there is a negative consequence for saying no. One partner may comply to a sexual request from their partner out of fear that the partner may break up with them, not because they want to do it. A subordinate in a work environment may comply to a sexual encounter with a boss out of fear for their job if they say no. Some people will say that compliance is consensual, such as engaging in a sexual act with your partner that you are not really into because they are. To me this is different, as in this situation, there is no fear of consequences for not engaging in the act. I have seen this in my work with sex addicts where, for example, a partner goes to a sex club with their significant other, not because they want to engage in the behavior but because they fear that their partner will leave them if they don’t.

Consent – Consent is rather a clear cut concept in reality. It means saying “yes, I agree to engage in this act with you.” People who consent do so clearly and knowingly without fear of repercussion or being hurt. Consent can be revoked at any time by any party in an interaction.

The concept of consent is discussed frequently in the media and taught to children and adults alike. The concepts of coercion and compliance are not as frequently talked about. Hopefully, the media’s presentation of comments made by the presidential candidate can help us initiate conversations about compliance, coercion and consent.

Using one’s celebrity or status as a business person as a means to engage sexually with another person (who does not desire the contact) can and should be considered coercion or compliance. This thinking implies that the person who is receiving the unwanted sexual contact won’t say no or say anything at all out of fear of repercussions based on the power and status of the person who is engaging in the unwanted sexual conduct.

It deeply disturbs me that the sex offenders I work with have a MUCH better understanding of the difference between compliance, coercion and consent than does the general public.

 

Image from www.consented.ca

Dr. Weeks is the owner of Sexual Addiction Treatment Services and the author of The New Age of Sex Education:  How to Tali to Your Teen about Cybersex and Pornography in the Digital Age.  She is also an expert in the field of Cybersex Offenders

 

Our Confusing Relationship with Sexting

Each day I get the daily news feed from Google on topics related to my field, sex addiction, mindfulness, sexting, etc. If you are unfamiliar with the news feeds, Google culls the internet each day for new things with your keyword and sends you the links to all the new pages. Sometimes this yields a treasure trove of new information and sometimes it is just junk.

When it comes to the sexting news feeds, I am always struck by how dichotomous the links are. The news feed links tend to come in three categories:

  1. People being arrested for sexting with minors or some other sexting related scandal.
  2. The dangers of sexting and how to protect our teens from the behavior.
  3. How to use sexting to improve your relationship and have better, hotter sex.

We seem to not know what to think about sexting and the lines between good and evil seem rather gray.

Scandal, Disgrace and Jail:

Many headlines regarding sexting involve adults sexting a minor or engaging in a sext relationship with a co-worker, subordinate or patient. Two recent headlines from my geographic area include a juvenile probation officer who has been criminally charged for his behavior. He was sexting with a juvenile female who was on his juvenile probation case load. Another recent headline involves a New Jersey police officer who was caught sexting teenage girls. The message here is clear. Adults sexting with minors is not tolerated and is to be criminally charged and frequently publicly shamed. In truth, sexting in these cases has become the newest extension of abuse of power and inappropriate sexual conduct with minors provided by digital technology. The message here is clear and not terribly confusing.

Sexting is dangerous for your kids

Another prevalent headline involves warning parents over the dangers of teen sexting. This can be results from a prevalence study to a public service program put on by the police to warn about dangerous sexting. The coverage sometimes includes articles about how texting and sexting fit into the social dynamic of teen relationships. The message here is confusing at times. It is clear from the research that sexting has become a normal part of the lives of some teenagers. Data shows us that it has been integrated into courtship rituals. However, the press tells us that parents are terrified and worried about teen sexting, clearly one of a parent’s biggest fears. Perhaps this fear is based on the outdated or non-existent laws regarding minor sexting in some states or concern about cyberbullying. To me, it appears as though parents’ fears are based on a lack of understanding of their own children’s culture, a fear which could be abated with open communication with their child.

Sexting can make your relationship better

Learn how to write hot, sexy sexts to turn on your lover and spice up your relationship. This is where my confusion really takes hold. Our press and culture focus on sexting being something to shame, ridicule and fearful. People in power can abuse others via sexting. Children can be damaged for the duration of their lives from sexting. However, that magic moment when we are now an adult instead of a minor, sexting moves from something to fear to something to embrace. What? How does that happen?

It is true that using digital communication like texting and sexting can increase the connection in a relationship. The data are starting to bear fruit. Tindr is not ruining dating for everyone and smart, loving and committed couples do, indeed, sext each other for fun. It seems to help their intimacy, connection and relationship satisfaction as well.

Why are we so confused about the role of sexting? I truly have no answer but the strange mix of news stories that arrive in my email each morning mimic our culture’s confused relationship with sex in general. Drive down a highway and you can find nearly naked women (and sometimes men too) plastered on a billboard. You can watch very intimate sexual encounters on prime time television (nearing soft core pornography). You can have sex with prostitutes in video games if you are 12.

However, the one thing we can’t do is talk about sex. We can watch it. We can see it. We can do it in a video game but we can’t talk about it. Our culture still carries so much shame around sexuality that it is incredibly uncomfortable to talk about for most people. We don’t talk to our children about sex (but we let them play grand theft auto).

Sexting, like sex itself, is neither good nor bad but rather context dependent. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a cell phone for sexual conversations. As with most things online, the problem is in the hands of the user. Any means of abusing a power differential in a relationship is unacceptable and sexting provides an additional avenue for abuse. If sexting is inherently bad because it opens new opportunities for abuse, is chatting or emailing bad because some people can use it for abusing children? If one uses that logic, it could be said that going to church is dangerous because children have been abused by clergy. Obviously, this logic isn’t sound.

Sexting is a means of communication. It is our responsibility as adults to use it wisely. Be aware of the potential ramifications of sending images of yourself that you might not wish the world to see. Be aware of the fact that chat transcripts might be read by someone else.

Be aware that your children are likely either engaging in sexting or know of people who are sexting. Educate yourself about the law, the outcomes and your child’s culture. Talk to them about sexting and the possible consequences, both social and legal. If we just say that sexting is a bad thing, we are shaming an expression of sexuality. Let’s teach healthy sexuality and how to express it in a healthy manner.