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Addictive and compulsive behaviors are increasingly becoming a mask for male depression. No doubt, sexual addictions and compulsions can temporarily relieve the emotional pain of a full-blown major depression, and the ease with which men can get access to sexually provocative material through the Internet poses a particular hazard.
I suppose that for some, if not many, secular men, the use of pornographic stimulation via the Internet, called “cybersex,” is no big deal. Their values and morals are different. But for Christian men, cybersex is probably the greatest temptation to sin that has crossed their paths in a long time! It also has, in my opinion, a greater power to create an addiction or compulsivity in Christian men than in non-Christian men for the very reason that it creates a stronger sense of shame and guilt. Paradoxically, the greater the guilt one feels about a certain behavior, the greater is that behavior’s ability to become compulsive. Guilt and compulsivity are strongly bound together.
Cybersex is the fastest growing form of out-of-control sexual activity we have ever seen. It is affordable (it doesn’t eat up your financial resources the way cocaine will); it is anonymous (your deacons, or even your wife, have no idea what you are doing); and it is easily accessible (just a few clicks on a mouse). Untold numbers of people, men mainly, spend dozens of hours a week on line viewing sites that cater to sexual titillation and satisfaction. Such behaviors can become compulsive and even purely addictive. Cybersex is considered to be the “crack cocaine” of sexual compulsivity. At this point the addiction is notoriously difficult to treat. What this means is that once you are hooked to porn on the Internet, it may be a little short of hell trying to unhook yourself. Thank God He can help us get unhooked!
The problem, as with all addictions, is that men hooked on cybersex, and this includes many Christian men, deny that they have a problem. Denial, of course, is the hallmark of any addiction. Admitting you have a problem is always the first step toward recovery. For many men, however, it takes a major catastrophe, like getting fired or your wife walking out on you, to get your attention.
What has cybersex got to do with depression? To answer this question we have to look at what causes sexual compulsivity in the first place. Many complex factors are at work. One problem is that our bodies are designed for sexual pleasure, so it is not like cocaine, which is not needed for life or survival. We know this: one does not develop sexual addictions without emotional pain, which is why this topic is so relevant here. The purpose of all compulsive behaviors is to relieve or anesthetize emotional pain. It induces a trancelike state in which the individual disconnects from painful realities. The mood is altered in order to avoid another mood! Ultimately this process becomes a cycle of despair, as the individual feels more and more out of control. The depression one unconsciously tries to escape only becomes worse. Many suicides occur at the bottom of such a well.
Simply put, the sexually titillating and provocative behaviors associated with cybersex act as stimulants to offset down moods or depressive tendencies. Depression literally switches off our adrenaline system; we become fatigued, lose interest in hobbies or even work, and become morose. While depression may inhibit sexual expression toward one’s wife, cybersex offers a less demanding, alternative sexual outlet. It lifts without making demands. Because it offers unusual or extreme sexual ideas or images, it has a greater power to arouse the male’s visually oriented sexuality than everyday relationships. A man who is depressed and feeling unfulfilled is particularly at great risk for being attracted to cybersex. Many of the Christian men, including pastors, I have counseled were on the verge of failure or had experienced some great disappointment. They turned to cybersex for relief.
So a man who is down in the dumps because things aren’t going well at work or because his stress is out of control and can’t get to sleep at night, might be strongly tempted to seek out some relief through cybersex. It happens all the time, and, while I can’t say that Christian men are any more vulnerable here, I can say that I am seeing more and more of this pattern of behavior in Christian men, including pastors. It is very possible that with secular men it is not a big deal, so they just indulge without a conscience. The impact of a wife discovering this secret world of her husband, who is supposed to be a godly witness to his children and church, can be overwhelming. My wife and I hardly ever speak at a pastors’ conference these days without being approached for help by a desperate wife. If that is true for pastors, how much greater the problem must be for nonpastors. The bottom line is that wives see this as a form of infidelity! And because the “other woman” is on-line and just a bunch of pictures, she feels powerless to challenge it.
While I don’t want to put a cat among the pigeons and stir up paranoid fears in every wife or parent, boys and men often need to be held accountable for their own sake. If you have reason to be suspicious, please exercise a gentle and loving approach if you address the problem directly. Wives tend to overreact when they discover that their husbands have been unfaithful and the “other woman” is nothing but an image on a computer. But remember, often there is an underlying depression, and it is just as important that this be identified and dealt with as the addiction or compulsion.
What can alert a wife (or parent) to the signs of trouble here?
First, let me say that just because your son or husband has inquisitively looked at some sexually explicit material doesn’t mean he is a pervert. Boys and men accidentally come across this material because many sexually explicit Web sites “force” their stuff through to our computers. That’s how they advertise themselves. But many of the wives that my wife and I have counseled have tended to overreact. The best way to deal with such a situation is to calmly and nonjudgmen-tally say “Honey, would you like to talk about it?” The best protection there is against all sexual sin is to be able to talk about it. Silence is the killer!
There are three telltale signs of a growing and serious dependence on cybersex that all men should watch for.
First, you become increasingly preoccupied with sexual matters to the exclusion of family, work, hobbies, or social relationships.
Second, there is a loss of control. You say, “I will never do this again” and fall every time.
Third, negative consequences begin to emerge: loss of a marriage, job, health, financial stability, and unusual sexual practices.
Cues that a wife or parent can be watchful for include the following:
• A change in sleeping patterns—most cybersex sites heat up in the early morning
• Staying up late or waiting until the rest of the family has gone to bed to surf the Net
• Furtiveness whenever someone comes near the computer
• Less interest in the family
• An unusual need for privacy
• A loss of sexual interest in one’s partner
• Personality changes, such as a once jovial husband turning quiet and brooding
• Evidence of lying about how much time is spent on the Internet
What can a wife or parent do to prevent this problem from developing?
Obviously prevention is better than cure. So no matter how godly your husband or sons may be, it is a good precaution to place your computers in an open area where everyone can see what is going on. This is particularly important with teenagers, who, incidentally, often go through a depression episode as a part of growing up and might just be more vulnerable to temptation. It is also wise for men or boys who know they have a problem here not to use the Internet when they are alone and to set limits on how much time they spend surfing the Web. Most importantly, add Net safety tools that can screen out unwanted sexual material. We all need such protection because the porn industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated in the methods they use to intrude on otherwise normal use of the Internet. Be cautious here, however, as filters will not screen all of the interactivity. I would suggest that men be cautioned against talking to any woman on-line who is not a “real-life” platonic friend.
What can a man do to prevent or reverse a dependence on cybersex?
Here are some practical suggestions:
• If you are depressed, get treatment for the depression. The best protection against any compulsion or addiction is to ensure that your emotions are in a healthy state of repair.
• If your sexual addiction is severe, get treatment for it as well. Join a recovery group if necessary. Not everyone who has dabbled in cybersex is an addict, but it is only a matter of time before you will become one, as any recovering alcoholic will tell you.
• Even good men need to set up a system of accountability. I am hearing from men all around the country that after reading my book The Sexual Man they arranged with several other men to meet on a regular basis and share their personal struggles and to hold each other accountable for their behavior.