DESIRE & SEX ADDICTION: HELPING MEN TELL THEIR STORIES
Seven years ago, sometime around midnight, I sat across the table and shared a burrito with a man that I will call Charles. His skin was rough, scabbed, and cracked from the brutality of the Chicago winter. Under the hood of his black coat sat a face with warm eyes and chapped lips. His heart was tender and underneath it all, he was a man who desired much. Though currently without a home, family, or job, Charles was living on the streets and performing sexual acts for money in order to survive. Charles had an addiction—not to sex, but to heroin. We shared a burrito regularly on Monday nights, most of the time in the corner booth away from the window where his identity and face could be honored and protected.
Charles was a story-teller—a magical and elaborate story-teller. He made me laugh, cry, and question my sanity at the same time. He told me the stories of how he survived, not just on the streets of Chicago, but also in a world that had no category for the sexual violations that he had endured as a boy.
Fast-forward 7 years and as a therapist who works primarily with sexually addicted and traumatized men, I will tell you that the stories are all too common. However, the men who sit in my office are more likely to be a “john” than a Charles. Either way, my work has always been wrestling with men and the intersections of their desires and addictions.
Desire is about connection.
Lust is about consumption.
Therefore, desire is innately vulnerable.
And in our defenses against vulnerability we build lustful, devourous, consuming patterns of behaving.
So one of my fundamental tasks when working with sex addicted men is to understand where in the particularity of their own story has shame and desire been bound together. Sometimes this leads us into explicit stories of sexual harm. More often than not, this leads us into stories of tender desire being mocked, ridiculed, and shamed.
We need to understand that most men are setup to not simply be distant from, but to hate and to despise the soft corners of their hearts. And yet, we cannot escape what our hearts feel. Most men are in fact not empty, not distant, but increasingly and dangerously ambivalent. We feel, and we feel deeply. And yet, we learn very early on that our feelings are either dangerous or not enough.
Addiction is a balm to an ambivalent and confused heart.
If we want to help men overcome their addictions, we must first help them tell their stories. And this can only be done with kindness, with grace, and with bold love. We must offer the men in our communities the freedom of vulnerability, the risk of playfulness, and the strength to bear their broken hearts.
But in our culture and in our churches, we have an ambivalence towards men who are brave enough to name their pain. Men who dare to tell the truth of their boyhoods disrupt the collective narrative.
Early on, many young boys are left alone in the confusion and chaos of their desires, their bodies, and their longings in this world. Neurobiologically, you have to make connection somehow—you have to survive. So the wires cross, and you substitute desire for lust.
Whether it be to a substance or a sexual act, either way you become addicted to shame and the false sense of power.
What I hope that you hear is that we cannot talk about men, sex, and addiction without talking about the trauma of shame and humiliation. And we must name the role of patriarchy and the systemic oppression of women, children, and people of color. While at the same time, we must also hold the complexity of a social world where we are more comfortable with lustful men than desirous men. How come?
I think that evil would love to keep men bound to shame, hiding their hearts behind sexual addictions and toxic masculinities. Evil seeks to use men’s addictions to power and shame to continue to exploit women’s bodies and silence their voices. Evil loves to use harm only to perpetuate more harm. And I think that our greatest weapon against such evil is to help men tell their stories with courage and boldness, with grace and truth, but mostly with strength and tenderness.
We must bless what has been cursed. A story well told is always a story that honors the desire to be seen, known, and loved.
This is what men who struggle sexually and relationally need the most. We must refuse to join with evil in shame and humiliation. What Charles, and so many other brave men have taught me, is that no matter what, we cannot do this work alone. We need your story.