Sexual Addiction in the 21st Century

by Mark Sanders

(  The Catholic Church has long been a champion of the dignity of the human person, and as such opposed to the cultural changes brought about by “free love,” easy sex, access to pornography, and a liberalization of marriage laws. However, it is very telling that even the culture at large is beginning to see the dangers that pornography brings to the world.  A Time Magazine article by Belinda Luscombe in March 2016 focused on how a group of young men, whose brains were “virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents,” are seeing the dangers associated with use of pornography and the negative impact that it has on their romantic relationships and conceptions of the opposite sex.

As has been noted in countless ways, the promises of the sexual revolution have been proven false, and the statistics of the breakdown of the family, the high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births, abortions, and other societal catastrophes speak volumes to this fact. In many ways today’s culture is a natural extension of the moral relativism spoken about by so eloquently by Pope Benedict XVI and others, where life is based on utilitarianism and there is no objective right or wrong.

However, as Catholics it is becoming very clear that the perversion of sexuality that is occurring (and has been occurring for decades) is reaching a tipping point. There is no longer any effort needed to access pornography, as it can be viewed in privacy from the phone in your pocket (an estimated 1 in 5 searches on mobile devices are for pornography).  It is also mostly free (9 out of 10 internet searches are for “free access”).  The “calmer, gentler” pornography of Playboy and similar magazines have been replaced by the easy access to “anything that you want” online, and the easy accessibility on television and even video games.  The competitive market of the industry (estimated at $97 billion several years ago) means that pornographers are trying to create the most extreme images and videos in order to gain marketshare, regardless of the human cost.

To say that this cultural shift has had a terrible impact on individuals and families would be a monumental understatement. The sexual chaos created by this new world has caused or contributed to a myriad of problems, some understood well (i.e. a removal of the meaning of sex for many individuals and couples, the concept of sex as a commodity) and other issues not as well (the impact of pornography on human trafficking, the very high rates of Catholic/Christian men and women who view pornography regularly).  Regular pornography use has been linked to increased violence towards women and increases in sexual aggression, as manifested in “revenge porn.”

From an addiction point-of-view, pornography acts in many ways like drugs such as heroin, alcohol, and cocaine do. Regular use at an early age can lead to rewiring of neural synapses of the brain and impact the pleasure center, possibly permanently.  It can also produce other physical symptoms such as tolerance (the need for ever increasing frequency and ever evolving stimulations) and withdrawal (the impact on a person when the usage is decreased or stopped).  The guilt, shame, increasing anxiety, etc., also impacts everything from an individual’s sense of self to marriage and relationship difficulties.  Individuals caught in the pornography cycle find themselves constantly trying to quit while battling against sometimes what seems to be an unending myriad of temptations.

So what can we as Catholics do? Acknowledging the reality that many good men and women in the church today, who attend Mass, receive the sacraments, serve on diocesan committees, etc., struggle mightily with this issue is a great start.  Many priests in the Archdiocese of Denver, and surely other areas of the country as well, see this issue constantly present in the sacrament of reconciliation.  To reach these individuals, an emphasis on prayer, increasing faith, and building a life of virtue will play a major role.  A dependence on God’s mercy is essential, as is a recognition of the need for chastity which rightly orders an individual’s sexuality to his or her station in life.  Practicing other strategies that are often helpful in addictions, including removing as much access to pornography as possible (while also limiting future access), finding an accountability partner, learning triggers and creating individual strategies to attack them, and getting back on track after a setback can also be effective.

Finally, the idea of creating a counter-cultural message to combat the failed “sexual revolution” is necessary as well. It isn’t enough to simply say “don’t do” something – there has to be something else to fill the void left behind by the abandoned behavior.  To that end, an overall conceptualization like Saint Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teachings could enhance the message that emanates from the church.  Exploring concepts regarding the connection between our physical bodies and our spiritual selves, along with enhancing how we understand the meaning of the human body, can help an individual struggling with pornography and/or sexual addiction to learn what to do about living a life centered on Christ.

For individuals who are struggling with sex addiction and pornography, there are many resources available. and are two popular websites that provide an overview of the problem and information about its effects.  Many Catholic apologetic speakers, including Matt Fradd, Christopher West, and Jason Evert, have given talks and/or written books about the topic.  Marcel LeJeune’s “Cleansed:  A Catholic Guide to Freedom From Porn” was published in 2016 and provides a great overview, and to learn more about sexual addiction (albeit from a secular perspective) “Out of the Shadows:  Understanding Sexual Addiction” by Patrick Carnes, PhD is a place to start as well.

Just as individuals who struggle with alcoholism or drug addiction can make and maintain changes in their lives, there is hope for the men and women who have been fed a lie about their sexuality.


Mark Sanders, LPC, CACIII Director of Substance Abuse Services Regina Caeli Clinical Services, Littleton CO

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.