Most of us think about sexuality as a very private compartment of our lives.
Even in the innocence of childhood, we were subtly taught to treat everything sexual differently. We learned special names for our “private parts.” We were told not to touch or talk about those parts of our bodies.
Then something happened. In the best case scenario, we experienced the curiosity of sexual awakening in adolescence. But for many, sexuality was dramatically complicated with confusion and shame because of exposure to pornography or childhood sexual trauma.
The Box of Sexuality
The reaction to such an experience is often to place all those feelings of excitement, shame, and anxiety into a neat little box hidden away somewhere on the top shelf of our awareness. But the box doesn’t stay quietly on that shelf for long. It demands your attention again and again. And how do you experience healthy sexuality when that also means opening the box?
Addressing sexual strongholds doesn’t just mean acknowledging your struggle and facing it with will power. It also involves the realization that the box of your sexuality is not as easily contained as you might like to think. Your sexuality is not just a compartment of your life, but is intertwined with your past, your identity, and your relationships.
Instead of picturing a neatly packed box, instead think of your sexuality more like a plate of spaghetti. It’s messy, and every “noodle” on the plate potentially touches every other noodle. In this blog, I will share three aspects of your life that you may have never considered play into your sexual healing and recovery.
Addressing Pain from Your Past
The human brain has an extraordinary ability to problem solve. When you are not actively thinking about something, and even when you are sleeping, your brain can be working on underlying conflicts. This is not only true for work or daily life problem solving, but also for your deepest internal conflicts. Our brains have the tendency to return to troubling and traumatic events to gain mastery over them and to reprocess them. Fragments of trauma from the past, personal rejections, and fears can show up in dreams and be triggered by present-day events.
Research shows that sexual and emotional childhood trauma are strongly correlated with unwanted and compulsive sexual behaviors. Part of the reason that your brain may be repeatedly drawn to sexual experiences and images is your brain’s unconscious efforts to process relational and sexual pain from the past. Unfortunately, pornography and random sexual encounters are likely to do the opposite by exposing you to new graphic sexual images. In some cases, pornography actually re-traumatizes you.
Most experts in the field of sexual addiction and recovery now agree with Dr. Patrick Carnes. Sexual addiction is intertwined with earlier relational wounds and trauma. Your desire to look at porn or experience random sex is about much more than sex.
This means that your healing journey needs to include the willingness to dive into painful experiences from your past that may be buried beneath layers of self protection. You probably have no desire to talk about the abandonment you felt when your father left, the sexual abuse you experienced as a child, the date rape you endured, or the emotional abuse in your household, but doing so may be a critical step toward freedom.
Your Capacity to Tolerate Boredom or Discomfort
Those of us living in a first-world country during this time in history typically have little “muscle” to endure through difficulty or seasons of waiting. From the time we were born, we were swaddled in soft blankets and raised in climate-controlled homes. If we feel hungry, there is food readily available. If we are bored, our smartphones offer endless distractions. When it’s dark, we turn on a light. If we have a headache, we take an aspirin. Amazon has spoiled us by delivering anything imaginable to our doorsteps in 24 hours.
All of these wonderful advances mean that we have an underdeveloped capacity to wait or to sit in tension. We are used to running to comfort and finding it right now.
Think about life just 150 years ago and what it’s like in many parts of the world today. No refrigeration, no grocery stores, no cars, no phones, no TV—not even a record player. The only way to communicate with someone not physically present is to write a letter and wait for days or weeks for a reply. If you’re hungry, you will wait until a meal is prepared (which could take hours), and you certainly are not going to get the exact food you’re craving. You shivered through cold nights and worked in sweltering heat.
This has been the normal experience of humanity until just recently in wealthy countries. People learned from childhood how to wait, find contentment in the present, and face disappointment.
Fast forward to your life. You’re in your apartment all alone after a long, stressful work week. Your Friday night plans got cancelled and you’re bored. After watching some Netflix and scrolling through Instagram, the emptiness and loneliness feels overwhelming. You know from experience that this pain is temporary. Tomorrow is a new day and you have fun things to look forward to. But right now, you are swallowed in a black hole of sadness that feels like it will never end. This is when you find yourself once again looking at porn. The excitement and release was a quick fix, but now you feel even worse about yourself.
Overcoming your battle with unwanted sexual desire means that you will have to sit through temporary discomfort. You will need to learn the skill of delayed gratification, forgoing immediate pleasure for a greater joy in the long run. If this is a muscle you don’t have, you can develop it by disciplines like fasting from sugar, caffeine, or technology. You will learn that discomfort acts like a spoiled child, demanding immediate gratification. The mature part of you can endure, focusing on greater future joy and relying on healthy comforts like prayer, music, or talking to a friend.
What You Believe About Yourself
I was talking with a group of nine women who all struggled with pornography. We were discussing the theme of secrets. The women each described various ways she hid her porn struggle from close friends, mentors, and husbands. Each one of them had a secret. I asked the women, “What do you think is the bigger problem: your struggle with porn or the fact that it represents a secret?”
All nine of them said that the secretive aspect of their struggle was the bigger problem.
Sexual sin and shame make us feel like we must hide something that is unlovable about ourselves (hence, the “box” of sexuality). When you believe there is something about you that is disgusting and shameful, you learn to let even your closest friends know only the acceptable part of you. You begin to believe that even God could not tolerate your secrets.
No one sees what you do alone with your cell phone or the horrible thoughts that you try to push away. You may look like you have it all together, but those secrets are like a poison that infiltrate how you interact with people and what you believe about yourself. Your thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Laura had lived this divided life for many years. She was a leader in her church’s youth group and a caring friend with a successful career. She didn’t let people get too close to her. She flirted with guys but got bored with relationships after a few months. Her female friendships were polite. She often found herself helping others with their problems but was very guarded with her own feelings. Down deep, Laura was terrified of what would happen if a friend, coworker, or boyfriend found out about her secret addiction to porn and masturbation. She found herself running away from relationships before they required that level of honesty.
Satan doesn’t ultimately just want you looking at porn. He wants to alienate you from authentic connection with people and with God. As long as you believe the lies that you are unlovable and that what you’ve done is beyond God’s redemption, you cannot be free.
Laura’s healing journey began when she had the courage to confess to a friend her secret struggle. Bracing for certain judgment and rejection, she was shocked when with tears in her eyes, her friend said, “Thank you so much for trusting me. I can relate to your struggle. Let’s find help together.” Laura began to believe for the first time that if her friend could love and accept her, maybe God could too.
You’re Invited to a Journey
You might feel overwhelmed as you read about these three areas of your life that feed into your sexual temptation and shame. There are even more “noodles” you may need to unravel on your road to healing and freedom. But take heart. God invites you to a journey of discovery and redemption—a journey that many around you are also travelling. God doesn’t just want to help you “manage the box” of your sexuality; He wants you to discover true intimacy, character, and freedom along the way.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a psychologist and co-founder of Authentic Intimacy. a ministry dedicated to reclaiming God’s design for sexuality. Juli has written ten books, including Rethinking Sexuality, and is the host of the Java with Juli podcast.