How should we deal with unwanted sexual behaviours?


Dr Suse McBay writes: In the past few years numerous stories have finally come out about how church leaders and pastors have abused their power and sexually abused women, men and children. Most recently there has been the truth about Ravi Zacharias, but also Jonathan Fletcher, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz and Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels. Along with individual stories and situations there has also been the revelations of child sexual abuse, cover-up and collusion within the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the American Southern Baptist Conference (to name but a few).

While these stories reflect the extremes of the sexual immorality and sin within the church, they are indicative of a Christian culture that is failing to live out the gospel within the realm of our sexual desire. The message of sexual morality that the church has preached has largely centred on what not to do and how not to do it: boundaries, rigorous accountability and a fierce determination not to do it again. If the headlines of the past few years have taught us anything it surely must be this: this approach is clearly not working.


To say the book Unwanted by Jay Stringer is a step in the right direction is something of an understatement. Stringer is both a therapist and a pastor, who has studied under two leading psychologists in the area of sexual addiction and sexual abuse: Dr Patrick Carnes, the leading expert on sex addiction and recovery in the USA, who has written a number of books, most notably Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction; and Dr Dan Allender, a leading Christian psychologist on healing from child sexual abuse, most famous for his book The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, and the founder of the Allender Center out of the Seattle School for Theology and Psychology.

Stringer is well-suited to the task of addressing the problem we’re facing and directing us to a better future. He has extensive experience in private practice working with people struggling with sex addiction of various kinds and, as part of the research preparing for this book, interviewed over 3,800 people to undergird his thesis with some substantial quantitative research. The fundamental premise to Unwanted is that the traditional lust-centred approach to sexual immorality is ineffective. He writes in the introduction:

The overwhelming evangelical response to sexual brokenness has been to address it [unwanted sexual behaviour] through the lens of “lust management,” even declaring war against it. This approach has oversimplified and trivialized a far more complex issue within human sexuality. Efforts to eliminate lust will set us up to manage our sexual lives with a tourniquet…

Our inability to succeed in purity only compounds our pain. And then, in our pain, we default to the same ineffective treatment plan. We spend time in prayer, fast, pursue accountability, and hope that God might change us. The complexity is that the underlying issues that drive our sexual lust and anger do not get examined.

How many of us have ever asked God to help us understand our lust? This book is an invitation to heal, but to do so, your current framework for understanding and treating your problems will likely need to be abandoned (p xviii-xix)

Rather than simply striving for change through traditional means of accountability and sheer force of will, Stringer’s proposed solution starts from a radical place: we need to listen to what our specific challenges with lust are telling us about our brokenness. We are responsible for our behaviour today, but failing to acknowledge the past and how we got to where we are sets us up for frustration and failure. Until we start seeing how our own histories of brokenness with intimacy and connection have affected us (which includes experiences of non-sexual intimacy and longing as children and teens), we will be fighting an impossible battle. This begins with looking at our own stories with curiosity and honesty, rather burying them under shame and judgement; when we listen to the stories our lust fantasies are telling us rather than simply seeking to annihilate their existence.

The other basic premise Stringer begins from is that, contrary to the implicit message of many sermons on the subject, lust problems are not the result of being too sexual, but not being sexual enough to live in the fullness of life God has designed for us as sexual beings (p 2). The journey of healing and transformation from our unwanted sexual behaviour is one that makes us more sexual and alive within our bodies, not less. (“Unwanted sexual behaviour” is Stringer’s term for what others might call sex addiction or sexual sin. He connects the three in the first chapter on his theological roadmap, so for the sake of consistency I will use Stringer’s language.)


The book is divided into three parts that map out the road to recovery, after an initial chapter where he sets out his theology of unwanted sexual behaviour. The first part is called “How did I get here?” and looks at different aspects of what contributes to, even sets us up for, lust problems. This can include a range of things: rigid family systems, disengagement from our families, experiences of abandonment within the family home, triangulation and emotional enmeshment, various experiences of trauma as well as, of course, sexual abuse. The last of these is the only explicitly ‘sexual’ one: Stringer gives numerous examples of how seemingly non-sexual experiences can affect and shape our sexual desire. For example, he opens with a story about Jeffrey: a man whose single mother had to work two jobs leaving him alone at the weekends. In his loneliness he, as a teen, would cycle around the neighbourhood looking for his middle school crushes. As an adult the behaviour continued, but this time as driving around in his SUV, looking to solicit sex while his wife was working a second job (pp xv–xvi). The nature of his unwanted sexual behaviour was not an accident.

Connections to one’s parents, friends and family, and how they are disrupted, corrupted and even shamed result in, for example, feelings of helplessness and being out of control (or having to be responsible and in control for everyone else) which are then ameliorated through acting out sexually in certain ways. (There’s a whole field of psychology which addresses this kind of trauma bonding. See Patrick Carnes, The Betrayal Bond for more on this.)  The strength of Stringer’s writing in this section is not to prescribe a simplistic join-the-dots type assessment that might connect a given behaviour to a specific childhood experience (e.g. your preference for X type of pornography is because your mother probably did Y before you were 5). Instead the stories and explanation Stringer gives are to illustrate how people’s pasts can set them up in the present and invite the reader to be curious about what might be the case for one’s own situation and story.

The second part of the book address “Why do I stay here?” and looks at patterns in the present that keeps us entrenched in our present day struggles, for unwanted sexual behaviour does not exist in isolation from other problems. He looks at six core experiences (patterns of self-deprivation, disassociation, unwanted sexual arousal, futility, lust and anger) that create the “underlying infrastructure” (p 86) in which unwanted sexual behaviour thrives. These occur both directly in relation to sex, but also in other areas of our lives (our work, family relationships, etc.) and Stringer illustrates how these have an impact on our drive for sex. For example, he tells the story of a young doctor who struggled with pornography from the time he was in medical school. When he became a resident the long and demanding hours he worked led to self-deprivation of his basic needs, but he was willing to make the sacrifice for the future money and power that would be his. On completion of his residency he was left friendless and with little meaning in his life but these years of deprivation bred a sense of entitlement. As a result his use of pornography skyrocketed, and he began seeking out one-night stands and even paying for sex (pp 88–89).

In the next chapter, Stringer also looks at three “hijackers of our souls” – namely resignation, perversion and degradation, which hijack futility, lust and anger respectively, all of which serve to give one over in greater to degree to sexual brokenness and sin. The hijackers are those things take a problem and increase its depravity. Stringer describes a fairly common scenario of a woman named Abby who grew tired of resisting sexual temptation and pornography. Resigning herself to her temptations, she went from seeking out sex because of the excitement and ‘thrill’ of it to seeking it out to reinforce how terrible she felt about herself (p 112). From feeling futile about her unwanted sexual behaviour she resigned herself to it as something cannot change and let it develop even more of a hold on her life. Finally, in the last chapter in this middle section of the book, Stringer unsurprisingly looks at the allure and power of the sex industry as a wider, cultural piece that draws us in and compounds the problem, focusing on particular aspects of how it affects our sexual struggles.


The last section is titled “How do I get out of here?” and in some ways might be the most frustrating. As with so many things, the temptation can be for a quick fix or an easy answer, but that is not to be found here. Instead, this section outlines how a new sexual story can emerge. If unwanted sexual behaviour thrives in all that is outlined in part two of the book, part three describes those things that will bring the desired change and transformation. There is too much in this section to do it justice, but broadly it includes personal aspects of growth (e.g. rather than running from shame turning to face it, forgiveness, learning to care for your own physical needs and how to recover sensuality as part of our embodied humanity), habits of how we relate and interconnect with one another (e.g. attunement and containment—what it is to care for others while tending to your own soul, engaging in healthy conflict and repair of relationships and making amends) and participating within community more broadly (e.g. serving and helping others, being in a place where stories can be shared and relationships of accountability developed that don’t fixate upon sex but our growth in Christ).

The strength of this last section is probably also its weakness. While Stringer rightly doesn’t give quick fixes or answers, because he covers so much ground I wonder whether some of it is addressed too briefly. For example, he gives barely a couple of pages to topics like forgiveness and shame, when they probably deserve whole chapters. Additionally, in his chapter on attunement and containment he waits a few pages before he defines what means by the terms, yet the chapter as a whole still feels in need of a fuller explanation.


It’s difficult to overstate quite how important Unwanted is in the present moment. I am well-acquainted with some of the psychological theories Stringer has drawn upon, having read a number of the works of both Allender and Carnes (whom he studied under), yet there were many compelling and powerful links Stringer makes in this book that were striking and new. When so much of teaching in the church about sex seems to promote fear-based approaches that divorces body (and its drives) from spirit, Unwanted invites us to listen to the longings behind the sexual sin and address the underlying brokenness, seeing the fuller picture and story of our sinful, sexual selves. As far as I’m aware, this is a pretty radical and new approach and has the added benefit of not losing sight of our physical humanity, sensuality and sexuality.

One of the overwhelming strengths of the books is how Stringer doesn’t fall in traps of generalization or stereotyping. While, unsurprisingly, many of his examples and stories are men who struggle, it is never portrayed as simply a ‘man’s struggle.’ The stories and statistics he gives are for both men and women. (There is a fuller breakdown of the people he interviewed, including age, sex, ethnicity, sexual preference and marital status etc. in the Research Appendix.) Neither does he set concepts against each other, like ‘sin’ and ‘addiction’ (see chapter 1). The former can imply the issue is one of individual responsibility and the latter simply one of victimhood, but Stringer does neither. He deftly navigates the line between listening to and being honest about where we have been wounded and hurt in the past as well as learning to take responsibility for our healing and change in the present. He writes with wisdom and sensitivity, without either increasing shame for wrongdoing nor excusing it.

The book is ultimately for a profoundly practical purpose: to enable Christians to take seriously what repentance looks like in the arena of our sexual longings. It is challenging and difficult, as it requires courage to start looking at this intimate area of one’s own story and to face it honestly. I have certainly found that to be the case for myself and there are a number of places in the book which I have marked as they resonated with my sin in the area of sexual brokenness. My hope and prayer is that this book provides people with the grace and strength to face the realities of their own sin and addiction. It offers a pathway to healing from sexual brokenness and sin that the church desperately needs to hear. In his conclusion, Stringer writes:

A high calling on the life of a Christian is to be the light of the world. In our arrogance (and perhaps unwittingly), we have too often believed being light is about making sure the world lives “right.” The sexual themes we care about and those we refuse to care about reveal our co-opted interests in maintaining power and asserting authority. We want the world to change, but given that the rates of unwanted sexual behaviour are similar inside and outside the church, let’s be honest about who among us is in the greatest need of redemption.

Being the light of the world in our particular era of history might look like shining the light on our own need for repentance—our own need to change direction. The sexual world is out of orbit for a variety of reasons, and it’s time to lead through owning our unique contribution (p 238).


As I read through the book, I did wonder about a possible area for a follow-up. Unwanted was explicitly about stories of unwanted sexual behaviour, i.e. sexual addictions and patterns of behaviour that people want to stop. Yet, there are also many who struggle with what Patrick Carnes has described as ‘sexual anorexia’: the suppression and repression of sexual desire (see Patrick Carnes, Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-hatred, Hazelden Trade, 2018). This is the flip side of the coin when it comes to effect of the church’s teaching on sexual morality. Yes, there are those who cannot break the addiction to sex and yet there are others, more often women than men (but by no means always), who cannot break the addiction to bury sexual desire and longing.

It is not an unusual as a pastor to hear of Christian couples who get married only to struggle with sex because the only message they’ve ever received is that sex is bad and to be avoided at all costs. I wonder whether this topic might be deserving of a book unto itself and whether some of the underlying principles and lessons Stringer gives wouldn’t work equally as well for those whose sexual brokenness takes this different form.

All in all, this book deserves a wide readership, it has a lot to offer for those acting out unwanted sexual desires. I hope that those who don’t have an ‘obvious’ sexual sin like an addiction to pornography or soliciting prostitutes might take the risk of reading it too. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) – and I suspect this is as true in the area of sex as anywhere else.


Revd Dr Suse McBay is Associate Rector for Adult Education at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas. Her research interests focus on Jewish apocalyptic in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament. Suse enjoys rock-climbing and fishing and is married to Stephen, and they have two dogs, Leia and Han Solo.


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21 thoughts on “How should we deal with unwanted sexual behaviours?”

  1. This is a helpful and timely article.

    I think part of the difficultly the church is going to have with this sort of approach (listen, understand, then act) is that it can feel very counter-intuitive, even counter-scriptural, when we are so used to framing issues of sexual desire in dichotomies of willpower/control or acceptance/denial. This is touched on in the article, but I’d love to hear to expounded further.

    The example that pops into my head is this familiar one from Collossians 3:

    “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

    Every time I hear this passage preached on in evangelical churches the focus and emphasis is the “putting to death” and an exposition of ‘how’ we should do this. What gets preached as a result is often something to the effect of “you should be merciless in your denial of these things, to the degree that you desire them to die!”. This isn’t wrong per se, but it somewhat misses the point and emphasis, that of sacrifice, which drives the context of the whole passage. Paul is not arguing for a pig-headed denial of the reality of our earthly natures, but a wresting with them that necessitates our, often painful, sacrifice of those desires..

    If this book follows similar lines, as it sounds like it does, then I’m all for it.

    This is a rambling comment….

    What I’m trying to say is that I think we should all be very careful about how this is preached and taught, as we could very easily get this wrong. Much is lost and much pain is caused by the failure to understand the nature and source of our desires, but we should be very cautious of crossing the line of understanding into a broad ‘acceptance’ of them.

    Mat

    Reply
    • Hi Mat,

      Thanks for the comment! It’s worth me clarifying that Stringer’s approach isn’t listen, understand then act. I emphasized the point he makes about listening as a way to long term change, but in order to do that there also needs to be some initial stopping of the behavior. He gives the example (common in 12 step programs) of giving it up for 90days as a starter for this. It’s a both/and rather one then the other.

      I’d love to hear a sermon that preaches both the message to action (stopping the behavior) and self-understanding (listening etc). We are called both to self-control and loving compassion (which includes ourselves).

      Suse

      Reply
      • Forgive me for the simplification. 😉

        I did understand that you were explaining it as a ‘both/and’ situation and was instead trying to observe that the opposite is usually true. It isn’t even an ‘either/or’ situation a lot of the time, but often the solution presented is one where only complete denial (without attempt to understand) is considered to be of any merit.

        “I’d love to hear a sermon that preaches both the message to action (stopping the behavior) and self-understanding (listening etc). We are called both to self-control and loving compassion (which includes ourselves).”

        This I echo wholeheartedly.
        Mat

        Reply
      • It does seem to me that the cause of a lot of unwanted sexual desires is a lack of human intimacy -or intimacy that has been withheld for various reasons going right back to childhood. This then expresses itself in unhealthy ways later in life. I am not sure if Stringer’s book addresses this question to any great depth.

        Sex must in some way be part of God’s provision to meet this fundamental human need. I have always found it rather curious that in Genesis, the statement that ‘It is not good for man to be alone’ appears to reflect a recognition by God that Adam’s intimate human needs could not be fully met by God and required another type of human – ‘the woman’ to enable that to happen for the mutual benefit and intimacy of both.

        Reply
        • Hi Chris

          Yes, experiences of isolation / unmet needs for intimacy and connection in childhood are a big part of what Stringer addresses.

          Love the observation on Genesis 2. Wholeheartedly agree.

          Suse

          Reply
        • “a recognition by God that Adam’s intimate human needs could not be fully met by God and required another type of human”

          That seems perfectly logical…. I’m wondering what that means in terms of Jesus’ incarnation. Is there a question of him not being a model for human sexual behaviour?

          Reply
          • That’s an interesting point Ian. I certainly think that Jesus had the potential for human sexual behavior and being fully human, he must have also known what sexual desire was like. Yet unlike us, he was also fully God, so in that way he is different from us and in that attribute he can never be a total model for us, although he clearly understood what sexual expression should mean and how the behavior should be expressed – the one flesh’. He had a level of intimacy within the Godhead that is way beyond us e.g. John 5:19.

            My point is that before the fall, when Adam was in full communion with God, this did not seem sufficient to fully meet Adam’s need for intimacy hence the need for Eve. I find it significant that God declared that even in the midst of paradise it was not good for the man to be alone. I think this is telling us something about human intimacy. In the created state of man there appears to be a feature of intimacy that only another human can completely fulfill.

            One related issue which I am not sure if Springer addresses in his book (maybe Suse can enlighten us here) – is how intimacy works within the Trinity. If God is in three persons in an intimate relationship with one other then it would seem that God wished to enlarge on that relationship by creating an order of being that was in his image in order to expand if you like the ‘circle of intimacy’ yet at the same time, recognizing that the expansion could not be fully realized and intimacy would have its limitations as humans can never be God-like beings themselves -hence the need for Eve.

            I think that any discussion of sexual behavior and the need for intimacy has to be connected in some sense to the relationship within the Trinity although I am not sure if I have articulated it very well.

  2. This is an excellent post, and I am grateful for having had this book brought to my attention. Does Stringer talk about the place and purpose of sex in God’s creation design for humanity, I wonder? I have a hunch that much Christian confusion and pain around sex is because many churches don’t address the topics of “what is sex for?” and “where is sex for?” adequately, meaning that many believers taken on the views of contemporary society around such issues, such that sexual expression is seen as a “right”.

    It’s certainly one to add to my reading list.

    Reply
    • Great point. He engage to some degree with this, but God Loves Sex by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman does more on this. (Or their marriage book Intimate Allies)

      Reply
  3. Why is the response to sexual sin theraputic but lying, stealing, blashpheming, not loving neighbours etc is rarely viewed through a “history of… ” lens?

    Reply
    • Does this not have some connection to what is intrinsic in contrast to extrinsic to male female distinctiveness. Lying stealing, blaspheming, etc is extrinsic, to sexed, relational bodies.
      “Putting to death,” Mat, may be gradual, rather than a single act: in theological terms, sanctification. Or as in the title of. Thomas Chalmers sermon; The Explosive Power of a New Affection.”
      Creation of male and female in God’s image, is of God, God -Spirit- breathed; that is the connectedness, the oneness of the stunning delight of “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”. But it is but a pre-fall oneness, individually and together intimacy, fellowship, with and for God; a cry at the heart of Christ prayer in John 17.

      Reply
    • I still find that a little confusing. The sexed body might be designed for a purpose but the affections are no more under control than any other sinful impulse. Does anyone think “That’s how my body is made, so this is what I’ll do with it”? And does God not have a purpose for the rest of our physical self and relationships? What can you steal from a disembodied spirit?

      I certainly think it is important to listen to people when they share stories of sexual struggles and addictions but I do wonder why therapy talk is so highly prized in Christian conversations about sex but sanctification is seen as sufficient in all other areas of life.

      Reply
  4. Chris Bishop… Continued from the thread above as there isn’t a reply option..

    I’m in agreement with what you write. You’re forgiven for any failure to be clear about the Trinity. I had no idea it was possible (winks)…

    “I find it significant that God declared that even in the midst of paradise it was not good for the man to be alone.”

    Indeed… Perhaps part of this is that the creation of humankind was incomplete at the creation of man. “It is not good…” wasn’t a sudden discovery by God about his creation but an explanation of what was coming next.

    The creation of Woman completes/demonstrates the whole intention. Man has a built-in desire for woman as his missing 50%… without which the “one flesh” does not come to pass. Where desire is mis-aimed the quest for wholeness is bound to fail. Not all substitutes are alternatives

    I realise that this would beg other questions.

    Reply
    • I don’t think it’s true that man has a missing 50%. What does that say about the many millions of single or divorced people, that they’re only half-persons? Nonsense. That btw would apply to Jesus. Such a mindset simply reflects the evangelical church’s obsession with families.

      Yes marriage can resolve a sense of aloneness, which was the original raison d’etre, and the coming together clearly reflects sexual intercourse and the continued increasing of humans, though one wonders how many more billions can the earth support. But let’s not think there are many ‘incomplete’ people walking around.

      As for the Trinity, 1x1x1 =1 . Simples.

      Peter

      Reply
      • Hence I put “I realise that this would beg other questions.” I’m entirely aware of what you suggest. My wording might well be inadequate but I’m feeling out a way forward from Chris comment above. Your inferences are not mine.

        I’m happy to be wrong but suggesting my mindset might be ny “obsession with families” is rather judgemental…. and incorrect. “Nonsense btw” might suit 🙂

        Reply
  5. I must say that, to me, this article sounds like the introduction to ‘Muscular Christianity 101’.
    apropos this outdated understanding of human sexuality, I’m just reading ‘A Very Queer Family’ (Pub. 2016, University of Chicago Press), written by Simon Goldhill.

    This book (a scholarly overview of Sex and Religion in the lives of Archbishop W.W. Benson and his family in the Victoria era) gives sad evidence of the sexual confusion of a Christian family whose children’s lives were blighted by the inhibited sexual mores of the well-intentioned advocates of ‘Musular Christianity’ that pervaded the public school/university ethos of Victorian England.

    Two of the Archbishop’s children ended up with severe depression in mental hospitals as a direct result of their experience of puritanical mores, that came from their Evangelical father’s association with people like Charles Kingsley, and other of the Sola Scriptura School of Theology. Readers of this book may be shocked by the revelation of the cover-up that was part of their idealised family life in an era of Victorian hypocrisy about human sexuality.

    Reply
  6. Watching with other Kiwis, last night, a 2-hour documentary on the life of Pope Francis, it was interesting to hear his clear response to a survivor of child-abuse in the Catholic Church of Chile in a private conversation at the Vatican. When Juan Carlos (the survivor) reminded Pope Francis of the fact that he was living in a same/sex relationship, the Pope told him tha this should not make any difference because his gay status was a part of God’s creation – nothing to worry about! Why does the C. of E. still cling to the idea of a solely binary understanding of sexuality and gender, when the head of the Roman Catholic Church thinks otherwise?

    (Juan Carlos has just been appointed by the Pope to be part of a new Vatican Commission on child sex abuse! Perhaps he will be able to inform the Cardinals about the difference between homosexuality and paedophilia)

    Reply

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