Six Signs of Sexual Insanity

Sex is a great servant, but a terrible master. Sex can bring pleasure, express love, build intimacy, and create life. But out of control, it can bring pain, express contempt, destroy intimacy, and even kill. Like any natural appetite, when fed and directed, it brings satisfaction and joy. But when starved or overindulged, it brings suffering.

Because sex is so personal and powerful, we tend to get stupid about it. It’s hard for us to think clearly. That is the purpose of this blog. This blog’s title contains the two words that aren’t often used together: “sexual sanity.”

What is sexual sanity? It is living with a healthy experience of our sexual selves: avoiding the extremes of out of control sexual addiction on the one hand, and an over-controlled sexual shutdown (sexual anorexia) on the other. Maybe it’s easiest to understand what sexual sanity is by thinking about what it is not. To get clear about sexual sanity, let’s look at the alternative.

Here are six signs of sexual insanity:

1. Pretending that sex isn’t important.

We tend to do this today, in reaction to a culture that seems sex-crazed. We try to pretend that sex is just a small part of life, that it’s really not that important. In reaction to popular culture’s obsession with it, we want to minimize the power of sex. We try to pretend that sexual problems in a marriage really aren’t that important, that we can have great intimacy even if our sex life sucks.

Who are we kidding?

Sex is important, and has been since the beginning of time. But it’s especially important today, precisely because we’re living in societies where we’re continually bombarded with sex messages. In a sex-saturated world, we had better be healthy about our sexual boundaries, or we will fall into destructive habits.

2. Using sex to do something for us that it can’t do.

If we are sad, sex can provide temporary distraction. If we are lonely, sex can provide a temporary feeling of connection. If we are insecure, sex can provide a temporary feeling of confidence and well-being. But the operative word in all those scenarios is “temporary.” The distraction, pleasure, and sense of well-being that sex provides is fleeting … it never lasts.

If we are using sex as a coping mechanism rather than a way to express love, we will make things worse instead of better. After the sexual experience is over, we often wind up feeling more sad, lonely, and insecure, because what we did was unhealthy and destructive. Using sex to try to medicate pain or fill a void inside us doesn’t work. It’s like a dehydrated castaway drinking sea water to satisfy his thirst. It just makes it worse.

3. Trying to control compulsive sexual behavior by repressing rather than redirecting sexual desire.

Try as we might, we can’t turn the sex drive off. Castigating ourselves for having sexual thoughts won’t move us toward purity or long term sexual health. We are sexual beings, and we are going to notice, get aroused by, and desire people we have been biologically programmed to notice, get aroused by, and desire.

It is possible for a person to have a healthy, monogamous, intimate relationship with someone, and not be obsessed with sexual fantasy or engage in inappropriate sexual behavior or pornography use. In fact, that is how many people live. But if that person has a healthy sex drive, even in the midst of a healthy, monogamous, intimate relationship, sexual thoughts about other people, temptation, and arousal will be part of life.

The goal is not to live free from our sexual urges, and thus feel guilty when we experience them. The goal is to be healthy enough emotionally, relationally, and spiritually that we can choose not to dwell on – or act on – the sexual thoughts that come up.

4. Trying to heal from sexual struggles – which thrive on secrecy and shame – in isolation, thus perpetuating secrecy and shame.

Let’s face it: nobody likes talking about their sexual struggles. Some people may like to brag about their sexual exploits, but would never want to acknowledge how powerless they are over their impulses. “Sexual struggles” are what emerge when sex takes on an addictive or compulsive role: we start doing things that we wish we wouldn’t do, that we try to stop, that we regret doing.

Many of us deal with secret sexual struggles – masturbation habits, pornography use, perverted fantasies, inappropriate relationships – that we are too ashamed to talk about. We want to change, but we don’t want to talk to anybody about it. We want to have God help us fix it, as long as that doesn’t involve other people. But God doesn’t help us heal from our secrets in isolation. James 5:16 says “confess your sins to one another so you can be healed.” We confess our sins to God so we can be forgiven; we confess our sins to other people so we can be healed.

5. Pretending that pornography and intimacy can coexist.

It is time we admit that pornography doesn’t help us. It is the cigarette of sex. It is common, it is addictive, and there is no way it is good for us. It is a guilty pleasure. People know it’s bad for them, but they use it anyway.

Although it has been around in various forms for centuries, since the 1960s pornography has become increasingly mainstream in our society. There have been ample opportunities for pornographers to demonstrate the social and relational benefits of pornography. If there were some value or benefit of pornography, we would have heard about it by now. There is none. We use it because it’s a cheap, easy means of sexual gratification. But it doesn’t help us at all. Pornography and intimacy do not coexist. If one advances, the other retreats. It’s that simple.

Porn creates fantasies and images that serve as a screen between us and reality. In this way porn interferes with intimacy, which is the bedrock of sexuality. To a regular user of porn, real women or men and real sexual encounters start to lose their appeal. They are just bad porn. The real can never match the fantasy.

This is not because the real women or men in our lives are not attractive or sexy, it’s because they are real. They have real needs and desires of their own. They are not “safe” and controllable like the fantasies and images that we play with in our minds. Consequently, they intrude on the screen in our minds where (we think) the real action is. They’re like a person talking too loud in the movie theater next to you.

6. Pretending that our partner is the problem.

Blaming our spouses for our addictive behavior is the favorite pastime of sex addicts around the world. “If only my wife were more sexually available.” “If only my husband paid more attention to me.” “If only my spouse were … more attractive, thinner, not so thin, larger busted, smaller busted, longer legged, shorter legged, more aggressive, less aggressive, more vocal, less vocal, blond, brunette” … and on and on.

Who are you kidding? Chances are you were having problems with your sexual behavior long before your spouse came onto the scene. If he or she leaves, you will have problems with someone else. People overcome sexual problems when they admit that their spouse isn’t the problem. Their habit of using sex to distract, medicate, or comfort themselves is.

This blog is written with the goal in mind of helping expose the insanity of these ideas about sex, and replace them with helpful ones. I hope you’ll find the articles helpful here. But more than that, I hope you’ll join the conversation. If you don’t understand – or agree with – something, say so. This subject is too important to ignore, or be ignorant about.


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30 thoughts on “Six Signs of Sexual Insanity”

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  2. Okay, okay … I’m pretty sure that the “comment” from Suzanna is actually spam. And evidently it is spam from someone who’s native language is not English 🙂 I just thought it was classic, and had to share it with my readers. How many of you can say “your web site is one of my new preferred”? Yes Suzanna, keep up the good perform!

    1. Unrelated to Suzanna. Just wanted to say that it’s not a good thing to state that it’s normal to imagine having sex with others. No one needs to do that and not everyone does that. It might be common, but that’s because your brain will want whatever you feed it, and in our porn-crazed world, we’re talking about 70 percent of men. Interesting that men never really think about how their actions impact their partner’s desire to have sex. Women would want sex more if they felt safe and secure. Who feels safe and secure with a partner who lusts after everyone else? If you actively think about what it’s like to have sex with others then that is what your brain will continue to do until you decide to challenge those thoughts.

      1. Stephanie, thanks for writing. I need to clarify something here: words are really important. Where did I say that “it’s normal to imagine having sex with others”? I looked again at the article, and through my comments, to make sure I didn’t say that. Because I WOULDN’T say that. I don’t think that it is normal, or a good idea. In fact, I would suggest that this is “fantasizing,” the definition of “lust” that Jesus warns about. You can read another article on this site about “The Difference Between Looking and Lusting.” One thing I AM saying here in this article that some people don’t like to hear is that it’s normal to PERIODICALLY notice, be attracted to someone, or to have sexual desire for someone. If these are incessant, obsessive thoughts, there’s obviously a problem. If we feed these thoughts, or mull them over, that’s a problem, and it may lead to acting on these thoughts, which is obviously a problem. But having the thoughts is part of being human; and pastors, parents, and “purity advocates” who create shame for having these desires are making the problem worse for people.

  3. I’m kind of confused by what you mean when you say “What is sexual sanity? It is living with a healthy experience of our sexual selves: avoiding the extremes of out of control sexual addiction on the one hand, and an over-controlled sexual shutdown (sexual anorexia) on the other.”

    How does this apply to those who are single and un-married or how does someone who is single have any sexual experiences besides those that involve lust, etc. rather than “and over-controlled sexual shutdown”?

    Other than those questions, I find the six points to be very true and have seem them in my own life (especially the first 4). Thanks for this eye-opening article.

  4. Peter – great comment/question! It is more complicated for someone who is single to live with a “healthy expression of our sexual lives.” I think it is possible to be celibate, but still not be sexually repressed … sometimes referred to as “sexually anorexic.” I would suggest looking at the post about sexual anorexia:

    The real problem comes when single people try to make their sex drive the enemy. When someone feels the rush of sexual desire, the way forward is not to castigate oneself for having those thoughts and desires … but rather to re-channel that energy into something else. In other words, just because someone is turned on, doesn’t mean they need to act on that through sex with themselves or someone else.

    With that said, our cultural norms are creating tremendous pressure for young people today. We have a hyper-sexualized culture, and yet people are waiting longer and longer to get married. We’re expecting people to remain single – and celibate – during their prime reproductive years. Are we crazy? In many cultures around the world, people marry much younger, and if divorced or widowed, marry much sooner. I think I heard the statistic recently that in America today more adults are single than are married (someone correct me if that’s wrong) … and so the pressures to deal with one’s sexual drive are enormous. This is where the teaching I Corinthians 7 – about getting married rather than burning with lust – makes sense.

    Kind of a rambly response … but hopefully something there is helpful. Keep working on trying to discern the difference between healthy sexual awareness and desire … and sinful lust. Thanks again for writing.

    1. I really do not agree that getting married is an answer to lust. It is not. Marriage does not fill the hole. That is bad advice. Though I appreciate what you are trying to achieve with this site.

      1. Tom,

        This is a complicated issue, and I agree that marriage is not a solution to the problem of lust. Many Christian men I know have as part of their story a sense of disillusionment and discouragement that came not long after they got married, because they had been led to believe (often by their church/pastor) that marriage was the answer, and that when they were able to be in this relationship, then they would be able to pour their sexual energy into this one relationship and all would be well. Doesn’t work that way with LUST (misplaced sexual desire). What some people think and talk about as “lust” other people in the counseling world would view as sexual desire that is attached to insecurity, longing, need for validation, etc. Those other deep desires can never be fulfilled by sex, so someone who sees marriage (and a monogamous sexual relationship) as the solution for struggles with lust, will always be disappointed.

        The other side of this story is that we are creating a crazy-making situation for young people in the church today when we expect young people to remain sexually “pure” while also following the cultural standards of staying single well into their 20s, and even 30s … in essence expecting sexual abstinence during the years they are biologically programmed to be most sexually active. What this creates is either: (a) sexual activity outside of marriage (b) lots of struggles with pornography and masturbation … abstaining from intercourse with other people by using technology and self-pleasure (c) maintaining sexual “purity” by strong efforts to curtail sexual thoughts, which can lead to sexual anorexia (d) maintaining sexual purity in a healthy way.

        Navigating our highly sexualized, pornified culture as a young person with a strong, healthy sex drive, while following option d is hard and rare.

  5. Great article, Mark. You’ve summed it all up for us. For me, the heart of the insanity lies in points 2 (trying to make sex do something it was never meant to do) and 4 (trying to heal from sexual addiction in isolation). Unlearning and undoing those two elements of insane thinking has brought tremendous healing into my life–although they’re also ongoing disciplines and practices. This is definitely a great summary of the heart of our sickness with sexual addiction. Keep up the good work.

  6. Very good Mark. The first two points
    1. Pretending that sex isn’t important.
    2. Using sex to do something for us that it can’t do.

    will drive how you handle the remaining parts of your recovery. Most people make sex an ‘ultimate thing’ (consciously or not) (especially coming out of youth) and then when they dont get their desires and fantasies, desires, needs, etc met and are living in the after math of a broken relationship …. we overcompenstate by attempting to control or as you say pretending that sex is not important. Both the extreme of making it an idol and the extreme of controlling tend to not work. Some of the guys in my group have learned to handle times when they are “rejected’ by someone just saying something as easy as it should have hurt you but it should not have devastated you to the point of acting out. Then the ability of learning to communicate and talk your thioughts and resolve conflict with your wife become easier. This is a difficult to learn skill, however after years of the same patterns.

    1. Great idea. I that my husband is a SA and, while SAA meeitngs a few nights/week are helpful, he would like to have support more often and we haven’t had luck with finding online meeitngs or getting IRC chat rooms to work. I hope you’ll post here when you determine the day/time..

  7. Mark,

    “We confess our sins to God so we can be forgiven; we confess our sins to other people so we can be healed.” Wow! That’s powerful and I’ve never thought about it like that before – and this was just one of several really good points. You’ve posted an excellent article.

    Thanks so much for notifying me that this article had been posted. I will let others know about the article as well.

    I send you greetings from Texas and hope that you have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving. May God continue to bless your ministry.


  8. I won’t pretend that I can totally relate to the article. But a couple points caught my attention. Sexual sanity. I don’t think living a healthy lifestyle is the norm for most people or is realized without being deliberate about it – seeking help. We struggled early in our marriage and without help and wise council, I don’t think a we could have realized a sane relationship, which also requires on-going constant attention (good thing).

    Sex is important. Even a casual read of scripture one will see that God created us as sexual beings, and God is very clear about sexual insanity and sanity. Pretending it isn’t important is huge mistake. As conservative as I am, I can’t figure out why the church is not extremely proactive about this. Secular society is, but the church has its head stuck in the sand. Some churches have support ministries, but that’s too late (my opinion). Not only is it too late, but they tend to focus on the men as having a problem. I do not feel that this a sole problem for men, it’s humanities problem.

    Also, from a parent’s point of view, in teaching my children I ignored the importance of sex. I was not well equipped to talk about it. I focused on the woes of sexual insanity (don’t do it!), instead of highlighting a healthy lifestyle and giving them something great to look forward too.

    I think that the article is very good. I also think that this teaching should become mainstream in the church. Perhaps teaching it in a classroom setting appropriate for parents, couples, and young adults. As a parent of a child that exhibits signs of sexual insanity, I wished that I could of recognized the signs and was equipped to proactively address them. It seems hopeless once the out of control compulsive behavior is set.

    Keep up the good work, you are an encourager to many.

  9. Mark,
    This is an excellent article. I found each of the 6 points very helpful, especially 3 and 6. Your succinct, to-the-point, treatment of these issues is spot on.

    Thanks for posting!

  10. Thanks you guys from some excellent and perceptive comments!

    Matt – I agree with you about number two (trying to make sex do something it can’t do) gets to the heart of what makes this an addiction … it keeps not working, but we keep going back to it! Maybe the problem is that it works ON SOME LEVEL, but at a deeper level it is unsatisfying and destructive. So then, because sexual struggles are making our lives harder and more sad, we feel even more pressure to turn to sex, as way to cope. The perfect feedback loop.

    Jon – I agree with what you’re saying – and I hope I’m understanding you right – about the importance of guys getting clear about what they’re really feeling and needing, especially when in conflict and/or feeling rejected. It’s important that we learn to deal with those feelings, without resorting to acting out. For this reason, I think being in groups is SOOO important, especially in the early days of recovery, when things are often more of a struggle in the husband/wife relationship. If things aren’t going well between a guy and his wife, where does the guy go to feel encouraged and supported? All too often, if the guy doesn’t have the support he needs, he will go back to addictive behavior.

    Craig — oh boy, don’t get me started about the church’s dealing (or lack thereof) with this topic! I just spoke at a church recently, and it was sort of funny and sad how awkward it was for people to have this topic being talked about openly. Most conservative estimates are that over half of the men and nearly a third of the women in churches are struggling on some level with their sexual behavior. If this is not going to be dealt with – if we can’t talk about it – in the church, then we are just playing games.

    On another note .. sorry to hear about your regrets about not dealing more openly with this topic with your kids as they were growing up. You are certainly not alone in that. It really is a struggle to know HOW to deal with this topic with one’s kids! The good news is that it’s never too late!

    Will — thank for the good feedback 🙂

  11. The suppression of natural instincts, sex in particular, through moral and religious sensitization is seen as one factor that fuel sex addiction. Which is very similar to alcoholism and addiction cure.

  12. Wow! Amazing article that is simple, refreshing and applicable. Found this site through Covenant Eyes newsletter as a spouse who is trying to find ways to help my husband who struggles with “viewing” various element not considered porn, yet harmful to the marriage. Indeed, “healthy” sex is very important. Number 3 is the one we work with the most since women in the tropics (Puerto Rico) wear skimpy clothing all the time so trying to keep from lusting after woman can be more difficult. It is very common to see live images of breasts and buttocks on a daily basis at work, in the mall and at the doctor’s office. How do you re-direct?

  13. Yolanda,

    Thanks for the comment. It sounds like you are in a place with lots of triggers! No doubt, some places are harder than others when it comes to experiencing temptations to feed our lust. It’s one thing to see something that is sexually triggering/provokative, but it’s another to focus on it, take a mental picture, and fantasize about it. My sponsor calls this “visual feasting.”

    I am a fervent believer in the principle that true recovery only comes from an internal transformation … living in such a state of emotional and spiritual well-being that we don’t need or crave sex, fantasies, or (in this case) little “hits” of lust in order to be okay. So to your question of “how do you redirect?” … I don’t think it works to redirect unless and until we are experiencing the heart change that causes us to not feel such a strong pull (or craving, or need).

    I have been to Sexaholics Anonymous meetings where guys with long term sobriety are checking in with detailed accounts of how they were struggling with looking at someone at a mall or restaurant, and it seemed to me that they were becoming obsessively focused on trying to NOT LUST in such a way as to really be all-consuming and ultimately defeating … berating themselves for not bouncing their eyes away a fraction of a second sooner. That seems to me to be the fruit of a recovery that is focused on eliminating lustful behaviors without the internal transformation that leads to well-being and happiness and takes away the power.

    Back to the question .. what do you do “in the moment” when you are confronted by some kind of trigger? You might simply remind yourself “that is not for me” or “she may be attractive, but I love my spouse, and I want to live in recovery” or something like that. The phrases I use most often are “that’s not for me” and “I want something else (my wife)”. Another thing that is helpful is to pray for the person who was formerly the object of your lust. Just a short prayer asking God to help that person, protect that person, or whatever — changes how you view that person. You start to humanize, rather than objectify them.

    Hope that helps!

  14. Hi,

    I just wrote a book about my life called Bad Girl Gone Mom, and in it, it talks about my struggles with gender dysfunction and sexual addiction. Today, I am finally happy because I have found someone that accepts me for who and what I am. For years I tried to find happiness but felt so much guilt and shame over my lifestyle, that I drank and drugged to forget. I was lucky to get some help and didn’t kill myself like some do. Society needs to realize that gender and sexuality is not black and white. Some of us are born “in-between.”

  15. Mark,
    Thanks for your work in this area and your balanced approach that is so needed by Christians today. I am a licensed counselor and familiar with the work of Carnes and attended seminars and read the books of Mark Laser. Ultimately our goal is true spiritual maturity and identity and away from the our attempts to anesthetize our pain with sexually addictive behaviors. Your approach and material is right on track and I will be referring clients to use your materials and help on the web.

  16. I have real insanity.

    Going without sex and / or being forced into masturbation is truly unhealthy. Masturbation drives (and keeps) a person inward, where the inside becomes lawless. Those who profess that masturbation is unhealthy are not mistaken. It CAN be extremely unhealthy and destructive (self-harm).

    I go into violent fits of rage when my body feels sexual arousal. The deprivation (lack of a partner) amplifies the sex drive so that it is nearly constant. I am constantly enraged and hyper-aroused.

    I am a woman who is half-child, half-man.

    I will not ever be touched by another human being for as long as I am alive. That is the reality of insanity.

    1. Dear insane,

      I’m so sorry to read your post and hear what you’re going through. What raises my sadness and concern is that you go into — as you put it “violent fits of rage when my body feels sexual arousal.” I think this is the real dilemma for people who are not in a relationship … how to accept and deal with sexual arousal when it inevitably comes up. I hope you can explore with a counselor, clergy, or some safe recovery person more about this rage. One of the cornerstones of the philosophy behind this website is the recognition that sex is an important part of life, and that if we’re healthy human beings, we will experience sexual arousal … and this sexual arousal isn’t a bad thing. It’s how we deal with it — that’s the issue. I sense your hopelessness about ever being with another person sexually, and so I realize that this is very hard. The good news is that through the healing of the heart, and through the support of recovery, it is possible to let those experiences of sexual arousal ebb and flow, without acting on them or being controlled by them. I know it might seem impossible for that to happen … but I’ve seen it happen for people time and time again.

      – Mark

  17. This is one of the more balanced sources I’ve come across so far regarding our sex obsessed culture. I’m wondering where I might find similar sources such as books delineating the destructive effects of sex while not undermining it’s importance.

    1. Nick,

      Thanks for writing … and I’m sorry for the delay in responding. I would recommend the work of Sheila Gregoire — it’s written for women, but has a lot of good information and discussion about sexual struggles, and at least Sheila is balanced and nuanced about sex (some of the comments may not be). Hope that helps!

    1. Find it interesting that sex, family, God and country are mixed up within the words or feelings being spread around under tolerance. Sex leads the charge to supposedly freedom and love but tears apart the fiber of this nation when it comes to family, God and country.

  18. HI, I would like to quote the author of this article for a school project but I could not find who its by, could someone please tell me the full name of the author? Thank you:)

  19. In my perspective, the article will only be understood by ppl who like freedom and reality. I do believe in freedom….. Reality is key….
    Continue pretending …….. A normal and standard human being is the described above….

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