‘AS opposed to other addictions, sex and porn addictions are not widely recognised,’ says sexual and relationship psychotherapist Paula Hall. ‘There’s still a lot of shame surrounding it. Sexual addiction sometimes comes with a moral component that chemical addictions don’t.
‘But it’s also true that we live in a liberal society that believes we should be able to express ourselves sexually in any way we want. But we don’t talk about the risks that come with it. Sexual addictions tend not to be taken seriously.’
Paula runs a private practice, working from Harley Street in London and from Leamington Spa. She is also the founder of the Institute for Sex Addiction Training, which provides diploma training to other therapists, and she is one of the founder trustees of ATSAC (Association for the Treatment of Sex Addiction and Compulsivity).
‘In the past two years, the amount of research on sexual addictions has probably quadrupled,’ says Paula. ‘More and more evidence suggests that compulsive sexual behaviours affect the brain in a similar way to chemical addictions, so we’re beginning to understand the biochemistry of the addiction as well.
‘There’s also a psychological aspect to addictions, so people who have experienced traumas or had difficult childhoods are much more likely to develop them than others.’
Paula says that sex addiction can encompass any form of sexual behaviour, including watching pornography, having multiple affairs and visiting sex workers. People engaging in such activities become dependent on them as their primary method for self-soothing.
Paula explains that the common denominator in all addictions is a chemical.
‘Dopamine is the chemical within our brain that motivates us to seek out rewards. If something is particularly rewarding, we get a pump from it that tells us to do it again.
‘We experience it when we play with our child, spend time with our spouse and have sex. In many respects, dopamine is the chemical that’s responsible for our survival. It tells us to do things that are good for us. Unfortunately, there are artificial ways of spiking our dopamine such as alcohol and pornography. The more dopamine increases, the more of it we need to get the same impact.’
Sexual addictions potentially carry consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases and the failure of relationships and marriages due to betrayal. If a person is subscribing to sex websites or physically engaging with sex workers, it can also have a major impact on their finances.
Such addictions affect various types of people.
‘The majority of my clients are married, but lately I have been dealing with more and more single people,’ Paula says. ‘In married couples, the spouse who is affected by their partner’s addiction struggles to deal with the fact that their spouse has lied to them for such long periods of time. With pornography addiction in particular, a single person sometimes doesn’t know it’s a problem until they are in a relationship and can’t stop watching it.’
Before specialising in sex therapy, Paula began her career in drug and alcohol psychotherapy and couples counselling, but she switched her focus after observing people who were behaving in unhelpful ways sexually.
‘I decided to specialise in sexual addictions after attending a conference and hearing someone talk about them,’ she says. ‘Though I had had some clients who clearly were sexually acting out, I had no name for what they were doing. So when I learnt about sexual addiction, it made sense. I went on to do further training.’
Today, Paula runs recovery courses, some of them specifically tailored for Christians. Her website also contains self-help resources for people who may not want to receive help directly. She is also the head of recovery for a Christian project called Naked Truth, which, in its own words, uses awareness, education and recovery programmes to ‘open eyes and free lives from the damaging impact of porn’.
Paula says: ‘I do think that this is the work that God has called me to do.’
With more and more churches beginning to realise the negative effect sex addiction has on their members, the topic is becoming less taboo. Paula has recently published a book that is aimed at Christians called Confronting Porn.
‘When speaking in church settings, my aim isn’t to come across as if I am a stuck-up prude. But I don’t think porn is a good idea. I want people to recognise the impact it has,’ she says. ‘It’s important for churches to start engaging in conversations surrounding the issues of pornography and other sexual activity, and to educate people about it. As the Church, we need to avoid talking about these issues in a way that makes people who are dealing with them reluctant to come forward.’
Paula explains how her Christian faith influences her therapy techniques and how she equips clients to combat their problems.
‘Generally, the content of our recovery programmes for Christians is identical to that of our recovery programmes for people in general,’ she says. ‘I believe our methods are based on how God wants us to live. The only difference is that on the Christian programme, we pray and turn to Scripture for support, and one of our relapse prevention strategies is phoning someone for prayer.
‘My faith underpins everything that I do. I don’t believe God makes anyone an addict. I believe he made us to be dependent on him. Addictions often become a way of trying to meet a need that only God can. Peace, contentment, intimacy and validation can be found only in him. Addiction robs people of their life, how they see themselves, their relationships and the future they want. But all of that can be rebuilt, and life can change. As a Christian, I believe in total healing.
‘To get to the root of a problem, you have to explore what is going on beneath the surface,’ she adds. ‘If a person is suffering with low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety or depression, you have to help them resolve those things first, otherwise they are more likely to relapse.
‘You also have to help people recognise what their triggers are, recognise the cycle of addiction and equip them with relapse strategies such as placing porn blockers on their web browsers. I also suggest things such as making a music playlist, playing sudoku, spending more time with friends and taking up new hobbies.’
Paula has written three books on sex addictions, published many professional papers and trained hundreds of therapists. She has also made regular media appearances.
She has not always spoken about her own Christian beliefs, but she is happy to be open about them.
‘In regards to my work, I’ve not really talked about my faith. That is partly because people may assume that I’m in this field of work only because it’s a moral issue. Yes, pornography does have a moral aspect, but addiction is a health issue. I want to be seen as someone who is anti-addiction. My hope and prayer is that I’ve done enough academically and professionally in this field for people to see where I’m coming from.
‘I’m in this because I want to help people get their mental health back and, most importantly, I want them to get their lives back.’
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