Catherine Etherington, the Head of Recovery for the UK-based Naked Truth Project, talks about their mission to free lives from the damaging impact of sexual addictions
There is a lot of shame and fear surrounding the issue of sexual addiction. It’s hard for people to talk about it, and the Church still has a long way to go in engaging with the men and women struggling, as well supporting any partners who may be shocked and horrified after discovering the addiction.
I frequently hear of people dealing with such issues being ignored by church leaders and the congregation. One woman shared how she discovered her husband had an addiction to pornography, which had escalated to him using sex workers. When the church found out, instead of supporting her, they sacked her.
An issue that is very close to home
I can relate to the fear and isolation felt by many women who find themselves in this position. I remember going on holiday with my husband for his birthday. I picked up his phone to look for something and right there loaded in the browser was pornography. I couldn’t believe it. I was devastated. We had only been married for three years and, although I knew this was something he had battled with before we met; he had assured me it was something he and God had worked on.
Sexual addiction is even happening among church leadership
Before I married my husband, I told him that the man I had previously dated had a porn addiction, which he hid from me. I ended the relationship but had to endure the gossip and judgement from those around me. My faith was shaken and the whole experience was traumatising. This all meant that I had zero tolerance for it in our relationship. Yet here I was going through this experience again, which made me angry at God.
We didn’t tell anyone at church but I knew I needed someone to talk too. I started researching online and came across Facebook forums of women sharing their experiences of being married to men with problematic sexual behaviours. There were stories of how they’d sought help from the church and were told they were the problem. It was shocking!
Eventually, my husband and I decided to speak to our church regional minister and thankfully he communicated the right balance of grace and truth. Having someone else holding my husband accountable took the pressure off me and I came to understand that my husband was not a chronic addict, but was going through the end stages of addiction.
These lapses happened a handful of times but eventually stopped. My husband is now a Baptist minister and he mentors men through the twelve-step addiction recovery programme. Success is hard to define in recovery because you are always a work in progress. But I have seen relationships put back together from the brink of divorce. Both partners don’t always choose to engage in recovery so success can look like one whole healthy person not being destroyed by one unhealthy person.
Millions watching porn
According to Ofcom in their Online Nation 2021 Report, 49 per cent of the UK adult population visited an adult content site and/or app in September 2020, which equates to 26 million unique adult visitors.
Pornography has been normalised in our culture. Sexual addiction is even happening among church leadership, which means that people are reaching out for help and are being met by those who have the same problem but are not being honest about it. This reveals an added level of complexity around why the Church is unable to deal with this matter.
The Naked Truth Project seeks to help churches start that challenging conversation. Along with the rest of my team, my role is to work with people seeking recovery, with partners of those seeking recovery or not. We do group work and we work directly with couples. Our clients are global and so are our coaches and counsellors.
My addiction story
My own history with addiction has given me the unique position of speaking both into the lives of addicts and partners of addicts. I understand what it’s like to hurt people you love when you don’t mean to.
At the age of 15, I was introduced to the world of drugs through my brother. I started smoking cannabis out of curiosity and teenage rebelliousness. When I turned 16, I started dating a guy who introduced me to heroin. It led to a ten-year addiction that consumed my life. Everything spun out of control; I went through several relationships; I fell pregnant with both my daughters while I was using and I became a career shoplifter to feed my habit.
Social services took my children; at first, they placed them with my parents, but eventually they ended up in foster care. I was in and out of rehab until eventually, at the age of 26, my social worker placed me in a twelve-step programme for addiction recovery. They work by getting you to talk about what life used to be like, what happened and what life’s like now.
They also talk about God in broad terms, which for me was a gentle way to consider that there might be something out there that was bigger than me.
I ended up visiting a Baptist church across from the rehab centre. I initially went just to impress social services and to get out of the house, but I was immediately captivated by the corporate worship.
As I began to sing, I started to cry because it felt like Jesus was standing with me healing me. After visiting the church for a year, the minister asked to speak to me. We discussed matters of faith and I was completely honest about my journey. By the end I was ready to accept Jesus into my life and I became a Christian. God began to do amazing things. The courts could see the progress I’d made and gave me back my children.
Social services set me up with a new home and paid for a babysitter three nights a week so I could attend my twelve steps meetings, and not long after that I met my husband. I’ve now been in recovery for 13 years.
My advice to anyone dealing with addiction is to tell a trusted and safe person. Addiction and shame thrive in secrecy and in that place there is no recovery. The majority of Christians think if we just read our Bibles more or pray harder our problems and addictions will go away. I have found recovery to be much more pragmatic. It’s God saying: “Let me walk with you through your journey.”