Skip to content

Sex Addiction 7/7: Religious Practice

In the final blog of his series, Dr Thaddeus Birchard explores the relationship between sex addiction and religious practice. An Anglican priest turned psychosexual therapist, he highlights key links between the functions of sex and religion, from the abolition of negative affect to the rewards of ecstasy


I have often noticed a connection between sex addiction and religious behaviour. I believe it to be true that both sex addiction and religious behaviour are interconnected through narcissistic damage. When I was doing some research into the causation of clergy sexual misconduct, the Vocations Director of a diocese told me, “All the prospective candidates want to convince me, how good they are”. This suggests a defence against narcissistic damage.

Between 1871 and 1893, Émile Zola wrote a 20-novel cycle, The Rougon-Macquart: The Natural and Social History of a Family Under the Second Empire. This saga is not only the study of madness and disease but, also, a study of the intergenerational nature of addictive processes. This is illustrated in the book Nana, which was finished in 1880. Its principal theme is the relationship between sex and religion.

An aspect of the tie between sexual addiction and religious behaviour can be found in the etymology of the two words. Addiction comes from the Latin addicere meaning ‘to bound over’ and religion comes from religare which means ‘to bind fast’. Both words suggest loss of freedom. As a man in our treatment programme some years ago cried out, “I just want to be free!”

There are four instructive connections between sexual behaviour and religious behaviour:

· The Loss of the Self

· The narrowing of a focus on the body

· The abolition of negative affect states

· The reward of ecstasy

The Loss of the Self

In Christianity, Sufism, Buddhism and Islam, there is much emphasis on the abolition of the self. Among English mystics, there was the concept of ‘noughting’ – making oneself nothing – while Baumeister asserts that escaping the self is centrally important in spiritual exercises. Compulsive sexual behaviour is also a means of escaping the self, passing into a state of blissful erotic involvement where nothing else exists.

Narrowing Focus on the Body

In the Christian tradition, a narrowing focus on the body can be seen in the use of penitential measures such as abstinence from food or wearing the cilice (a spiked garter). Many traditions focus on the breath in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment (some of which can be seen in the modern practice of mindfulness). In sexual activity and in spiritual exercise, the focus on the body, either with pain or abstinence, fulfils the same criteria: it is a distraction from the self.

The Abolition of Negative Feeling States

Much of religious practice is intended to obliterate the negative sensations of the self and replace them with positive thoughts and feelings. I think of the Gospel of John, ‘I have come that you may have joy and that the joy may be complete’. Buddhist practice is to liberate one from the human condition of suffering. The function of compulsive sexual behaviour is also to escape negative feeling states.

The Reward of Ecstasy

Christian mystics describe a state of being lost entirely in God’s love. The Buddhist journey is rewarded with nirvana and Sufism seeks a state called fana, a state of ecstasy. Sexual behaviour is about the ecstasy of sexual gratification.

For some people, these two situations operate in tandem. The sexual behaviour creates shame and shame is relieved in confession. But at the same time, religion teaches you that you are sinful. I suspect that, for many religious leaders, there is an alternation between sex and religion for the management of shame.

No one captured the interconnection of sex and religion better than Zola. Writing in France at a time when prostitution was accepted, Zola wrote about the rich and high-class prostitutes in Paris during the Second Empire. In notes to the book Nana, he wrote ‘there is only religion and the c***’.


Thaddeus Birchard

Dr Birchard is the founder of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity (ATSAC) and a founding member of Recovery Programme in the UK. He created the first UK based therapeutic sexual addiction training programme for counsellors and psychotherapists and has trained many of his contemporaries working in the field. Dr Birchard was previously an Honorary CBT Therapist at the Maudsley and South London NHS Trust. Dr Birchard speaks around the country and in the United States on sexual addiction and compulsivity. Dr Birchard was previously an Honorary CBT Therapist at the Maudsley and South London NHS Trust. He is the author of numerous articles and books including CBT for Compulsive Sexual Behaviour, and Overcoming Sexual Addiction. Dr. Birchard is also the co-editor of The International Handbook of Sexual Addiction.

Related Blog Posts

Here are some similar posts that may interest you.