How 12 step programs for sex addicts engender entitlement and promote abuse

I once considered myself a sex addict. I did the whole 12 step thing for years with various programs. I did the steps over and over. I did stop acting out sexually. But I am still a jerk. I still lie. I still manipulate. I still blame others for my behavior. In other words, I still abuse people. 

There are many reasons why a traditional 12 step group will not facilitate true change. Here are just a few:

The “Addict” Label

When a man accepts the label of “addict” he believes he has reached the pinnacle of humility. He expects others to see his great sacrifice and give him the applause he deserves. Unfortunately many do just that. We tell them how brave they are. How amazing it is that they can open up about this. We point out how hard it must be. Being an “addict” also implies a loss of accountability. A man who believes he is an addict is saying, “some of this is my fault, but not all of it”. 

Why is this destructive? 

The only way a man can even begin to live a life of amends for being unfaithful and abusive to his family is by accepting 100% that he made choices. I have heard men talk about the compulsive side of sexually acting out. Why is it that most of us keep our jobs? Why is it that we act out at times and places where we are unlikely to be found out? Why is it that we only give in to the “compulsion” when the risk is low and rewards are high? The answer is simple: It’s a choice. 

At some point a man gives himself permission to act out sexually. That permission may not be done on a conscious level, but it is there. Until a man can accept that he acts out sexually because he wants to, there will be no true and lasting progress. He will cripple along until he either gives up entirely or he finds the truth. 

Another destructive element is the expectation that “addicted” men have on their wives and partners, especially in the Christian community. We expect forgiveness. And we expect it now. We may not say it, but we expect it. “Now” may be a slight exaggeration. A few days or weeks may be what some men expect. What we do not expect is for our partners to be able to express their anger and frustration for an extended period of time, and if we have talked about it once that is all it should take. We don’t want to hear about the same thing a few weeks or months from now. Once we have decided we are addicts everything we did is excused. We may not be saying these words but you can tell by our actions. 

Slips

A man who joins a 12 step group starts hearing words like “slip”. “I had a slip this week”, says one of the veterans of the group. 

Why is this destructive?

2 lessons are learned by the impressionable new recruit. The first is that relapse is normal and cannot be realistically avoided. This reinforces many of the destructive elements listed above. The man believes that relapse is part of the healing process, when in reality relapse of part of the choosing process. A man chooses to relapse, it doesn’t happen to him. The second lesson learned is that this is not his fault. When one slips on some ice, we blame the ice. Some men may say, “Well I should have been paying better attention”. That is better, but it is not enough. 100% accountability. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Once a man accepts that he is an addict he now lives in 2 worlds. His addicted self, and his “real” self. The addicted self, Dr. Jekyll is the person we get to blame all of our bad choices on. We get to say things like, “I started acting like I used to”, or, “remember when I used to”, or, “I know I used to _____ but now…”.  This is reinforced in 12 steps groups when we hear our sick comrades say similar phrases. We truly believe that we have healed, seen the light, and have come out a new person. We have changed!

Why is this destructive?

We haven’t changed anything. We have accepted a lie as truth and now can shut up our partners by saying that is who we used to be. When a man starts speaking about his old self there is a huge lack of accountability. It’s like having a reset button. We believe we get to hit the reset button whenever we want and we expect our partners to believe us, if they don’t then we will shame them. This breeds a sick kind of entitlement. The entitlement of distorted change.

No cross-talk

I was in a group once where a man shared the story of how he most recently cheated on his wife. He blamed the other woman. 12 step groups do not allow cross talk. 

Why is this destructive?

That man most likely left that group feeling elevated. He was able to get this weight off his chest, he shared a story that we thanked him for him, he felt brave, and all in the face of completely breaking the heart and trust of someone he professed to love. 

When a man can share, without correction, his negative and false beliefs they are transformed into positive and true beliefs. We need correction. Any organization that allows abusive, controlling, lying, manipulative, sexually deviant men to continue to believe the lies that have hurt those they claim to love is exasperating the problem, not solving it. 

Keep your chin up

When a man chooses to relapse and shares that with the group or friends he has found in the group the response is going to be something like, “just keep going”, or, “don’t beat yourself up”, or, “don’t go into shame”. Men console each other in their sexual acting out. This may seem like compassion, it isn’t.

Why is this destructive?

It reinforces the sick idea that the man is somehow a victim. “Addicts” love being the victim. We get so many privileges from it. When get a “pass” on abusive behavior. We get sympathy, often from those we abuse. We get to feel sorry for ourselves and forget about what we did. 

If our partners do not console us in our “pain”, we get angry, spiteful, and turn the tables on them. We pretend to be the victim so that when our spouse doesn’t show up exactly how we want them to we get to victimize them and feel justified for it. The partner then loses the right to address the behavior that the man did out of fear of being abused again. 

So what is good about traditional 12 step groups? It doesn’t matter, these elements are too destructive to justify any good that could come out of it. 

For help on reframing your thinking schedule your free session here.

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