Is there hope for recovery for unwanted sexual behaviors, fantasies, or compulsions?
I’ve been wanting to do this podcast for ages! I love Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted, and we’ve connected behind the scenes a bit over the last few months, talking about our respective surveys and research (he’s big on original research too!), and how the way that the evangelical church has framed sexual problems can actually make things worse.
Jay is also interested in evidence-based help for unwanted sexual behaviors, from low desire to porn use to fantasies you hate, and he’s got the data to back up what he’s saying. Plus he’s a trained licensed therapist as well.
I think you’ll enjoy this interview!
Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:
Timeline of the Podcast
0:10 What’s going on with the blog
1:35 Jay joins to discuss similar work goals with ‘Unwanted’
7:00 “Listening to your lust”
14:45 The cycle of beliefs about ourselves
21:00 The psychology of violent sexual fantasies
35:30 The link of anger and lust
39:00 The importance of self-care
49:00 Word picture story for dealing with shame
52:50 “But what if it’s my spouse?”
So what is the answer to Unwanted sexual behaviors?
I took so many notes when I read Unwanted, but here are just a few that stood out to me:
“We spend the best years of our lives attempting to stop the flor of lust through darting our eyes from beautiful people, slapping rubber bands around our wrists when we have sexual thoughts, and asking accountability partners, in an attempt to stay vulnerable in community, to keep account of what erotic websites we’ve visited….How many of us have ever asked God to help us understand our lust?”
“I am asking you to consider the possibility that your sexual problem is not random.”
“Sexual fantasy is often created out of a need to satisfy the deepest emotional and spiritual longings we have.”
“When your life is characterized by a marked absence of delight, adventure, and intimacy, activities that kill time and hope by offering escape become central to your identity.”
Jay explains that so much of evangelicalism’s message around sexual sin has been to white knuckle it through, recognize how evil you are, and stop it.
But that doesn’t actually lead to recovery. What we need to do is listen to our lust–because our lust is often trying to deal with the wounds that we feel. Until we can listen to our lust, we may be able to superficially stop some sexual behavior, but we won’t actually be healed.
Two examples stood out to me: He talked about how men who grow up in very rigid households, or who are bullied and often feel powerless, are often drawn to porn where they are humiliating someone else. Listening to your lust shows you that you have felt powerless, and that does need to be addressed.
I also found the section on female fantasy really interesting, because I receive such a huge volume of emails from women hating the fantasies they have, not knowing where they came from, and not knowing how to get rid of them. After reading Unwanted, I’ve got a much better answer and resources to point them to, and I want to look into this more, because I think it’s fascinating and can help a lot of people.
At the end of our interview, I asked Jay what he would say to a someone whose spouse has been involved in sexual sin.
I mean, it’s fine to say we need to understand our stories, but what about the betrayal that is happening now? And he was very firm that we are responsible for our stories and we are responsible for how we handle them. I really appreciated that message.
Hurt people can end up hurting themselves and others. It’s just so sad. But hopefully by discovering where the original hurt came from, we can open up roads to true healing in Christ, and invite people in to a life not characterized by boredom, futility, and shame, and instead one characterized by delight, adventure, and passion.
Things Mentioned in the Podcast
- Our Patreon! Thank you to all of our supporters who help us finance our research and our initiatives to expand the reach of Bare Marriage. You can join for as little as $5 a month, and get a behind-the-scenes look at what we do!
- Jay Stringer’s book Unwanted, as well as Jay’s website and Jay’s Instagram.
- Our book The Great Sex Rescue
- Emily Nagoski’s book Come As You Are
What do you think of the idea of “listening to your lust”? Do you think the church is ready for a conversation about unwanted sexual compulsions that isn’t focused on shame? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila: Welcome to The Bare Marriage podcast. I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire from baremarriage.com, and I am so glad that you have joined me, that you are part of this big movement to help the evangelical church move towards healthy, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage. And we are changing the conversation, and that is having ripple effects even beyond the evangelical church into our culture at large. Together we can do this. And I’m so encouraged that you’ve joined us on this journey. We have some exciting things on this podcast. I have an amazing interview with a wonderful author. But before we get started, I just want to give a special shout out to our patreons, a very special group of people who help fund some of the dreams that we have of moving beyond just baremarriage.com into an online community where we can have an even bigger impact. Where it’s not just about Sheila, but it’s about everybody who is speaking into this space and calling for healthy, evidence-based, biblical, so do check us out at patreon.com/baremarriage. You’ll get access to unfiltered podcasts, to our Facebook group. Honestly, I love our group. It’s my safe space online and so much more. On the blog this month, we are talking about how to dig out of the pit that sometimes we dig for ourselves when our sexual lives get so complicated. And I have a special guest, who has a really important message in his book, Unwanted, that can help us with that. So here is Jay Stringer. Well, this is an interview I have been so excited about and so looking forward to. I have Jay Stringer on with me. He is a licensed psychotherapist, trained in Seattle, was there at the founding at the Dan Allender Center, and now is the author of an incredible book, Unwanted. And Jay, thank you so much for being here.
Jay: Sheila, I am so grateful to be on your show. This is such an honor for me as well. So thank you for just the privilege of this invitation.
Sheila: Yeah. Jay and I connected about a month ago. We had a great, long conversation about how our work intertwines and overlaps. And just we have such similar hearts in that. Let’s do the research. Let’s figure out what’s really going on, and let’s get to the bottom of it as opposed to just throwing theology at everything.
Jay: Yes. Yeah. We need to change this conversation. Dramatically so. So yeah. I’m so grateful to be kind of a colaborer with you in having a much different conversation than any of us grew up with or inherited.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So tell us the premise of Unwanted, if you could put it in an elevator pitch.
Jay: Okay. So the premise of Unwanted is that sexual problems are a roadmap to healing. They are not a life sentence to sexual shame or sexual addiction. So a lot of this—I mean very similar to you, Sheila. I was a licensed therapist, started seeing—a lot of my early work was with sex (inaudible 03:10) in the city of Seattle. And so started just kind of seeing a lot of these patterns emerge with men. And then I kind of got known for working with sexual problems in the city. And so after that, just became a lot of infidelity, porn struggles, lack of desire within a marriage, and so that was kind of my early work is just of recognizing—there’s a lot of patterns. There was a lot of family of origin stuff that was just never addressed. There was a lot around adverse childhood experiences like sexual abuse or bullying. And yet, as you read most of the Christian literature in there, it is—I would put it in the category of lust management. And so it’s a bounce your eyes, slap a rubber band around your wrist when you’re having a sexual thought. And it’s this sense of I just need to manage this entire thing. So when I started writing my book, I had a friend of mine say, “Jay, when I have been having the same conversation with my accountability partner for 15 years, you know that something is not working.” And so just started seeing a lot of patterns and was really intrigued by a lot of the major porn companies keep track of their data. And so they would always publish what are the top ten searched for terms on the Internet. And so I was really intrigued if we could begin to predict people’s sexual fantasies and people’s unwanted sexual behaviors based in the unresolved parts of people’s lives. So we created a research instrument, looked at your relationship with your parents, adverse childhood experiences, difficulties that you’re experiencing in the present like a lack of purpose or depression. And then we wanted to get a sense of how did that person’s story go on to shape the sexual problems that they would end up encountering throughout their life. And so that’s what the research kind of came back is that we could basically get a sense of the key drivers that would influence people’s sexual behaviors and some of just the unwanted sexual fantasies that they were facing. So the other kind of thing I would say is I use the phrase unwanted sexual behavior for a lot my work. And the reason why I do that is a lot of the conservative circles—if you struggle with anything sexually, you’re just named as an addict, right?
Jay: And so it becomes this very pathological approach of any struggle needs to be pathologized, needs to be condemned. Or you look at more progressive circles, and there is a sense of it’s not necessarily lust management. But it’s shame management. And so the thinking is like if we can just kind of reduce the shame of people’s lives, then they’re going to make healthier sexual choices. In a lot of ways, that’s true. But in a lot of ways, it is not true. And so unwanted was just a—unwanted sexual behavior was a phrase that I started using to say all of us have some dimension of our sexual thought life or imagination or behavior that maybe, if we were honest at the end of the day, we wish was not true. And so not to say that people don’t have wanted sexual behavior that causes problems, but I think once the debris of your sexual life begins to add up around you I think there is that existential cry of the soul that says, “I need to outgrow this. I need to change this. I need to understand what’s all driving this.”
Sheila: Yeah. I love that. And that key—understand what’s all driving this—that’s really what your book is for. And I had such a good time reading it. You talked about so many people who they just hit this crisis wall where the relationships are falling apart. Maybe they’re so deep in debt from participating in sex trafficking, buying sex from people, whatever it might be, and they’ve tried everything. They’ve done the accountability. It’s not working, but they don’t want to stay stuck. And they know this is wrong. And so what you’ve done is show how we can get to the heart of it. And there is one phrase that you used which I thought was so brilliant. We never stop to listen to our lust.
Jay: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Sheila: I don’t think people have a clue what that means. But when I figured out what it meant, it’s like oh my goodness. Wow. So could you explain that?
Jay: For sure. So I mean one of the metaphors, similes, that I work with is just that sense of imagine that your life is a sexual house. And so kind of—especially for men, there’s that sense of it’s late in the evening. And you feel that familiar knock of lust or sexual desire come to your door. And just that question of what are you going to do with it? And so a lot of times the evangelical approach is lust management. And that’s the force field around your house. You call a friend for backup. You get your Internet monitoring. So it’s a very stiff arm approach. And yet, the problem with that is that a lot of times a lot of my clients would begin to use these filters as almost fences that they were trying to get under or over in order to access porn which then kind of harkened back to maybe something of their childhood where there were very rigid demands around everything. And so they just began to use filters in a very similar way to which they would hide from their parents. So all of that aside, most of the Christian approach is stiff-arm it. Or the other approach would just be to let something of that intruder come in, ransack various rooms of your life, your marriage. And so the premise that I work with is what if you went out onto the front porch of your sexual life? And you just began to ask yourself questions like, “Why is it that I have been drawn to that type of pornography since the time I was 15? Or why is it that once I got married something in me became very entitled? And what was all that about?” Or maybe if you are in a marriage where your partner has a much more higher desire for sex, you might feel the sense of, “I just don’t—I don’t know how to say no. Or I might say yes, but my heart, my soul, is not really in it.” And so really just trying to invite people to say what if your low desire or what if that sense of excessive desire are actually trying to tell you something about where you come from or what you’re facing right now? And so a lot of the research that we looked at was—one example would be let’s say that you were a man that wanted to see porn that had to do with college aged students, a race that suggested to you some level of subservience, what we found was that if that was your porn search, you tended to have a history of a very strict parent. You were dealing with a lack of purpose in your life, and you had high levels of shame. And so part of what I want to point out there is not just saying using porn is not wrong. I’m just trying to say that approach of saying no is not an adequate vision for recovery. And so part of what we can begin to learn from our fantasies is that—and that specific one. Let’s say you come from a family that tends to be very rigid, a lot of rule making. Well, rigid parents often create a sense of powerlessness for their children, so that sense of I don’t know how to desire or anything I desire throughout childhood is always squashed. Or it’s just kind of met with a level of resistance or shame. Well, porn can become appealing to people not just because of lust. But far more, it’s that issue of power. And so if you come from a place of powerlessness, one of the strategies that you will deploy with porn is to be able to develop a place where you can find power. Or let’s say you have a profound lack of purpose in your life. And I kind of just liken it to you try and pull a lawnmower if you are in a—whenever I use that example in the New York City, it doesn’t work because no one has lawnmowers. But if you try and pull that lawnmower and it just doesn’t start and that’s how you understand your life, like I don’t like my job. I look back at my life, and I just see a lot of failures and a lot of debris. Again, one of the reasons why porn or other unwanted sexual behaviors can be appealing is because you can get exactly what you want when you want it. And nothing else in the entire world offers you that level of certainty. And so part of what I’m trying to invite people into is how do we understand the strategies of why we are going to a particular behavior or a particular fantasy. And I think especially as Christians—I think of Romans 12:2, which says, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Well, most of us, as Christians, have never been invited to understand our sexual minds at all. It’s just kind of it’s bad before marriage, and then it’s supposed to get great. And once we find out that that was an illusion, we don’t know where else to turn except back to that sense of let me try and manage this thing. Let me try and suppress this. And I think we have to be honest to say it has not worked. And so that’s the listen to your lust is we have so much to learn from some of the difficult sexual experiences that we have, if we could just find a way to be curious about what they’re trying to reveal.
Sheila: Yeah. I think that’s so interesting. And that one phrase in Romans, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” if you think about it, when we search for that fulfillment, for that healing of whatever wounds we’re carrying outside of Christ and we turn to it in porn or in fantasy or whatever it might be, then the pattern of this world often warps it even further. So you’ll see the racism that’s so inherent in our culture—
Jay: Rampant. Yeah.
Sheila: – gets filtered in and warped because we’ve taken something and, instead of putting it with Jesus, we put it in this darker place. And then it gets even more twisted. And I really appreciated in your book, too, how you talked so much about sex trafficking and violence against women and how so much porn is about degradation and humiliation and why it is that we are attracted to that even when we don’t want to be I found really interesting. I want to read this one quote from the book just talking about listening to your lust. “I am asking you to consider the possibility that your sexual problem is not random. We are often more comfortable talking about how screwed up we are now than asking the why questions about how we got there in the first place.” Yeah. That’s really what this book is. And so I encourage people. You really do need to read it. It’s really wonderful. And then another quote that goes along—I’m just going to keep quoting you, okay?
Sheila: I like this bit. You said, “Madison was not a worthless woman because she viewed pornography or used hook up apps. Rather she felt worthless and, therefore, was drawn to pornography, a behavior that, for her, would then confirm this belief.”
Jay: Yes. Yep. So in other—
Sheila: Because there’s this cycle.
Jay: Yeah. Another counterintuitive kind of premise of my book is that a lot of times when you hear people talk about unwanted sexual behavior, they use the term kind of self medicating. And so there a sense of I’m just going to this thing to find a level of release. And you will never hear me say that that is not true. But I think it’s a partial truth. And so the danger of all partial truths is that you begin to elevate it with much more importance than it deserves. And so I think the other side to it is I think that unwanted sexual behavior and people’s pursuit of it is far more for the purpose of judgment than for the purpose of self medicating. And so if I have a negative core belief in me that was shaped maybe by my family of origin, maybe by the church that I grew up in, and I kind of tend to see myself as worthless or perverse, well, we will go and seek out behaviors that confirm that core belief. It’s kind of like exhibit A in the court room with regard to evidence against us. And so that’s where I’m really inviting people to understand when you think about your inner voice, are you kind to yourself? Or is there a level of harshness of like I’m always going to struggle with this thing? This is always going to be my battle. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. There is something about me that is always going to be broken. And so, lo and behold, you begin to pursue maybe an unwanted sexual behavior or a career struggle, and it just becomes this endless reinforcement of those beliefs. So in psychology, there is this phrase that says that the way that our parents talk to us becomes our inner voice. And I think that that’s really true of parenting. I think that’s really true of theology. So when you begin to think about God, it’s very important to think about what are God’s thoughts about us. And in the Psalm 139, it ends with a sense of, “You know everything about me. And yet, how rare, how precious are your thoughts about you?” And so I think that—most of us don’t have that experience with a mother, a father, or just our understanding of God. But those thoughts about us are precious. And so I think the more kind our inner voice is the more kind a lot of the behaviors that we will pursue are. And so that’s—just a lot of this invitation is instead of just trying to manage your lust or your behavior, you’ve got to go back to some of those early childhood relationships and trauma that began to shape a very negative core belief about you.
Sheila: Yeah. And a lot of people don’t like, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to blame it on the mom,” or, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to sit on the couch and talk about my mom,” but we get this really negative picture of this. And no one is trying to say that you don’t take responsibility for it. But it’s just if we’re going to recover we need to understand the why.
Jay: Yes. Yeah.
Sheila: Because not all of us have the same fantasies. Not all of us act out the same way. Not all—and that’s because things are different for each person. And so we have to understand the why.
Jay: Yeah. Exactly. And so—I mean one of the examples that I think about in this realm is in Harry Potter—my kids have been watching it pretty consistently. And they keep watching—I don’t—maybe it’s the first movie. Second movie? But Harry Potter looks into the Mirror of Erised. And so Erised is desire spelled backwards. And so when Harry looks into the mirror, what he sees is an image of his parents, right? And so he’s an orphan. And so that begins to make sense that this mirror of Erised is reflecting back to Harry some of his most ardent longings, his wishes. It reveals a lot of the wounds where he comes from. And I think arousal is very similar. We don’t always understand kind of what all is going on inside there. But if we can begin to understand that some of the strategy might be to highlight an area of wounding or maybe an area of we don’t feel comfortable for asking the things that we have—that we desire sexually, and so the only way that we know how to be sexually honest is with our sexual fantasy life in a way that we don’t feel comfortable disclosing that to anyone. So I think just that sense of curiosity is so helpful to be able to say—maybe there’s a wound. Maybe I come from a background where I was never invited to understand sexual fantasy from a nonpathological approach, and so I think we just need to be deeply, deeply curious about what all is happening inside of us.
Sheila: That’s one area where I had a major aha moment reading your book. I’m like, “Oh my goodness. This is the answer I’ve been looking for,” because I get inundated with emails by women reaching out and saying, “I have never told anyone this. I don’t know what to do with this. But I have these fantasies that I hate. And I would never want to do any of them in real life,” a lot of these women are saying. But a lot of it relates to bondage or rape fantasies. So many women got caught up in 50 Shades of Grey, and they’re like, “I don’t—I wouldn’t even want it. But I find this really erotic, and I don’t know why.” And they want to get rid of it. And they feel so guilty, and they feel so much shame. And you were explaining in the book how often it’s women who actually gravitate to violent porn even more than men proportionally.
Jay: Proportionally. Yeah.
Sheila: Which doesn’t mean that more women are looking at violent porn than men. It’s just if you look at porn users—just stats so people understand this.
Jay: Well said. Yeah.
Sheila: If you look at the proportion—if you look at women who are using porn, they are more likely to look at violent porn than men are of men who are using porn. So why would that be? And you explain that for a lot of women, there is numerous answers. But one could be that they’re repeating behaviors that have happened so especially if you’ve been abused in the past. And another could be that we’re so tired of trying to stay in control and fight against the negative things that have happened to women in society that it’s just—that you just give up fighting. And you give in to it.
Jay: Yes. Yep. Yeah. We could do a whole episode on that. And I’m—after I share would love to hear your thoughts as well. But I think two categories—again, I always think about sexual desire and arousal as like a river. No different than the Mississippi. And so part of what makes the Mississippi River so powerful is that there are many tributaries that flow into it like the Missouri, the Ohio, Arkansas, Tennessee. And so again, just that danger of the partial truths, right? So if we think about sexual desire as a river, we have to be able to say there’s a lot of tributaries to it. It could be family of origin. It could be childhood trauma. It could be social conditioning. Could be any number of things. So what I’m going to kind of talk about are just two possible tributaries. This isn’t exhaustive by any stretch. But I’ll never forget working with one of my first clients who—she had a past history of sexual abuse. And part of what she was coming in to see me for was she would end up in a lot of sexual situations that she would—I think she used the term—they were always kind of gray. I didn’t necessarily give my consent, but I was also willingly participating in this thing. And so she was trying to understand both her allure towards more violent porn but then also putting herself in positions where there would be a level of violence done to her. And so as we began to go back into her story, she began to talk about this experience that she had with her abuser. And a bit of a trigger warning in terms of what I’m about to say, but one of the things that I don’t think many of us understand about abuse is that when we first hear that term our hearts break. We think about just something deep within us being violate. Our humanity taken away. But the other side to that equation is that most of abusers are very masterful in the grooming process and so they want to give us as many experiences of yes and delight and joy and just that sense of attunement. And a lot of times God has wired our bodies to respond to connection, to sexual touch, to sexual experiences that we’ve never seen or experienced before. And so during the course of her abuse, one of the things that she remembered doing was kind of opening up her legs because she felt a level of longing for his touch. And it was that moment that kind of set the trajectory of just a lot of shame and heartache for her because she hated that she, as a girl, wanted something of that pleasure and touch. And so part of—as we began to do work together, what she described to me is, “I think one of the reasons why I go to this level of porn or to these sexual experiences is because I don’t have to choose it.” And so for her, choice was one of the places that she had a lot of shame for. And so the razor’s edges that I had to walk with her as a clinician was how do we condemn the criminal act of sexual abuse and be able to say this is egregious. It set up a trajectory of a lot of sexual shame and heartache, and we need to condemn it. But at the same time, there was this 13-year-old girl, who—her sexual arousal, desire, was beginning to open up for the first time. And she felt a level of pleasure there. And so that sense of how do we not condemn her for feeling a level of desire but then mature it? Be able to say, “What are the conditions—what are the relationships where your pleasure is going to be prioritized in a way that is safe—in a way that is enjoyable?” And so that was a lot of our work was for her to begin to bless arousal and pleasure for the first time in her life. And a lot of that sexual fantasy of something darker began to lesson just through that work. So that would be an example of childhood sexual abuse reenactment that led into that. The other category would be a lot of people that grow up in purity culture—there is that sense of I’m not supposed to be sexual. And it’s more men are the very sexual ones. Men are the ones that have high sex drives. And so for a lot of women, that just does not apply to at all that they feel a lot of sexual desire. There is some language that Emily Nagoski uses with regard to—we all need to understand what our sexual accelerators are and our sexual brakes are. And some women might have more sexual brakes than accelerators, and it’s knowing how to work with those. But some women that just have a lot of sexual accelerators, and they feel a lot of sexual desire. If they don’t feel like they are being invited or comfortable talking about this desire that they have for sex, sometimes a more kind of violent fantasy of just like wanting to be taken begins to develop within them. And so it’s that sense of how do you understand that maybe some of the sexual fantasy life that you only feel comfortable doing in fantasy might be something of a clarion call for you to speak to more sexual desire or behaviors that you would love and enjoy to participate in. And so I think that we just have to look at it from multiple perspectives to say, “Yeah. There could be a lot of past trauma. Maybe someone has a past history of seeing pornography and more violent images,” and so that’s set a particular sexual template for them that they don’t feel normal unless they’re seeing those things. Or that other end of this is maybe the first time in their life that they feel comfortable expressing a sexual desire, but it’s always in the realm of fantasy, not in the relationship.
Sheila: Right. It’s so interesting.
Jay: Does that make sense? Those two categories.
Sheila: You talked about—
Jay: How would you answer that?
Sheila: What’s that? Oh, you want me to answer it.
Jay: How would you answer? Yes. I mean what are you seeing—noticing?
Sheila: I think a lot of it—yeah. I see a lot of the second category of women who—they just feel so guilty about having any kind of desire. Or they don’t have a way to talk about what they want that the idea that they don’t have to do any work. That sex is something that is done to them where they don’t have to do any work I think that that can be a root in.
Jay: Yes. Yeah.
Sheila: I think you mentioned it too is if you spend your life fighting for your own safety—you don’t feel safe maybe in your relationships or just you feel constantly objectified or whatever it might be in our society. If you don’t feel safe and you feel like you’re always on your guard, then just being able to give in to it I think could be another thing.
Jay: Yeah. I think that category of guilt feels very true. Good language for it.
Sheila: I just find this interesting because so—we often see our fantasies as something that is external to us in the sense of I don’t know why I’m turned on by this when I don’t—I wouldn’t even want it. And so it seems like it has just crept in there for no reason. But when you can listen to it, then—
Jay: You see it. Yes.
Sheila: – you get rid of a lot of shame but also understand so much more about you. And if you can have those conversations with your spouse, I think there is a level of intimacy there that can be so freeing. When you say, “This is the actual underlying need that I figured out. It’s not that I want to act out this totally violent, dehumanizing thing. It’s that I want to free myself to be able to feel desire. Or it’s that I just want to feel safe. I just don’t feel safe. I’m always on my guard,” or whatever it might be.
Jay: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. It could be safety. It could be a level of I just need some passion in this marriage and this relationship. Yeah.
Sheila: Yeah. It could be that too. Yeah. So many things. And, again, some people’s fantasies are totally different. Like you talked about people who have fantasies as they’re children or some ancestral fantasies. There’s all kinds of stuff that we have that we hate.
Jay: And we just don’t have many places in our world today to be—to understand those, to be curious that—when we get coffee or a meal with a friend to actually—there’s a lot of scaffolding that we need to understand in order to get to that point. So I mean just that sense of knowing your story, knowing where you come from, knowing kind of what you’re experiencing in your marriage, all of that is the necessary scaffolding in order to get to some of those higher level conversations. And so that’s where—yeah. So grateful for your book as well is that it’s providing language for people to be able to talk about their experiences and what they’re going through. So I think Brené Brown in her latest book quotes a German philosopher where he says, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” And when I read your work as well, that’s what I’m always thinking about is like you are giving people language to describe a world that they have been—that they have inherited and that they are a part of without necessarily having honest language for what’s experiencing. And that’s what I hope to offer in this sexual fantasy, unwanted world as well is no one teaches us, trains us, how to think about our sexual life. So if we can have more books and mover conversations and communities where we’re actually comfortable and okay talking about some of these difficult, but also very important themes, I do think that we will get healthier because we don’t have to bury so much of our sexual mind.
Sheila: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. And I think what I found in a lot of the stories that you shared too is even though these fantasies, these behaviors, these whatever you want to call it are so disturbing, when you do get to the root of it, there is so much healing and not just of your sexuality but of the whole self and of the relationship when you understand that yeah. I just needed to feel like I had some power because I’ve felt powerless my whole life. That’s something that goes beyond the bedroom.
Jay: Yes. Yeah.
Sheila: And often it’s these deepest wounds that manifest themselves most in the bedroom, but the wounds are actually something else.
Jay: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I think especially for men we have this sense of—we don’t know how to talk about our needs and our desires. It’s like the only thing that most men know how to talk about in terms of desire in a relationship is how many orgasms they’re having. And so I don’t think it’s any wonder why sexual problems are often the crucible that invite men to address their life and to understand their story, to understand how they just have not been socialized, to understand how to make relationships work and how to have mutuality. Just a lot of times we are—tend to be very isolated. And then those initial behaviors of porn that you might find as an adolescent, you keep going back to that same thing any time you feel boredom, any time you feel lonely, any time you feel angry. And that is that exit ramp of you’re going down a highway and then you hit some traffic, and you don’t know how to navigate through it. You don’t know how to stay in the tension of what is being required. And you just keep taking that exit. And so therefore, it’s this sense of the exit is trying to get your attention to be able to say, “There’s a lot that you need to develop in order to maneuver through life.”
Sheila: Mm-hmm. You mentioned anger, and you have a big part of the book where you talk about how lust and anger almost always go together. Can you explain that? Because I know a lot of people have told me that too, that when their husbands were addicted to porn they were angry. When they actually—when they did get through the recovery, they couldn’t believe this man wasn’t angry anymore. So what does that look like in your practice?
Jay: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think that there is some classic examples—would be—let me back up. So this is really from Dan Allender’s thinking. But when he is looking at Jesus’s words in Matthew 5 of—essentially, all of us struggle with lust. All of us also struggle with anger. And so just that sense of—there is a level of adultery and a level of murder within each of us. And so a lot of times when we think about sin we only think about it in terms of—especially sexual sin—in terms of lust. But there is also that sense of no. Sexual sin is also an issue of anger if you are to understand Matthew 5. And then James 4 takes it even further. The language in James chapter 4 is, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Well, you want something, and you don’t get. So you kill.” And so I think that that—you can kind of understand a marriage that maybe one partner really wants to have sex. And they are consistently rebuffed or told no. And it’s that sense of I feel really angry at you for turning me down because my sense of self is wrapped up into this. I need you to desire me. I need to be wanted. And then they’re very angry. And so that anger might be lashed out on their partner. Or they might go to porn or to infidelity in order to kind of act out some of that anger. And so I think we just have to be able to say having sexual desire is not lust. But sometimes the level of lust is—it’s about covetousness. It’s about I want to own you. I want to have you to a degree that I’m not thinking about your wellbeing. I’m not thinking about your safety. I’m not thinking about your pleasure. I’m thinking about you as an object that I am coveting. And then when you don’t offer me what I want and what I feel like I desire, I will make you pay some way. And so that payment could be a contempt-based marriage. It could be a marriage with a lot of hiding and a lot of secrecy and a lot of unwanted sexual behavior. And so contempt in a marriage isn’t just always a lot of anger and vitriol. It could be also sexual hiding as well. Of you’re not the person for me. You don’t give me what I feel like I desire. And so I’m going to go and fight sexually behind your back. And so it’s—that’s that sense of it’s not just an issue of lust or excessive sexual desire. There’s a level of anger that has become woven into eroticism.
Sheila: Yeah. Yeah. And that was very sobering. That part. Okay. So in your book, you talk about listening to your lust. You talk about understanding. All these different things. But then you have this section at the end on how we can actually get towards recovery as we understand our own stories, et cetera. But there were some other things that you brought up that weren’t—that I found really interesting. Let me quote a stat. “Only 27% of porn users had a solid pattern of self care, which includes things like exercising, eating well, spending time with your friends.” And so I found that really interesting. So if we’re going to get better, we need to start establishing just basic self care.
Jay: Yes. We do. Yeah. I mean it comes back to that sense of what is your inner voice. Do you like yourself? And so I’m probably going to mispronounce her name. But it’s a meme. I don’t know her work, but I believe she’s a psychotherapist. Brianna Wiest. She has this great quote. Again, I’m not going to honor it. But it’s something like, “Self care is not all about chocolate and salt baths. But self care is essentially about building a life that you don’t have to escape from.” And so most of the time when I’m working with people that are struggling with unwanted sexual behavior is that it looks like they are struggling with indulgence. And indeed, they are. But the root system of indulgence is very often deprivation. And so I think about that—almost like if you were to image a seesaw. Most people struggling with unwanted sexual behavior live with a lot of deprivation. So it’s a sense of they haven’t been to the dentist, the doctor. They don’t feel like they can actually take a personal day because they don’t deserve it. Or maybe their spouse is really exhausted and so to think about taking a day to go hiking, to take a day to go to the spa just feels too self indulgent. And so any level of healthy levels of desire, they don’t feel like they deserve or they don’t feel like they can actually have the amount of time that they need to engage it. And so what ends up happening is that seesaw gets weighed down with deprivation. And then all of a sudden, the seesaw goes back into entitlement, which is like, “I’ve been so good. I’ve been so sacrificial. I haven’t been angry. I’ve been kind. And now I get 10 minutes to my own desires.” And then it’s like, “I just screwed up again. I failed.” And then that’s the catch-22 is then you go back to a life of deprivation because you feel like you are such a failure. And so I think a lot of people that I work with struggling with unwanted sexual behavior seesaw back and forth between a lot of deprivation and then moments of entitlement that then set that back up. And so I think of self care as just that—the fourth commandment of you’ve got to have a Sabbath. And a Sabbath is this sense of—it’s a day of delight. It’s a place where when you think about how has your heart and body been made. When you are in the mountains—I think it’s a John Muir quote where he says, “We are in the mountains, and the mountains are in us.” And anytime that I’m in nature, there’s this sense of rest, beauty, strength. And that’s what I want to be reminding myself on the Sabbath is that I’m not just there to be able to be useful and productive. I need to be able to have a soul that’s in touch with desire and beauty and rest. And so I think that’s really how we begin to outgrow these unwanted sexual behaviors is not to be able to say no but, far more, that sense of what do I want to say yes to. And so the language of Galatians 5 is that it is for freedom that I have been set free. And so it’s not about freedom from a porn struggle. It’s not about freedom from unwanted sexual behavior. It’s really a sense of what is your freedom for. And I think as you begin to get an imagination around what would healthy desire look like or healthy patterns of self care? It’s really that vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful that I think can begin to compel us to a very different way of life. It’s that something needs to die in order for something really lovely to grow.
Sheila: Yeah. It kind of goes along with this quote that I marked from the book too. Here. Let me read you this one. “When your life is characterized by a marked absence of delight, adventure, and intimacy, activities that kill time and hope by offering escape become central to your identity.” So when there isn’t that delight, that freedom for self care, that freedom to do things that are good, then yeah. We’re going to look to escape, and we’re going to look to kill time and kill the hope that anything will get better. And we escape into these unwanted behaviors. And so how do we—how do we get that delight and adventure and intimacy back?
Jay: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I know I’m using too many quotes, but this is how I think in terms of metaphors and quotes. But Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize winning author—she has this great quote where she says, “I never knew I was a bell until the moment I was lifted up and struck.” And so it’s that sense of what are the bell like moments in your life where maybe you were gardening, maybe you were hosting a dinner party, maybe you were in a conversation with a friend? And something from outside of you but also paradoxically something deep within you just began to ring. And it’s like this is who I am. And that’s what I would want you to kind of pay attention to. Or what are the places in your life, in your relationships, where you feel that bell ringing with life? And so I think initially for me, I grew up in a family that—my dad was a Presbyterian minister. This is was a sign of the times. It’s not just all a critique on my family. But a salad was iceberg lettuce, a couple shaved carrots with a whole heaping of ranch dressing. And then a dinner was cream of mushroom soup, chicken—maybe two chicken breasts spread apart, the six of us, with Ritz crackers on top. And that was my favorite dinner. So I’m not knocking any of that. But then a day out was maybe riding a bike around the neighborhood. And in the midst of that, I went through a lot of bullying in middle school. My nickname was Donut. So I was about—I don’t know. 40, 50 pounds overweight in middle school. And so most of my relationships to my food and to my body was just very shame based. And so I’ll never forget just moving out to Seattle, having a lot of friends that surfed out—if you drive about 3 hours from Seattle, you can get to surf. But you’re in a wetsuit. And you look like a little Martian out on the waters. But it’s also outdoor, just an extraordinary place for a lot of mountaineering, hiking. And so had some friend that loved to climb mountains. And so I will never forget three friends. One friend invited me surfing. Another friend invited me to run a marathon and climb Mount Rainier. And then another friend of mine was a restauranteur. And first time going to his restaurant completely ruined me. And so those were three very foundational moments, not just to outgrowing unwanted sexual behaviors in my own personal life, but really a sense of this is what I want life to feel like. And so that day on the water of surfing of this is beautiful. To be able to feel one with the surfboard and feel the delight on the water. Another time climbing Mount Rainier, it was just like probably the first time in my life—which is so sad to say it. But I felt a level of respect and honor for my body because I’m like my body can do really hard things. I feel like this mountaineer energy within me, and I have a lot endurance and a lot of power and a lot of strength. And I had never seen my body in that way at all. And then this experience with food which has happened time and time again after that. But when you have a lot of eating disorders and struggles with food, there is so much noise when it comes to really enjoying something. But the food and the drink were just so good that it was like I needed to suffer the goodness of this meal and not feel shame, not feel overindulgent but to be able to say, “This is all good and beautiful and bliss.” And so I think were three moments for me that are also—I think of my three friends’ faces of, “Let’s go.” And so to me, that’s part of what I would say. Not just true of unwanted sexual behavior. But the average American will watch four and a half hours of television a day. The average teenager is exposed to nine hours of media. And so I don’t think it’s just putting restrictions and saying no. I think you have to have a vision and an experience within your body and soul and relationships of something so much more beautiful. And so I think that’s that sense of how do we come alive to be able to experience the goodness of our bodies, the goodness of our souls instead of just feeling like we are steeped in shame.
Sheila: Yeah. Exactly. And that’s—I want to end—can we end on the story of the shark and shame? Because I thought that was such a good word picture.
Jay: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. This is a favorite reader story, which I should tell two shark stories. The one in the book and then another one from—Patagonia has a film called Fish People. So the story that I tell in the book is there is a show called Shark Week that the Discovery Channel does. And the videographer is a guy by the name of Andy Casagrande. And he was interviewed. And they basically said, “Andy, what in the world do you do when you’re swimming with great white sharks?” So this guy gets into the waters without a cage. Just completely insane. And what he says is it’s—basically what you’re supposed to do is when there is a shark coming at you, you swim right at the shark with the camera. And so what ends up happening is the shark bonks its nose against the camera lens, realizes that it’s not food, and it has an amygdala fear reaction to it, and then it begins to swim off. Because if you are a great white shark, you are used to the entire ocean swimming away from you except for maybe an orca. And so when something is swimming at you, it doesn’t know what to do. And so it begins to swim off. And Casagrande says, “When the shark makes its escape, that’s when I make my escape.” And he goes on to say this profound phrase, “If you do not act like prey, they will not treat you like prey.” And I think that just has so much to teach us with regard to these great white memories in our lives, these struggles that we have is that most of us try to swim away from the voice and the accusations of shame. But the problem with that is that the more that we run away from shame the more we legitimize its message about us and so part of what we need to do is to turn and face our shame and really begin to disempower it. So that was the Andy Casagrande. And then Fish People, there is a spear fisher by the name of Kimi Werner. And she takes one breath and can descend into depths of 100 feet just on that one breath and spear fishes. And then she talks about—or her dad talks about the first time that he started seeing Kimi spearfish with sharks. And she just goes right at it. And she’s like, “You are not going to take my dinner. Not today, buddy.” And she just—you see her swimming right at sharks. And then by the end of that little vignette, she’s riding a great white shark or something on its dorsal fin which is like, “How in the world did you get to that point?” But it’s that sense of the energy that we put out there with regard to our sexual problems, our struggles, often reinforce the shame. And so I think the more that we can turn and face it in community, turn and face it with a licensed therapist, the more that we will get in that pattern of facing really difficult things. And so what we need to learn is that facing shame and facing hardship is really a muscle that we develop that maybe it begins with a porn struggle but then—yeah. There are difficult things to face in every marriage, every family, every relationship. And the more that we build those muscles to turn and face difficult things the more that we’re going to find ourselves turning to face a lot more in our life with a lot more integrity.
Sheila: I love that. Okay. One last question. I said the last thing was the last thing, but this is actually the last thing. I know there is going to be a lot of people listening to this whose spouses are the ones with a lot of unwanted sexual behavior. And they may listen and say, “Okay. Well, that’s all fine and good to say that there might be a reason for it, and we need to face it. And we need to look into it. But my spouse is still hurting me, and they’re not getting better.” So what do you do if you’re the spouse of the person who is acting out?
Jay: Yeah. Yeah. Such a good question. So we should never use our story to evade responsibility. That would be the primary thing is that engaging your narrative, your story has to be done. But the reason why it’s done is to build that muscle for honesty in the present. So if I can’t be honest about my past, I’m going to have a really hard time understanding myself and being honest about who I am. So a lot of times we can grow up in families or in system that tend to be fairly rigid and dogmatic. And so if we have not done the really difficult work to name things honestly—I forget who says it. But that sense of we cannot heal what we do not acknowledge. If you can’t acknowledge the ways that you have been sinned against or used or just places of heartache in your life, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be able to really step in to take responsibility for yourself. And so whenever I’m doing an intensive with someone who has struggled, that’s part of what I tell them is, “The work that you and I are doing is really important for the past and to address that. But the second stage of this is really to be able to connect the dots between past harm and your story with the ways that you are actively sabotaging and manipulating your marriage.” And so in my estimation, if you try to get, especially a man, to just own up to their manipulation, their hiding right off the bat sometimes they will engage it but then the patterns will reemerge. For me, the best return on investment is to be able to step into someone’s story and then connect the dots with regard to how they are functioning in their marriage. And I think that’s one of the failures of my field, one of the failures—I think we’re waking up to trauma. We’re waking up to childhood wounds in a very refreshing way. I think it has to be done. But I think our field has not done the best job of being able to say, “Okay. Now that you understand the story, how are you recreating the story?” And I think that’s really where the grief begins to come in is—I have not only been harmed. But I am also someone who has done a great deal of harm. And so if I have grief from my past but also grief for how I have affected my wife, hurt my wife, hidden things from my wife, that’s really where change begins to happen. So we’ve got to address both. But don’t use your story to evade responsibility.
Sheila: Yeah. Thank you for that. That is so important. Okay, everybody. Seriously, you go to get Unwanted. It’s a great book. I feel so much better because now I have an answer when women write in about these fantasies. I never knew what to say, so this is great.
Jay: It’s one of many. I mean you got—there’s great books out there with regard to that. But I have—I only have one book out right now and one fun thing on Amazon—I think Barnes and Noble—is that this one is always paired with people that buy Unwanted also buy this. So that was really fun to see in the last couple months.
Sheila: Yes. Great Sex Rescue and Unwanted are almost beside each other. So go check it out. Jay, where can people find you?
Jay: Yes. But you are so prolific that—website is jay-stringer.com or Instagram as well with @jay_stringer_. There is also a British crime novelist by the name of Jay Stringer. So sometimes people think, “Are you writing crime fiction now?” Or they’ll go to that guy’s website. But I am a therapist. And so jay-stringer.com or on Instagram at—I think it’s @jay_stringer_ because the other Jay Stringer has most of the clean link.
Sheila: Right. Well, we will put those links in the podcast notes too. Jay, thank you so much. I am sure we will have you back again because our work does overlap so much. And I am glad that you’re doing all these studies too. I think that’s wonderful. I think it’s going to really help the body of Christ find new ways to talk about this stuff that are actually helpful. So thank you for the work you are doing.
Jay: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I hope so. I mean I think hopefully the next 10 years between the work that’s being done we’ll have a lot more language and a lot of really good redemptive ways to engage some of these problems that all of us tend to go through at one point in our lives. So an honor to do this work with you, Sheila.
Sheila: Thank you so much. All right. I really appreciated what Jay had to say. Seriously, I know I said this so many times in the interview already. But go get Unwanted. He does the same stuff that we did in Great Sex Rescue where he did his original research. There’s all kinds of numbers in there. There’s all kinds of info. It’s fascinating. And he gave me words for so many things that I’ve just been wondering about. Sometimes I get these emails, and I honestly don’t know what to say. It’s just heart breaking. And so just giving me language around how to talk about fantasy and understanding that this isn’t just something that’s shameful because you’re a terrible person. But there might be a reason that your fantasy is going all of these different directions. I just found what he said about women’s fantasies, in particular, so interesting because I’ve never known what to say to these women. So this is fun. This has opened up a whole new area of research for me. I want to do so much more reading on this. I just love that. And Jay was mentioned Emily Nagoski’s work as well. We didn’t name the book in that interview but Come as You Are, a really groundbreaking book on understanding women’s sexuality. And so yeah. Together I think we’re just getting some amazing resources, so go check those out. Unwanted, Come as You Are. Of course, our book The Great Sex Rescue. And then please join in for the next two episodes of the Bare Marriage podcast in November. We’re going to be looking practically, again, at how to dig out of that pit and what it means to have an integrated view of sexuality. So check us out on the blog too. We’re talking about that all month, and we will see you again next week for the next edition of the Bare Marriage podcast. Bye-bye.