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Sex And Young America

Ministering to Sexually Addicted Youth

By Shannon Ethridge

If someone had asked me when I was 12 if I wanted to remain a virgin until marriage, I would have said, “Of course I do. ”

At 13, I would have said, “I think so.”

By 14, I would have replied, “Maybe.”

At age 15, my response would have been, “I don’t see how that is possible.” Indeed, my innocence became just a memory that year. Sex soon became a routine part of my dating relationships — the price that I felt I must pay for the attention and affection I craved. It was not until my twenties that I understood I was a sex and love addict.

As dysfunctional as my private life was, my spiritual life appeared functional. I was raised in church and was president of my youth group. I headed many fundraisers for worthy causes and attended Christian concerts — The Imperials, Resurrection Band, and Amy Grant. Even with these Christian activities and influences, I do not recall feeling much guilt or remorse over the double life I was living. Back then, Christians did not seem to talk much about sexual issues. We did not ask, and we did not tell. What I did not know did not bring conviction.

Attitudes, however, have changed drastically since I was a sexually addicted teen in the 1980s. Churches and youth groups are talking about sexual issues. Musicians such as Rebecca St. James, Jump 5, and By the Tree make sexual purity look and sound cool. The True Love Waits movement has swept across our nation with great force. So, have the sexual practices of young people changed? According to a survey of nearly 600 teens, 61 percent of those who had taken abstinence pledges had broken them within a year. Of the 39 percent who said they had not broken their pledges, more than half disclosed that they had engaged in oral sex.”1 Why are more and more young Christians living double lives? More important, what can pastors, youth leaders, and concerned adults do to help them have victory in their battle against sexually addictive behaviors?

Accepting Our Call To Leadership

The church is learning to speak more openly and honestly about sexual issues, which is absolutely vital. But pastors are sometimes challenged by certain individuals not to talk about s-e-x to their kids. Pastors cannot let fear of offending a few stand in the way of educating the many. I have often kindly informed parents that we would be talking openly about sexual issues and that I would respect their decision to not allow their kids to come that evening or to attend that weekend retreat. However, parents need to respect the fact the church has been called by God to lead a generation to embrace His standards for living, which includes sexual purity.

If you encounter resistance in your church as you attempt to bring sexual issues to the forefront, I recommend taking an informal, anonymous poll of the teens and young adults in your church. Ask them to list what they see and hear in the culture about sex and what questions they would like the church to respond to. Compile their comments and questions and present them to the parents and other church leaders. Ask these leaders, “If teens cannot get rock-solid answers and biblical truth about sexuality from their church, where are they going to get it? In their schools? From their peers? Over the Internet?” It would be a travesty for the church, God’s mouthpiece, to remain silent on these matters while the media wallpapers our world with sexually stimulating images.

Where Is The Victory?

Statistics show that while Christian youth are taught by the church to embrace a lifestyle of purity, the church is not doing an effective job of teaching how to do that. During my past 15 years of youth ministry and 6 years of teaching at Teen Mania Ministries, if I had a dime for every young Christian who confessed that he was merely a “technical virgin,” or had even fallen into the “friendships with privileges” pit, I would be rich.

In case these terms are new to you, the technical virgin is one who accepts that premarital intercourse is a forbidden activity, but engages in doing everything else, including mutual masturbation and oral sex. While I hate to rain on the young people’s purity parade, we need to speak the truth in love to them. Although they may be virgins (medically speaking), they are not sexually pure. One can be a physical virgin but a mental, emotional, and spiritual prostitute.

Once a young person has done everything except intercourse, it does not take much effort to kill his conscience and go that one step further. Once virginity is lost, sexual standards usually plummet. The “friendships with privileges” craze among young people is a perfect example. Rather than sex as a loving expression between two caring partners in a committed marriage relationship, today’s generation often rejects romance and holds no expectation of a serious relationship of any kind after a sexual encounter. It is understood that both partners are only in it for sex, and once that is over, it is over. This behavior is not too far from the one-night stands of past generations. What is startling, though, is how socially acceptable it has become in today’s youth culture.

Yale University student Natalie Krinsky wrote in her Yale Daily News column, “Sex and the (Elm) City”: “Women know within the first 5 minutes of meeting a man whether they are going to hook up with him or not. But … women don’t want the guy to know he’ll be hooking up until he’s actually doing it. … Post hookup is when guys tend to get ambiguous [they ignore you]. It’s their payback. Do they want to hook up again? Dunno. Do they want to date? Dunno. Are they straight? Dunno. Name? Dunno.”3

According to a msnbc article, a survey of 555 undergrads revealed that 78 percent of students had hooked up (had sex with someone they did not have a romantic relationship with) and the average student accumulates 10.8 hookup partners during college. If you asked these students if they were addicted to sex, most would tell you what I would have said as an addicted teen: “Of course not. I can stop any time.”

Developing A Stronger Line Of Defense

How can we help young people guard themselves against sexual compromise? We have diligently tried to teach them how to guard against the temptation to become sexually intimate with one another. We have emphasized physical virginity and saving sexual intercourse until marriage, but I propose we look at the bigger picture. There are four doors that lead to sexual compromise.

Imagine that an attacker desires to harm you and you are looking for a place of refuge. You see a vacant four-door car on the street and you get in to take cover. What is the first thing you must do to prevent the attacker from coming in after you? Lock all the doors. Unless you lock all four doors there is no sense in locking any of them. There is a vulnerable point of entry until each door is locked.

The same is true with sexual integrity. Our sexuality is not what we do with our bodies, it is who we are — mind, body, heart, and soul. Unless we carefully guard not only our body, but also our mind, heart, and spirit, we are vulnerable to sexual temptations.

Christians do not just decide one day to commit sexual sin with their bodies or to become sex addicts. Sin begins in our minds when we allow the world’s messages to infect our thinking and blur our spiritual vision. Our thoughts affect our heart and distorted thinking evolves into distorted beliefs. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and we find ourselves enjoying a fun game of innocent flirting with someone of the opposite sex (or same sex in the case of homosexuality [See sidebar “Homosexuality in Our Youth Groups”]).

As the fascination with this other person intensifies, we begin to see him or her as the fulfillment of our longings. If we place them on a pedestal higher than God’s, it becomes spiritual idolatry. Then we are like a moth drawn to a flame, enamored by its brilliance but ignorant of its destructive potential. This is exactly how I changed from wanting to remain sexually pure at age 12 to being a sex addict at 15. Because I did not know how to guard my mind, heart, and spirit against inappropriate relationships, my body soon became a casualty of my own private war for sexual integrity.

Guarding Our Minds

In the e-mails that Stephen Arterburn, Fred Stoeker, and I receive from teens in response to our books, Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Battle, it is evident that Satan is fervently attacking young minds. As teens retrace their steps to tell us how their battle began, it usually leads back to early adolescence when they wanted answers to their innocent and age-appropriate questions about sex. Because today’s teens often fear adults will panic or make false assumptions about their sexual curiosities, they use the Internet to find answers. Unfortunately, the answers they get in cyberspace do not satisfy their sexual curiosities. Instead, the flame is fueled as their curiosities are awakened to an even greater extent. Consider these statistics:

Internet pornography and chat rooms are not the only ways young minds are being attacked. We must also warn our children and teens of the dangers of television shows, movies, music, magazines, romance novels, and other media that can turn their minds from sexual purity to lustful desires. If we can stop mental sexual temptations, we will not need to worry about our hearts, spirits, and bodies falling prey to temptation. But if we are not successful in keeping our minds pure, our battle intensifies.

Guarding Our Hearts

Pastors have probably preached Proverbs 4:23 many times. “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” But most young people cannot fathom what that means. In fact, it is difficult for many adults to understand and consistently apply as well. Guarding our heart seems to be a gray issue with no black or white guidelines. Therefore, we have colorized the issue in Every Young Woman’s Battle using a traffic-light model that illustrates three different levels of emotional connection. Using this model, we can illustrate where our hearts can go (the green-light levels), when we need to slow down and take caution (the yellow-light levels), and when we need to stop (the red-light levels).

The green-light levels of emotional connection include Attention and Attraction. Because God created us as sexual beings, it is natural that certain people will get our attention and we will feel attracted to them. When teens experience this, they falsely assume they are in love, or they are guilty of lusting for that person. To prevent Satan from tormenting teens with false guilt, they need to understand that being attracted to someone is natural and normal, even being attracted to someone else after marriage. We do not stop feeling attracted to other people even if we fast and pray for 24 hours straight or put a wedding band on our finger. Attraction ends at one’s death. Feeling attracted to others is part of life — a part that cannot control us unless we allow it.

The yellow-light levels of emotional connection include Affection, Arousal, and Attachment.When people are attracted to someone as a potential mate, they feel compelled to express affection. There are healthy ways to express affection (such as a kind word, a pat on the back, or thoughtful actions), and there are unhealthy ways (such as a flirtatious comment, a suggestive look, or an inappropriate touch). Helping teens discern appropriate from inappropriate expressions of affection will help them have healthy friendships and help them to avoid becoming sexual for lack of a better way to express their affinity for one another.

Once two young people are involved in a romantic relationship, it is normal for them to feel emotionally aroused by one another and eventually emotionally attached to one another as their relationship continues to solidify. Encouraging accountability with responsible adults and teaching safe physical boundaries in relationships will help young people keep their emotions in check rather than allowing their passions to become sexual. My practical advice on where the line should be drawn in a dating relationship is this: The couple should not engage in any physical activity they would feel uncomfortable doing in front of their parents.

The red-light levels of emotional connection include Affairs and Addictions. An emotional affair begins when one pursues a more intimate, exclusive relationship with someone they should not have romantic involvement with (for example, a married person or someone in authority over them such as a pastor, teacher, or much older person). Often these relationships surface as crushes, and leaders usually dismiss them as unimportant. However, these inappropriate longings must be addressed. If not brought under control, such cravings can quickly lead to emotional addictions because people feel they cannot control whom they love or become sexually involved with.

Guarding Our Spirits

Strip away the external behaviors of a sex or love addict and you will find an idolatrous spirit. This idolatrous spirit deceives us into believing that our fulfillment can be found in earthly relationships. After several years of marriage, I cried to Greg, “You don’t meet my emotional needs.” I was contemplating leaving him to pursue the love I felt entitled to.

But Greg looked beyond my weakness to my needs and spoke the truth in love. He said, “Shannon, you have a grand canyon of emotional needs. Until you look to God to satisfy your needs, there is nothing I or any other man can do to satisfy you.”

Although the truth hurt, I could not deny it. Through years of promiscuity, no man could satisfy me. But could God satisfy the longings of my heart? After 6 months of counseling, intense prayer, and Bible study I was able to repent of my addictive relational patterns. I recognized that Jesus was not only my Savior, but also the lover of my soul. I was finally able to submit to Him as the Lord of my life.

Encourage young people to read the Book of Hosea. Sex and love addicts can recognize themselves in Gomer. We may have been unfaithful in the past, but our Lord remains faithful to bring us out of our selfishness and our pitiful relational pursuits so He can betroth us to himself in “righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (Hosea 2:19,20). Embracing Jesus, understanding how precious we are to Him, and recognizing that no one can take His rightful place in our hearts is the best remedy for any enslaving addiction.

Shannon Ethridge, Lindale, Texas, is founder of Women at the Well Ministries and author of Every Woman’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Battle.


1. Mary Meehan, “Abstinence Pledges Not Very Effective,” distributed by Knight Ridder(November 2003).

2. “AIDS, Sex and Teens,” at

3. Natalie Krinsky, quoted in Mary Beth Marklein, “Casual Sex in Newsprint,” USA Today (November 14, 2002).


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