90 days of no sex. This is what several porn addiction counselors prescribe for addicts and their spouses during the initial months of recovery. Why is this? Is this really necessary?
Dr. Mark Laaser, a nationally recognized author in the field of sex addiction, requires his patients to sign a 90-day abstinence contract: no masturbation, no porn, not even sex with your spouse. Sam Black, in his book The Porn Circuit, explains Dr. Laaser’s rationale:
First of all, he says, a person needs to learn that they won’t die without sex, especially for 90 days. But more importantly, the person struggling with pornography or sex addiction needs to work proactively about learning true intimacy.
“The abstinence contract on the front end is entirely about neurochemical detox,” Laaser says. “It’s resetting the brain in terms of sexual expectations.”
Dr. Laaser isn’t alone in the 90-day abstinence concept. Dr. Patrick Carnes, founder of the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals, himself a 30-year veteran in the field of addiction therapy, also requires this of his patients.
The Rationale Behind “90 Days”
From a clinical perspective, a porn addict is hooked on the neurochemicals released in his or her brain during a sexual encounter. This powerful neuro-cocktail of dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin, endorphins, and serotonin is responsible for the physical aspects of porn addiction (including withdrawal symptoms). These neurotransmitters and hormones are part of the “reward circuit” in the brain.
Some addiction therapists believe the only way to deactivate the reward system of the brain is to stop the reinforcing behavior—i.e. letting these neuro-circuits rest.
The concept of “90 days” is taken from substance abuse research which has demonstrated that it takes about three months for neurochemistry to reset to normal levels once the substance use has ended.
Other counselors are far more flexible on the time frame, suggesting 30 or 40 days instead.
The Biblical Rationale: Fasting From Sex
There were some in the early church who thought sex was beneath the ideal Christian life. Sex was a base act of the body. These Christians wrote to Paul saying, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman”—not even his own wife (1 Corinthians 7:1).
Hear Paul’s response:
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:2-4)
Paul’s position was radical. In the Greco-Roman world of his day, marriage was often a mere social arrangement. But here, Paul talks about a mutual sexual responsibility and blessing. Moreover, in that day, men of status were masters of their wives. For Paul to say that a woman has conjugal rights and that she has authority over her husband’s body would have been unheard of.
But then Paul adds this addendum:
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5)
Paul here implies that sex in marriage should be frequent. In fact, he says to deny sex to one’s spouse is to “deprive” him or her—this same word is translated “defraud” one chapter earlier (6:8). Sex helps to guard against sexual immorality and a lack of self-control. But he does make the provision that a couple can make a mutual agreement to abstain from sex for a “limited time” for the purpose of being devoted to prayer.
Paul is describing a type of fasting. Just as fasting from food was an acceptable way to devote to prayer for a season, fasting from sex was also a custom in Paul’s day.
Caveats and Conditions
While Paul endorses the idea that sexual fasting can be an appropriate way for a couple to devote themselves to prayer, the following caveats should be noted…
- Sexual fasting is not required. Nothing in Paul’s tone should lead the reader to think most or all married couples should engage in sexual fasting. Paul is wary of the Satan’s ability to tempt and sees frequent sex in marriage as a good safeguard.
- Sexual fasting should only be done by mutual consent. The man or woman in porn-detox may not simply declare a sexual fast. It must be discussed and agreed upon. Christian counselors, even if they encourage a sexual fast, should not require it if the spouse is not agreeable to it.
- Routine sexual abstinence in marriage is not just unwise but is clearly immoral in Paul’s eyes. My marriage bond means my body is no longer my own, and to deny my wife sex is to defraud her. Fasting from sex might be appropriate on occasion, but should never become the norm.
- Fasting from sex should be for “a limited time,” or literally, a fixed period of time. Fasting from sex indefinitely was not prescribed here. A set time should be agreed upon.
- Fasting from sex should end with sexual enjoyment. Paul tells couples to come back together again when the agreed upon time is over.
Dethroning the Idol of Sex
Every case of porn addiction is difference among men and women. In each instance, counselors should meet people where they are. This means not every couple should fast from sex.
For many Christian counselors, this abstinence period is recommended as a time to intentionally de-throne the idol of sexual gratification. For many porn addicts, sex is life to them. Intimacy is about sex and nothing else.
A sexual fast disciplines the man or woman obsessed with sex to remember that sex is not a need. It may feel like a need, but it is not. A sexual fast can also be helpful for the man or woman who finds it impossible have sex without pornographic fantasies dominating his or her mind.
A sexual fast also reinforces an important truth for the spouse: she or he is not to blame for the partner’s addiction. It is easy for a spouse to feel like if they were more sexually available, prettier, or thinner, the partner wouldn’t need porn. A sexual fast reminds the couple: porn was never a need to begin with. The spouse can rest knowing there is no pressure to sexually perform to make recovery a success.
During a sexual fast, the couple is encouraged to practice and develop the habits of non-sexual intimacy. For many addicts, their porn-saturated minds are numb to everyday pleasures and joys. They have lost the ability to simply enjoy spending time with their spouses—talking together, taking walks together, cooking together, praying together. Sam Black writes,
For someone with an obsessive porn habit or an addiction, the focus has been on personal and immediate gratification. The people in porn are used; the porn user gives nothing. Especially for men, porn equates to selfishness that typically extends to their marital life. This even includes the overemphasis men can have of their sexual performance, pride or fear about their prowess, and where sexual performance is equated to their manliness. (The Porn Circuit, 33)
Porn trains us to treat sex as something that should be devoured. A sexual fast retrains the mind to understand that sex is better when it is savored.
Can You Really Go 90 Days?
Before Christian men and women are married, they go years—even decades—without sex. Going without sex for 90 days is more than possible.
However, for a married couple, the situation is somewhat different. Sex unites men and women in a profound way: the Bible calls it being made “one flesh.” There is an intimate bond established, and God beckons married men and women to reforge that bond through frequent sex.
Let your fountain be blessed,
and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight;
be intoxicated always in her love. (Proverbs 5:18-19)
This is why sexual fasting in marriage—in the sparing instances when it is done—should never be done with a grit-your-teeth-and-bear-it mentality. The goal of a sexual fast is drawing closer to God and one another, with the ultimate goal of more intimate sex when the fast is over.