Embracing Healthy Sexuality

The Process is Inherent in the Steps

"Now about sex. Many of us needed an overhauling there. But above all we tried to be sensible on this question. … [By taking an inventory] we tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life. … We remembered always that our sex powers were God-given and therefore good, neither to be used lightly or selfishly nor to be despised or loathed."

—Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th edition, p. 68-9

Little did I expect that words written in the late 1930s by a bunch of drunks would have much bearing on my own "modern" notions about sexuality and healthy sexual expression. I was, after all, a product of the Sexual Revolution of the late 60s and early 70s, and I was sure that I had a more advanced and highly evolved outlook. My generation, and those just before me, had fought hard to confront outmoded, repressive standards and declare ourselves free of "old ideas." And as a gay man beginning back then to claim this aspect of myself and integrate it into my life, confrontation and liberation had essential roles to play. It also helped that I was working on a master's degree in rebellion.

But as I sobered up and got into recovery, I had to face the reality that certain aspects of rebellion were not bringing me freedom. I also had to revisit various sexual issues. I had to acknowledge that sexual liberation was not the same thing as acting with disregard towards the desires and feelings of others. Nor did confronting repression mean that all the old standards (honesty, fidelity, prudence, etc.) should be treated with suspicion and discarded. A calm and balanced "sorting out"—in other words, an inventory—was essential.

About 10 years ago, when I was well into the second decade of active Twelve Step recovery, I participated in one of those multi-week Big Book study groups. I'm not proud to admit it, but it was the first time I had really studied the Big Book and been taught how to use it as the "basic text." It was a revelation to me, and I have tremendous gratitude for those who organized and led that seminar. One result of many was that I gained a new and deep appreciation for what Bill W. and those first 100 members came up with. In particular the paragraphs about sex and sexuality struck me as remarkably nonjudgmental and contemporary.

"Many of us needed an overhauling…"

I had not wanted to face up to it, but the fact was that in pursuit of my own liberation (which was a healthy quest), I had betrayed several of my core values (which was unhealthy and led to significant unhappiness for myself and others). Another thing I'm not proud of is the fact that my "disordered" behaviors followed me into sobriety. My beloved first sponsor had stated it so clearly: "We'll probably try again just about everything we did when we were drinking." He didn't mean it as a curse, but just as a statement based on observation (and no doubt his own experience). I have repeated this line more than once, but add to it: "We'll try doing again just about everything we did when we were using—only without the excuses of alcohol or drugs." Which means, at a certain point, we can no longer tolerate our behaviors, and we either change or drink again.

"We tried to shape a sane and sound ideal for our future sex life…"

The idea of sanity is an essential part of Step Two, and it is promoted as a value in various places in our recovery "wisdom literature." Rooted in the Latin word sanus, it literally means healthy. And health has Old English roots meaning whole. Being sane, then, means being healthy and whole—being in balance, if you will. And for us as addicts, the idea of doing anything in a balanced, moderate way is almost unimaginable. We have little or no experience with the concept.

So in recovery, how do we go about shaping ideals for healthy and wholesome sexuality and sexual expression?

The process is inherent in the Steps. Just as we did with regard to alcohol or drugs, we can use Step One to admit powerlessness and unmanageability when it comes to our sexual attitudes and behaviors. Step Two opens us up to hope for a sane and sound ideal, and that a power—call it God or Spirit of the Universe, or powers—greater than ourselves will be the primary guide in shaping that ideal. With Step Three, we make a decision to trust that this power will see us through in a loving and caring manner. Then comes the work of Four and Five: making an honest inventory of our sexual behaviors and attitudes, looking at whom we may have harmed, and then breaking the walls of isolation and shame that may be keeping us cut off from healthy intimacy by sharing our story with a trustworthy and compassionate listener in Step Five. And so on, through the rest of the Steps.

Getting to the place of embracing my sexuality and my desires in a healthy way has been a journey, of course, like any other area of my recovery. Some of the discoveries have been painful, but they have opened me up to a life that includes more joy and more freedom than I ever imagined was possible. And for that, I am forever grateful.


Doug Federhart is part of the spiritual care staff at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Plymouth, MN. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and a trained spiritual director, Doug brings to this work over 38 years of recovery experience. He lives in South Minneapolis with his husband and long-time partner Stuart Holland.

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