This month we’ve wrestled with how we talk about addiction and how we relate to our bodies—especially this time of year, when the weight of expectations and the frustration of living as people-in-process can feel so prevalent. And if we are honestly engaging addiction and our bodies, the conversation will inevitably turn to sexual behavior. How do we honor the complexity of sexuality, especially in regards to behavior that is problematic or unfulfilling, without turning to old patterns of shame or empty indulgence?
In this video from his Symposia 2018 presentation, “What Our Sexual Fantasies (Might) Say About Us: Research from 3,800 People,” Jay Stringer (MA in Counseling Psychology, ‘09) argues that opposing extremes of this conversation—like the predominant Christian narrative of accountability and “just say no” to lust, or a more sex-positive approach that ignores the possibility of harm and fails to find meaning in unwanted sexual behavior—only serve to deepen the sense of shame for people who desire to change certain patterns.
“If we are willing to listen, our sexual life will have so much to teach us.”
Jay, a licensed mental health therapist and ordained minister, proposes a new paradigm instead: listening to your lust. That’s at the core of Jay’s book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing, which invites women and men to find meaning in the behaviors they pursue and to explore the stories that have shaped those behaviors. Jay argues that, whether we make lust the “bad object” or insist that sexual stigma is the primary enemy, we will fail to see meaningful change until we approach our behaviors with curiosity and enter our unaddressed stories.
Unwanted details the research that Jay conducted with 3,800 men and women, which draws connections between formative stories and enduring, present-day behaviors. Through the lens of two case studies, Jay shares some of the insights from that research—like the possible connection between strict fathers and fantasies of dominance, and the ways that childhood humiliation might play out in secretive behaviors as adults. “What I can tell you from the data is that unwanted sexual behavior—the use of pornography, infidelity, and buying sex—is not random at all,” says Jay. “It is a direct reflection of the parts of our story that remain unaddressed.”
Jay challenges us to stop pretending that unwanted behaviors don’t exist, and to stop believing that we can just silence them and make them go away. Instead, Jay invites us to listen to and study our behaviors, allowing them to serve as a “roadmap to healing.” If we allow them, our “symptoms” may even prove to be prophetic—daring to say that which we could not otherwise say.
In that act of listening to our fantasies and telling our stories, Jay argues that we might be closer than ever to living into what the Apostle Paul describes as the renewing of your mind. “And renewing our mind is not about turning off our mind. It’s about turning to the affections and desires that God most deeply wants for us.”
We are endlessly challenged, inspired, and energized by the courageous and thoughtful work of our alumni, like Jay Stringer. You can view all the Symposia 2018 presentation videos here.