Marnie Ferree, my friend, colleague, and recent co-author (Out of the Doghouse for Christian Men: A Redemptive Guide for Men Caught Cheating) has a long-standing national reputation as a leader in the treatment of sexual addiction/compulsivity, particularly as it presents in women. In fact, in 1997 she established the first gender-separate program for female sex and love addicts. This Christian-based program, now called Bethesda Workshops, still exists, and draws participants from across the United States and Canada. Nowadays, in addition to treating female sex addicts, she hosts workshops for male sex addicts, partners of sex addicts, and couples. And recently she added gender-separate workshops for sexually addicted/compulsive teens and their families to the curriculum.
A few days ago I was able to sit down and speak with Marnie about her work with women and her new teen-focused workshops. Below, I have excerpted some interesting snippets from our conversation so others can learn a bit more about who she is, as well as the treatment of sexually addicted/compulsive females and teens.
You’re one of the first to treat female sex addicts at all, and the first to open a gender-separate program. What pushed you down this path?
The impetus came from my own story, my own trauma. I’m the child of a preacher and academician who was also an unrecovered sex addict. I found his stash of pornography as a young child. He was an academic dean, and he was inappropriately sexual with guys on the college campus. That was a no-no even in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s when we tended to turn a blind eye to that sort of thing. His behavior eventually blew up for him in 1985, but he never got help. During the time of my dad’s struggles, I was being sexually abused by a man who was one of my dad’s closest friends. That started when I was 5 and continued into adulthood, with the same primary perpetrator. And there was lots of other trauma too. My mother died when I was three, and my dad was an absent workaholic in addition to the sexual stuff. So I had all the set-up for addictive coping, especially around love, sex, and relationships. Probably by the time I was 17 or 18 I was a full-blown love and sex addict.
I had lots of consequences related to my addiction, and I finally began seeking help at around age 35. Pretty quickly, I wanted to get clinical training to work with other people. I graduated from my master’s program in 1995, and I started working with women right away. In 1997, I opened the first gender-specific treatment program in the country for female sex and love addition—a short-term clinical intensive workshop. At that time, women could go to inpatient at Golden Valley, but not in a gender-segregated program, and there were very few who chose to do that. Over the years, my program has grown to include all the different populations: female addicts, male addicts, partners of addicts, couples, and now we’ve expanded for teens.
What are the primary differences that you see between female and male sex addicts? And has that changed with the advent of the internet?
When I began working in the field female sex addicts looked more like me, meaning they were more relationally oriented, they were more into love affairs, promiscuity, that kind of thing. They were using sex to find love, or so they thought. The women who were acting out more stereotypically male behaviors, meaning anonymous sex or disconnected sex, were almost always combining drugs or alcohol with that. They needed the disinhibitor of that.
The internet changed that, though it was a little bit of a slow change. When online stuff first became popular women were still doing things that had an element of relationship, like sexual chat rooms where there was a pseudo dating or relationship element. Today, however, I see no difference between the presentations of male sex addicts and female sex addicts. As far as being purely sexual with porn, apps, webcams, and that sort of thing, I see women doing that as much as men. But I still see plenty of love and relationship addiction, too, and with both genders. Last week we treated 20 men in an intensive, and probably 6 or 8 of them were love and relationship addicts as much as sex addicts.
Do families react differently to a female sex addict (mom, sister, daughter) in comparison to a male sex addict (father, brother, son)? Are there “family shame” issues that we don’t see when the addict is male?
There is definitely more shame when the addict is female. Some cool things are happening culturally, but we still don’t tend to think about women as being naturally sexual the way we think about men. But women are now writing books about their sex addictions, and Jada Pinkett Smith just came out about her struggles with sex addiction. We need a lot more of that. We need someone really huge to speak up, to become the Betty Ford for female sex addiction, and maybe that will help to break some of the shame. But I don’t know who that’s going to be or when that’s going to happen.
So for now there is still lots of misunderstanding about female sex addiction, and there’s still lots of shame. I think the women themselves feel shame about it, and their families also feel shame. The families can really struggle with this when the addict is young, to the point where the families don’t seem to want to participate in treatment. That’s the struggle with our adolescent program so far. That and parents just not wanting to look at their own issues. Either way, we are requiring family involvement, and parents are saying no, we just want you to fix this problem. And I do think that shame about their child being sexually addicted, especially a daughter, is part of that resistance.
So you’re running into some roadblocks in terms of launching these workshops?
When I talk with people in the field, universally they are excited. They say, “This is wonderful. It’s so needed.” But we can’t get people to come because the families don’t want to be part of it. They only want to send the identified patient.
Can you do it without the parents?
No, and we’re sticking to our guns on that. We’re an outpatient program and we’re not going to house and supervise a bunch of sexually addicted teens. They’re with us from around 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We feed them lunch and supper, but they sleep and eat breakfast at a conference hotel a few miles down the road. So we need the family to participate, to be there with them. For us, because we’re not an inpatient facility, there’s no way to get around this. We also are clear from a systems standpoint that this is the best treatment modality. Parents have to be involved in dealing with a teen’s struggles. You can’t just treat a teen without treating the family and expect that to be effective long-term.
I’m wondering if there might be less shame around a male child as opposed to a female child. Parents might feel like they’ve failed with a daughter more than a son. Is that why you’ve scheduled your next two workshops for teen males?
Absolutely. If families won’t come with a daughter, maybe they’ll come with a son, so we’ve scheduled our next two workshops for boys. The next one for girls will be in 2019. I don’t have another date open until then. The difficult thing about that is that there’s nowhere else to go for females. For boys, there are some 30-day or longer inpatient programs, like Capstone in the Christian community and Paradise Creek and Oxbow in the secular community, that are doing really good work for teen males. So you can send a teen boy to a 30-day or longer inpatient program. But even those are not shorter-term workshops, which appeals to a lot of people, and they’re not for females at all. Plus, residential programs are much more expensive. Our program is expensive too at $5000. But that’s a lot more do-able than inpatient treatment.
Thank you for breaking ground with this Marnie. I, like many others you’ve talked to, see a great need for this, and I’m hopeful that both your male and female teen workshops will take off, as your women’s workshops did back in the day.
We’re certainly hopeful. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Workshops for sexually addicted/compulsive teen males and their families are scheduled for August 8 – 11 and September 26 – 29. The next workshop for teen girls will likely be scheduled for early 2019. For more information visit BethesdaWorkshops.org.