Utah treatment center helps porn-addicted teens
Wales, Sanpete County • His palms sweat, eyes dilate and heart races. Deep into his third hour of pornography, one teenage boy hopes to stay lost in his fantasy.
In another home a family watches the TV news. While viewing a story about the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse trial a little girl chimes in, "That's what my brother does to me."
Teens with a wide variety of sexual disorders have few options as far as treatment centers unless their sexual deviancy lands them in the justice system. States provide treatment facilities for teens who have broken laws, but few cater to those who have not crossed the line.
Oxbow Academy is a residential treatment center in Wales that offers help for kids in the legal system as well as for those who have not yet reached that point.
The program can take in 38 boys at its two campuses.
The residential therapy facility for adolescents age 12 to 18 is one of just a handful of treatment centers in the world that focuses solely on sexual dysfunction and is one of even fewer facilities that provides treatment for children who have significant problems but have not yet broken the law.
Roughly 3 to 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from some form of sexual addiction. That number has grown significantly in the last decade and is projected to grow as technology becomes more widely available.
Professor Thomas Kimball, who works in marriage and family therapy at Texas Tech University, said the increase in technology is practically "throwing gasoline on the fire" of the teenage sex drive. Kids can access images or videos on multiple devices and addictions are starting at increasingly younger ages.
Oxbow Academy director Steve Schultz explained the differences between contemporary pornography and the porn of yesteryear.
"They're not seeing some folded up piece of paper that's static, it's dynamic, it's moving, it's anything you can think of out there," Schultz said.
The boys come across porn or sexual behaviors for various reasons. For some, the addiction to pornography and sexual deviance stems from social awkwardness, forcing them to seek a fantasy world kinder than reality. For others, abuse at a young age has created an emotional void that only sexual behaviors can fill.
"There isn't any one or two or 10 or 20 things that lead to this, it's as varied as the families and the circumstances and the dynamics they come from," Schultz said.
Porn addiction has been considered a disease by some and is being formally considered to be registered in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental illness according to Robert Weiss, director of the Sexual Recovery Institute in California.
Schultz has seen enough young males and females with the addiction to know how serious it can get, though females are not admitted to Oxbow.
"Whereas with heroin the delivery system is through the veins, with pornography the delivery system is through your eyes," Schultz said.
When parents, counselors or other adults recognize an adolescent has a sexual addiction they can reach out to Oxbow. For those that can afford the $275-a-day price tag they can be guaranteed that their son will return home with a nearly 95 percent chance of recovery, according to Schultz. The treatment is not covered by health insurance and Schultz said the average length of stay is around eight months.
Upon their arrival at the former Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building in the small town, teens are prodded by therapists about every aspect of their sex lives including masturbatory habits and fantasies.
Nothing is off limits; in fact, complete honesty is required. Before treatment can begin the boys must take polygraph tests in which they detail all their sexual experiences, thoughts and fantasies.
One boy, 17-year-old Joe C., said he lied through two polygraph tests before he decided to drop his act. "Real early on I had an incredible mask."
Schultz recalled that Joe cared very little early on, but in his six months at Oxbow, he's changed completely. Now Joe guides tours of the facility and mentors younger boys in treatment.
"When he first got here he was a totally different kid. He just sat leaning into the arm of the brown couch, completely apathetic," Schultz said of Joe. "Now you can see the pride in his eye."
Because kids at Oxbow often learn to lie and manipulate to fuel their habits, polygraphs are necessary to ensure therapists can fully treat the problems each student has and make sure the student knows if he is willing to tell the truth the staff will happily work with him.
Oxbow clinical director Todd Spaulding said the polygraph builds a sense of trust between a boy and his therapist.
"It's a tool we use to create an alliance between the therapist and the kid against dishonesty," Spaulding said. "We use it as a process of working together to prove we're telling the truth."
Upon successful completion of the polygraph test students move on to intensive therapy. Every aspect of life becomes a realm in which the boys must fight off the addiction.
Special restrooms allow staff members to monitor the boys, except for when they are in the shower or using the toilet. Boys are timed in the toilet and shower and a log is kept to ensure they maintain healthy practices behind closed doors. The initial adjustment to Oxbow and to not acting upon their addictions comes with consequences typical of withdrawal.
"I've seen kids shake, I've seen the agitation, the emotional struggle, all of those. The symptomology is there for sexual addiction," Schultz said.
The boys wake up early each morning, bathe and prepare for the day, attend therapy sessions including group sessions and individual or family sessions, go off to classes in the afternoon and return for more therapy in the evening.
"Nobody wants to do this, so there has to be that constant pressure in the different areas to get them to move," Spaulding said.
Spaulding explained that Oxbow also uses activities including equine therapy and horsemanship training to promote experiential learning. In one exercise the boys must take a horse through an elaborate obstacle course. With each obstacle they move through or break down they are able to associate it with the obstacles they must overcome in violating someone.
He said the various therapies allow boys to continuously learn and heal. One of the most effective treatments, he said, is group therapy. Upon the arrival of each new student the group assembles to discuss their addictions and why they came to Oxbow. The open nature of peer group discussion allows the boys to talk honestly and seek out help from one another in healing.
"They're helping each other walk through the fire," he said.
The Oxbow model of therapy also extends to family, who Spaulding said plays a significant role in the boys' long-term recovery. Parents are Skyped in for therapy with their sons once a week and participate in separate family sessions with their son's therapist when their son is not present.
"When addiction comes to a family it's like a tornado, it tears the house down to the foundation," professor Kimball said.
Oxbow seeks to reconstruct the house with family members helping build from the foundation up.
The first step comes in acknowledging that a son or brother has a sexual problem.
"We do not like to look at our adolescents as being sexual, no less having sexual problems," Weiss said. "It's very challenging to make that leap that your little baby could be that."
From there, families must learn to adapt and to support their son through therapy, creating changes at home that will support change.
"Society comes down hard on these kids with a heavy fist," Schultz said.
Weiss and Schultz both compared sexual addictions to alcoholism and drug addiction. They said that early on, those conditions were not socially accepted and people with those disorders were stigmatized as "bums." Now alcoholics and drug addicts receive treatment and "nobody gives it a second thought," Schultz said.
Because sexual dysfunction has not yet been recognized as a mental illness or legitimate disease, Schultz said, society stigmatizes those who suffer symptoms. He said that as the addiction gains recognition the social stigma will diminish.
Spaulding explained the boys' brains are not sufficiently developed to realize what they are doing is wrong.
"They're just kids, they want what feels good. So they'll see something acted out in a porn and say 'Hey, I could do that,' " he said.
Parents of some of the victims of these young men argue they are getting off the hook when they have the option to seek treatment rather than be incarcerated. The therapists at Oxbow disagree. Though not a traditional punishment, Schultz said, the intensive therapy can have the same correctional impact.
"People can say that it's a get out of jail free card, but I can promise you that some of the emotional struggle that they go through here is worse than any punishment the state could issue," Schultz said.
Weiss said individuals who break laws in acting out sexually deviant behaviors should face both treatment and other punishment for their actions. "Just because they may be addicts doesn't mean they're not also offenders," Weiss said.
For the family, the social stigma of sexual addiction can be equally as scarring as it is for the boys.
"We've had parents say, 'I wish my son was a heroin addict, I wish my son smoked weed because at least I could talk to someone,' " he said.
Spaulding explained how a son's addiction has the potential to destroy a family.
"The process to get them to that point is hell. You're literally walking through the fire with the families where there is no hope, the family is destroyed, parents are getting divorced, their children are in treatment because of abuse. ... Over the course of treatment you're able to put that back together and there is hope and a future when they end," Spaulding said.
Schultz visits the boys at Oxbow once a week. He said the stigmas society has imparted on the teens do not capture who they really are.
"If you look at the language sex offender, perpetrator those two words come out of the adult legal system, they've just put those types of words on adolescents because there is no other language to use," Schultz said. "When you come down here and you see these kids, they're kids, they're teenagers, they're not sex offenders, they're not on 'Dateline: To Catch a Predator.' "
Find out more about Oxbow Academy
For more information on Oxbow Academy, go to oxbowacademy.net or 435-436-9460.