Sex & Relationships

Christian Anti-Porn Ministries Battle Women's 'Porn Addiction'

These groups appear to be helpful to many women. But are they ministering to -- or even perpetuating -- sexual problems the Christian church has created?

Adelaide Brown (not her real name), 29, had, until recently, a big problem with porn. “I would spend every moment after work enthralled in it and stay up almost all night seeking pleasure and relief,” she says.

Hormones and curiosity raging, she wandered into chat rooms at age 13, where she found adult men to be quite generous with nude photos of themselves. That (which she now realizes was abuse) led to an increasingly ardent search for visual stimulation, which ballooned two years ago into endless sessions on PornTube -- and what Brown calls full-on addiction. “I would cancel plans with friends and family just so I could be home alone and soak myself in porn,” she says. “It took away my life.”

When Brown, a single schoolteacher in Seattle who calls herself an “outside the box” Christian, tried to confess to a couple of friends, she found they were more judgmental than supportive. Seeking help from conservative Christian books and porn-addiction recovery Web sites -- and there are many -- made her feel even more alone. “Everywhere I looked, it was all about men. Finding resources for women was nearly impossible,” she says. “There were people who assured me that I was not alone as a woman but I didn’t believe it. I truly believed I was the only woman struggling with this. That just made me even more ashamed.”

Non-Christian resources didn’t help either. “They didn’t really see anything wrong with porn” in the first place, says Brown, who believes masturbation and sex before marriage are wrong, too. Result: “There wasn’t a lot of help out there for me.”

That was until she found XXXChurch, one of the first conservative Christian ministries for problem porn users, and one of the first to reach out specifically to women. “It was when I finally realized that I was not alone as a woman struggling with porn that I gained the confidence and strength I needed to move forward,” Adelaide says.

As the New York Times reported earlier this month, more and more porn-recovery workshops are emerging, in church basements and Web sites, to cater specifically to conservative Christian women. (Here and throughout, “Christian,” even without “conservative,” refers to Christian movements often also described as “fundamentalist” or “evangelical.”) While an easy target for secular snickering, this trend actually -- narrowly speaking -- may constitute a step forward: providing a haven from shame for women like Brown, for whom non-Christian help might not resonate in the first place, and representing a certain collective, overdue, Christian realization that women have sexual agency at all. But are these groups just ministering to -- or even perpetuating -- sexual problems the Christian church has had a hand in creating?

The notion that Christian women might, gasp, ever peek at porn is still a “Not in OUR church!” newsflash for some. As XXXChurch founder Craig Gross told the Times, “The problem is, most churches have male leadership, and if you want to pitch a [porn recovery event for women], they’ll say, ‘Our women don’t struggle with that.’” Except, of course, they do; that invisibility, as in Brown’s case, just makes the struggle worse.

In the realm of porn and sex, women -- at least in relatively groovy, techno-savvy Christian communities like XXXChurch and Dirty Girls Ministries -- are not subject to higher (or different, “lady”-flavor) standards from men. “Sexual purity” is a term applied to -- and a state demanded from -- both men and women; porn is considered bad for both men and women “for the same reasons,” Craig Gross told AlterNet. (Specifically: porn and just about any other sexual expression outside marriage, including masturbation constitute a selfish indulgence and defilement of the sacred, God-made space that is your body.) Ministries like these also don’t employ heinous “head of household” and “helpmeet”-type language. Insofar as women are expected to stay “pure” for -- and yes, please -- their husbands -- so, too, are husbands expected to give back. “The marriage bed must be a place of mutuality -- the husband seeking to satisfy his wife, the wife seeking to satisfy her husband,” said Gross.

Sex itself is considered awesome, even Godly, for all involved -- provided it’s within the confines of (hetero) marriage. (For further reference, see ChristianNymphos.org.) But what exactly are these women (and men) “struggling” with, and what will constitute their salvation? Brown’s case -- where porn took over rather than spiced up her life -- might have met a pretty basic standard for what some would call addiction. But generally speaking, in the Christian porn recovery world, the diagnosis is not always so clear. How does Gross’ ministry define addiction to sex or porn? “I look at Tiger and I think he was a sex addict. I look at Jesse James and think he just messed around,” says Gross. “If your life is being controlled by your sexual desires and activities, instead of you being in control of them, then you have a sexual addiction.”

Problem is, when even masturbation is verboten, “being controlled by your desires” could mean giving in, once in a while, to the utterly normal and healthy urge to Pat the Robertson. Therefore, recovery from porn/sex “addiction” -- and sexual purity itself -- essentially means renouncing, even (literally) demonizing, sexual desire outside of marriage. That doesn’t help the people who are actually addicted to porn, and it doesn’t help the people who aren’t. (Though it does help the people trying to “help” them.) While the recovery groups offer welcome fellowship (if not secular trained/accredited/experienced counselors), the path to, or back to, “sexual purity” seems to require some impressively, even oppressively, high standards of abstinence.

There’s also this: XXXChurch’s anti-masturbation campaign borrows a wiseass joke from Fark and makes it a whole lot less ironic (or more ironic, depending). Based on the slogan “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten,” XXXChurch suggests creating “accountability” groups in which members, buddy-system style, reinforce each other’s commitment with regular emails asking if anyone “Killed any kitties this week.”

At a certain point, in a "don't think about a pink elephant" sort of way, all this focus on no sex seems to become a focus on sex. Voila: feedback loop. And -- perhaps especially with women, at least in some circles -- it starts young. Take Purity Balls, in which dads escort tween daughters to the creepiest of cotillions, where they publicly pledge to protect their virginity until marriage. Grown men thinking about little girls (not) having sex, passing through canopies of white balloons: it all adds up to some pretty porntastic images (specifically, the kind that raise eyebrows at the FBI). (Analog events for boys are called A Knight To Remember, in which mothers escort their young “squires” and make similar pledges.) These balls, though popular, are not universal; still, one can see where a shame cycle might start.

To be sure, anyone can wind up addicted to anything; some sense of shame almost always goes with the territory. But where would some of these women (and men) be without the added shame heaped upon them by a system that practically dares them to stray? One’s heart breaks a little for this post in the Dirty Girls Ministries forum by someone calling herself prayingforrelease. “Sex has been one of the most important parts of my life since I was a pre-teen. I'm not very smart and not very good at a lot of things but sex was always something I was REALLY good at and I got respect and love for. Plus of course I love it so much!” she writes. “I have also been addicted to pornography -- both consuming it and making it (not like a porn star or anything) but now I don't know what to do. People tell me my lifestyle is not Christian and a big part of me agrees and feels that I've been living a sick life -- but another big part of me thinks there is no reason I can't follow the Lord and get what I need so badly too. I'm so confused and often sad -- but I'm also really horny all the time and sex is one of the only times I feel good in every way.”

A couple of responders offered kind, but wan, advice. (“Tape a picture of Christ our Savior on your computer so that when you get all dirty, you'll see his image.”) Prayingforrelease’s final response: “I was so hoping to find help and Christian support here but it seems like I'm too far gone for this place. I will pray for all you girls that you win in your struggle with masturbation and don't go on to real sex and end up like me. I just don't know where to turn if I'm too bad even for a porn recovery group. Makes me want to cry.”