Porn Addiction in the Christian Community: Why Are Rates so High?

Porn Addiction in the Christian Community: Why Are Rates so High?

By Cameron Turner 08/26/14

For the faithful, porn addiction isn't about how much porn is watched—it's about how guilty they feel when they do it.

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Cameron Turner

Standing out boldly against a bright yellow background, the tall red capital letters hover above the highway shouting their promise of sexual stimulation to oncoming motorists:  ADULT VIDEO!  But as turned-on drivers downshift toward the X-rated invite, they can’t avoid seeing another sign. On it, the familiar face of a bearded, long haired man looks down with gentle, disapproving eyes. Alongside the portrait, another set of capital letters warns that “Jesus Is Watching You.” 

Catholic leaders in San Juan County, New Mexico installed that billboard as a shame-inducing admonition to porn shop patrons – you may be able to hide your “sinful” behavior from other people, but not from God!  

Because of the belief that the Almighty watches everything we do (reflected in Bible verses such as Jeremiah 16:17, “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes”) and the traditional church teaching that non-marital sex is immoral, many devout Christians agonize over their experiences with pornography. Feelings of guilt may explain why people with strong religious convictions often believe they are addicted to porn. 

In a piece titled “I’m a Christian Addicted to Porn” for the magazine Christianity Today, Shaun Groves describes the torturous shame he felt after enjoying sexually explicit media: 

“The pleasure faded. And in its wake I fought pounding waves of regret and guilt. I felt a million miles from good, a billion light years from God. I'd often think back to how I saw that first picture of a naked woman. I had used a stick to keep it away from me. I felt like God had the stick in his hand now, poking at me from a distance, trying not to get any of me on him.”

Joshua Grubbs watched students go through similar anguish during his undergraduate years at a conservative college. So, as a doctoral candidate in psychology at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University, Grubbs was excited to explore the link between religious values and perceptions of porn addiction. 

Grubbs' research team surveyed three representative groups of adults (including undergrads at both a public and a religious university) about their viewing of adult material over the Internet. The study, Transgression as Addiction, concluded that "religiosity and moral disapproval of pornography use were robust predictors of perceived addiction to Internet pornography while being unrelated to actual levels of use among pornography consumers."  

In other words, people who object to graphic sexual entertainment for religious reasons are more likely to see themselves as addicts – no matter how much porn they actually watch. "We were surprised that the amount of viewing did not impact the perception of addiction, but strong moral beliefs did," Grubbs said of the findings which were published in February in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.  

Gospel music superstar Kirk Franklin thrust the issue of Christians and porn addiction into the limelight ten years ago by revealing his personal obsession with sex videos and magazines. Appearing with his wife, Tammy, on the conservative Christian TV show The 700 Club, Franklin opened up about the all-consuming hunger that threatened his marriage and made him feel like a hypocrite in his ministry. He talked about greedily consuming porn in private – especially when he was on the road. He talked about trying to get Tammy to watch porn with him. Franklin also claimed that his addiction took hold suddenly, when he was a small child. “There's always the boy who has the big brother who has the magazine under his bed. That's how it starts. So the first time I ever saw one, I was around 8 or 9. I saw my first magazine, and from there I was addicted,” Franklin said.

Later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Franklin explained that he became so disgusted by his habit that he packed up all of his porn and drove it to a garbage bin far away from his house. But later that night, he started fiending for the triple-X images. "I tried to go to sleep that night, and it was literally like a drug calling me," Franklin admitted to Oprah. "About three or four in the morning, in my flip-flops and boxers, I got in my car and drove back to that dumpster…"

Franklin realized that he was out of control, so he admitted his porn fixation to his wife and sought professional help. After intense counseling, he said he was no longer tempted by adult media. By going public with his personal struggle, Kirk Franklin helped clear the way for open discussions about pornography among Christians. Since then, there have been countless confessional articles, blogs, books, sermons and seminars by churchgoers and clergy who got caught up in porn.

Former Kansas City pastor T.C. Ryan detailed a 40-year battle with pornography in his autobiography Ashamed No More. In a video promoting his book, Ryan discloses that, as he struggled to balance porn with the pulpit, he "increasingly grew into a life of robust spirituality engulfed in shame and self loathing." Therapy led Ryan to a happier place, and he struck an optimistic chord when he told The Fix, “I hope that from my journey people might learn that we are all sexual beings, and that is good…but for a lot of us we don’t learn how to use our sexuality in healthy, self-integrated ways.”

How much pornography do Americans consume? According to the Pew Research Center, 12% of US adults (including 23% of 18 to 29 year-olds) admit that they have watched adult videos online. Pew concedes that those numbers might be low. Since the survey was done over the phone, the polling company says that some respondents may have felt "a reluctance to report the behavior." Meanwhile, other estimates suggest that adult Americans visit porn sites an average of 7.5 times per month. And those visits last an average of 12 minutes. 

As reported by Covenant Eyes, "in a recent survey by the Barna Group, 21% of Christian men say they have thought they were “addicted” to porn or said they weren’t sure. This is more than two times what non-Christian men said (10%). Interestingly, 64% of Christian men say they view porn at least once a month, but a higher percentage (71%) of non-Christians report doing this.

Mental health professionals continue to debate whether frequent or compulsive viewing of pornography actually qualifies as addiction. As The Fix reported earlier this year, New Mexico psychologist Dr. David Ley analyzed the research on porn addiction and found most of the studies to be scientifically weak. (Only 27% of the articles included actual data.) Ley recognizes that many people have trouble controlling how much porn they watch, but he says slapping the “addict” label on them isn’t the best solution. Pointing out that porn addiction has no official diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association's mental health bible, the DSM-5, Ley wrote: “We need better methods to help people who struggle with the high frequency use of visual sexual stimuli, without pathologizing them or their use thereof.” 

Ley went on to suggest that watching pornography can actually have benefits for adults such as increasing sexual enjoyment within long term relationships, improving attitudes toward sex and reducing the incidence of sex crimes, particularly crimes against children.  

Case Western researcher Joshua Grubbs thinks the startling self-reported figures from the Barna Group survey have more to do with shame than with legitimate addiction. Grubbs says that many Christians who have watched porn believe they are addicts because of their "pathological interpretation of a behavior (that is) deemed a transgression or a desecration of sexual purity." 

David Ley concurs and accuses church-based therapists of promoting religious morality instead of mental health. “Religious groups are framing this as a medical disease and obscuring their religious agenda. (They) are using porn addiction pseudo-science labels to mask their moral attacks on porn and sexual behavior,” Ley told The Daily Banter.

Grubbs argues that clarifying why certain people incorrectly perceive themselves as pornography addicts will empower them to live more fulfilling religious lives. "We can help the individual understand what is driving this perception, and help individuals better enjoy their faith," stated Grubbs. 

Cameron Turner is a writer based in Los Angeles. He last wrote about sobriety and hip hop and how our veterans are being destroyed by painkiller prescriptions.