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      The Front Lines of the Christian Battle Against Internet Porn

      January 21, 2015


      Photo via the X3church Instagram

      I grew up Catholic in the 80s and 90s. During that time, pornography was mentioned by teachers and priests roughly the same number of times they believed Mary had sex. Which is to say: never.

      It was a different era, sure. Back then, you'd have to seek out porn. At the tops of magazine stands, in the bottoms of dad's sock drawer, during night raids on the town's recycling plant. Nowadays, anyone can see any object entering any orifice at any moment from anywhere. That's a lot of temptation for nonbelievers, let alone folks who believe God is watching their every move and is particularly intrigued by the goings-on of their stinky down-lows.

      "There's more shame from religious believers," said Craig Gross, the founder of XXXchurch, a Christian nonprofit that attempts to provide assistance for those struggling with pornography. "It's a different level."

      While both believers and non-believers can experience porn and sex addiction, Gross believes the difference is where the pressure's coming from. If you don't believe in God, but your partner wants you to stop looking at porn, the feeling is one of self-sacrifice. If you want to stop looking at porn because you believe God hates, the feeling is one of helplessness. "It's, I don't want to look at this, but I am," said Gross. "That can drive you nuts."

      XXXchurch began in 2002 after Gross, then a youth minister, heard a mention of the AVN Awards on The Howard Stern Show. That reference spawned visions of a potential new flock made of porn stars and their viewers. Gross chose an explicit-sounding name to create publicity, rented a booth at that year's AVN Awards for a few thousand bucks, and showed up to speak to festival-goers about the Lord.

      "We're not idiots with megaphones and bad T-shirts," said Gross. "We know how to talk to people."

      Since 2002, Gross estimates they've been to about 94 conventions, each time being relatively well-received by the attendees. They've had more of a problem, actually, with their fellow Christians. "It's so much easier to have an alcohol or drug problem in the church than a sex or porn problem," said Gross, before mentioning a church-sponsored program that, supposedly, welcomed addicts of all kinds, but in reality shunned anyone with a sex addiction.

      "The Bible says don't indulge your body with food and sex, but you can be a fat pastor in America and be one of the most popular around," he said. "If it's public that you're struggling with sex or porn, you'll be fired."

      The goal of XXXchurch, then, is to combat the problem through normalization, alleviating the stresses that comes with feeling as if you're alone. At the site's online confessional, people post personal stories other users can browse to find one that mirrors their own—the hope is that a Christian mother can find out that finding her son's sordid internet history isn't the end of the world. The group also embraces tactics like holding "Porn and Pancakes" church brunches to talk about the issue and giving away Bibles with the words "Jesus Loves Porn Stars" written across their covers.


      Craig Gross (right) with Ron Jeremy. Photo via the X3church Instagram

      The group's most popular offering is a free program called x3watch. It allows users to block certain websites from their computer. Pretty normal stuff. But the program goes one step further by allowing users to sign up as many as ten "accountability partners," friends or family members who receive reports on your internet use. The idea, quite simply, is to use shame to scare people straight.

      But whether or not porn addiction exists at all is still, pardon the pun, a sticky problem.

      "Human beings are hard-wired to find the depictions of sexuality to be arousing," said Dr. David Greenfield, director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. "There's a biological and evolutionary basis to that."

      Watching porn mirrors a naturally occurring pleasurable behavior, something we're kind of supposed to be doing. "Although pornography and masturbation don't have anything directly to do with procreation, the body doesn't really know that," said Greenfield. "It thinks it's getting aroused and ready for procreative behavior." And because of it being a natural activity—as opposed to, say, injecting drugs or swilling alcohol—it isn't listed as an official addictive behavior as far as DSM manuals are concerned.

      That doesn't stop Greenfield, and many other psychologists, from treating it, however. If something affects a person's lifestyle, it needs to be addressed. When seeing a patient with a worrying porn habit, Greenfield goes through a checklist: "Does it interfere with work, healthy primary relationships, legal status, financial status?" If a person answers "yes" to any, it doesn't matter what their religious affiliation is, he'll treats the addiction through the same combination of therapy and filtering programs. And if viewing porn isn't affecting that list of possible consequences? It's fine to leave well enough alone. "It's hard to argue an addiction when there's no negative consequences," Greenfield said.

      As far as whether or not Christians—or any religious believers—may be predisposed towards negative feelings towards porn, there is medical evidence that points toward why.

      "When you're in a sexual arousal process where you're looking at pornography, you're activating limbic parts of the brain," said Greenfield. By doing so, the connection to the prefrontal cortex—where decisions are weighed by values and morality—is cut off. Rather than listening to the voice in your head saying, Hey, you didn't feel great after doing this last time, maybe cut it out, you plow right through any mental roadblocks because your desire is so strong.

      Which isn't to say it's immoral to view porn. Morality is a personal thing, with religious teachings giving believers broad outlines. (Not unlike an annoying handbook given to employees of huge corporations.) But if someone believes what they're doing is wrong, and their brain processes don't alert them to stop that behavior, what's going to follow that action is some mighty shame.

      So, is there a way to make the whole act less shameful and more acceptable? Can Christians eventually get to a place where they're like, "It's OK you're looking at porn"?

      Jessica Mockett, director/producer of The Heart of the Matter, a documentary about the Christian relationship with online pornography, doesn't really think so. "It's permission giving," said Mockett. "I don't know of any Christian that can give that permission and be OK with it. It goes directly against our beliefs."

      The Bible has plenty to say about lust, most of which boils down to: Don't do it. And watching porn is pretty obviously lusting after another person's body. (It's possible to get technical on this issue and wonder if it's OK to spank it to a naughty photo of your marital partner, but that theological question isn't what we're talking about here, and you know it.) Rather, in Mockett's view, the way to remove shame is by ending the silence.

      "If you're having ongoing conversations about what unhealthy sexuality is—in my book, that would be pornography—there's not a mystery there," she said.

      While researching for the film, Mockett performed a survey of pastors and ministers and found that while 86 percent feel like the issue is prominent among their congregation, only 20 percent said they address it on a regular basis. Why the discrepancy? Mockett believes this is because church leaders are struggling with the issue as well, which is all the more reason to begin talking about it more openly.

      "We are all broken in one way or another," said Mockett. "It's OK to talk about our weaknesses." And the use of any porn is a weakness in Mockett's estimation. "There's this concept it makes us sexually more free. Actually, it makes us prisoners of what the porn industry says is desirable," said Mockett. "Even if you're looking at something you don't think you'd normally be turned on by, [porn] changes sexual desires."

      Mockett also refutes the idea of porn as educational. "[Teenagers] are watching gang rapes and thinking that's acceptable," said Mockett. "And we're all surprised when these stories pop up about three or four boys gang-raping a girl at a party. They're watching porn and they're thinking it's a healthy, viable form of sexuality. And we wonder why we have a rape culture."


      Brittni Ruiz back in 2010, when she was doing porn under the name Jenna Presley. Photo via Wikimedia Commons userGlenn Francis

      Brittni Ruiz has been on both sides of the screen, and she agrees. Between 2005 and 2012, she was active in the adult film industry under the name Jenna Presley. Her time in the industry was not a pretty one, with addictions to alcohol, drugs, anorexia, sex, just about everything. "I was a complete mess," she said.

      In 2009, she'd reached her breaking point. "I wanted to commit suicide, I was completely broken," said Ruiz. "I called my grandma to pick me up, and she did, and I found out my grandpa was going to church and asked if I could join him."

      While that first introduction to church didn't take—she returned to the industry within five months—it did plant a seed. "I tried rehab, I even went to a mental hospital," said Ruiz. "The only thing that worked for me was seeking a real relationship with God."

      In December of 2012, she left porn for good. Since then, she's been teaching Sunday school classes in San Diego and sharing her testimonials, leading others to share their own stories with her. "There were people who would literally look up a porn scene and stumble upon my testimony," said Ruiz, "and it left such an impact they could no longer watch porn."

      Ruiz believes the shame component is there because of the internal struggle between right and wrong. "When God gives us commandments, they're meant to help us, not to harm us," said Ruiz. "However, God doesn't intervene with free will. You can choose. I think people feel shame because they feel that conflict." While others may have different paths to get over their porn habit, the only advice Ruiz can truly advise is the one that worked for her.

      "I believe that when you seek the Lord, you can overcome it."

      Follow Rick Paulas on Twitter.

      Topics: culture, porn, Pornography, xxxchurch.com, xxxchurch, porn addicition, sex, Brittni Ruiz, Jenna Presley, Craig Gross, Jessica Mockett, The Heart of the Matter, David Greenfield

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