Atlanta Shooting Suspect’s Evangelical Rehab Taught That Porn Is ‘Dangerous’

One research study found that evangelicals are less likely to look at porn than non-evangelicals but a third more likely to consider themselves addicted to it. 
A man looks at sexually explicit DVD's inside an adult store in Times Square March 15, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A man looks at sexually explicit DVDs inside an adult store in Times Square March 15, 2005, in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The 21-year-old accused of killing eight people in Atlanta-area spas last week sought counseling for self-professed sex addiction at an evangelical rehab clinic that teaches all porn is “dangerous,” and once promoted so-called “ex-gay” conversion therapy.   

The HopeQuest organization once offered “help for homosexuality” as a menu item on its website a decade ago. But its founder, Roy Blankenship, departed in 2019, renounced conversion therapy, and announced his own plans to marry another man. 

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Now, the group puts a heavy emphasis on counseling evangelicals who feel their desire for sex or porn has gotten out of control. Up to 50 percent of its clients seek help for porn or sex addiction, the group’s website states—even though experts in psychiatry question whether sex addiction should be considered a legitimate clinical diagnosis. 

“Using pornography is both morally wrong and dangerous to our minds and our hearts,” the group’s website states. “Those of us who have a Christian worldview understand that using pornography falls outside of the loving boundaries God has placed around our sexuality to protect us.”  

HopeQuest’s website presents porn addiction as both widespread and deeply damaging. 

“Some would argue that pornography addiction—more than any other addiction—is impacting society as a whole,” the website says.

HopeQuest’s connection to the accused Atlanta shooter, who allegedly killed eight people on March 16 in a rampage targeting mostly Asian women, places the group within a broiling national debate over sexuality, race, religion, mental health, and gun violence. HopeQuest didn’t return requests for comment for this article.  

The alleged shooter, who’d been an active member of a Southern Baptist church, told police he frequented local spa businesses and targeted them as a “temptation” for sexual urges at odds with his strict conservative religious beliefs. Critics argue that explanation doesn’t account for the racial element of the crime, in which most victims were Asian women.  

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And psychiatrists point out that “sexual addiction” is not an established sexual diagnosis. In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association removed sex addiction from the DSM-V, the lengthy guidebook psychiatrists use to classify mental disorders. 

The term remains prevalent in evangelical circles, however. Data collected by the researcher Samuel Perry of Oklahoma University—who studies culture, religion, and sexuality—suggests evangelicals are less likely to look at porn than non-evangelicals but a third more likely to consider themselves addicted to it. 

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“That suggests that evangelicals are working with a very expansive definition of addiction that is basically shaped by this idea that if I’m doing something regularly that I’d rather not do, I can call myself an addict,” Perry recently told Time

HopeQuest’s 18-acre wooded campus sits just down the road from one of the spas targeted in the shooting spree last week. The suspect stayed at HopeQuest twice, in late 2019 and early 2020, according to one of his former roommates, Tyler Bayless. He preferred it to other avenues of counseling for its explicitly Christian approach, Bayless said. 

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Bayless lived with the suspect in another sober-living halfway house called Maverick Recovery in Roswell, Georgia, for several months in between the suspect’s two stays at HopeQuest, Bayless told VICE News in a phone interview. 

The intensely-religious 21-year-old suspect told his roommates at Maverick that he continued visiting the local massage parlors seeking explicitly sexual services about once a month, despite grappling with his sense of guilt in group therapy sessions afterwards, Bayless said. Others at Maverick were seeking help for drugs or alcohol issues. 

“This was a dude who was under the pressure-cooker of his religious surroundings,” Bayless said. 

In their conversations, Bayless recalled the suspect also saying that he viewed homosexuality as an inherently sinful lifestyle choice—a belief that comports with the worldview of the ex-gay movement. 

HopeQuest no longer offers “help with homosexuality” online, but its website suggests at least one lingering connection to that past advocacy. 

A since-removed online bio describes HopeQuest’s current director of clinical programs, Wayne Carricker, as an ex-gay man. 

Carricker “embraced homosexuality and a lifestyle of addiction that led him to prison,” the cached web page states, according to a screen capture from 2012. But he later abandoned “all hope that the acceptance of homosexuality would lead to relational satisfaction.” 

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Blankenship and Carricker didn’t return requests for comment from VICE News. Blankenship told The Washington Post he is no longer affiliated with HopeQuest.

Today, the group’s website features several counselors licensed by the state of Georgia, and also offers treatment for drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, as well as support programs for spouses. 

Blankenship founded HopeQuest in the 1990s while he was serving as the pastor of a large Southern Baptist megachurch, the First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Georgia. 

Blankenship served on the board of directors of one of the country’s most high-profile conversion-therapy organizations, Exodus International North American, a group committed to helping gay Christians redefine themselves as straight. The group shut down in 2013 and offered a public apology to the gay community for “years of undue judgment by the organization and the Christian Church as a whole.”

In a video interview posted last summer, Blankenship recalled announcing his own decision in 2019, at the age of 60 and after the death of his wife, to stop trying to “change” himself. He posted on Facebook about his decision to begin living as an openly gay man, and faced a “devastating” reaction from his community and longtime friends, he said. 

“All hell broke loose that day,” he said. 

In the video, Blankenship called any attempts to change a gay child’s sexual orientation profoundly dangerous. 

“Let your child be who they are,” he said. “Find a good therapist that will help you, your child, and your family work to a healthy end where you can still love and support each other, despite what your adult child’s going to be when they grow up. You can’t change it. I wish parents would not try. They hurt themselves, they hurt their child and they hurt their family—sometimes with disastrous, unresolvable consequences.”