The Dark Tales of the Christian Sex Addiction Industry

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There’s a reason so many young men believe their sexual desires make them depraved—or worse.


The many times I’ve spoken, for my research, to young Christian men who believe they have a porn or sex addiction, they tell similar stories. One told me that as a teenage boy in his evangelical church, sex and porn were “kind of the popular sin to talk about just because you knew that it was something that every guy was struggling with.” Another young man spoke of his longtime adulthood mission to “win the war and be ready to keep on fighting” against his sexual desires. These men use the language of “sobriety and relapse,” referring to sex and porn, and they told me common experiences about how they came to realize their reputed problem and began attending treatment, sometimes in their church basements. As one put it, when his faith leaders began workshops on the matter, “Every session was just full of people—like there were people standing in the back. That’s what opened the floodgates.”
Robert Aaron Long, the man accused of killing eight people at Atlanta-area spas last week, also told authorities upon his arrest that he was a Christian and a sex addict. (He reportedly said he targeted the victims, including six women of Asian descent, to remove “temptation,” a motivation that police offered in a now-infamous press conference.) Both claims came under immediate scrutiny. Long’s own church removed him from its membership, since it could “no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.” And psychologists have explained that there is no evidence linking compulsive sexual behavior to violence and that in any case, sex addiction itself is not a diagnosable disorder. Many believed Long’s claims to be an excuse for a hate crime against Asian women, a violent attack on sex workers, or both.
Robert Aaron Long, the man accused of killing eight people at Atlanta-area spas last week, also told authorities upon his arrest that he was a Christian and a sex addict. (He reportedly said he targeted the victims, including six women of Asian descent, to remove “temptation,” a motivation that police offered in a now-infamous press conference.) Both claims came under immediate scrutiny. Long’s own church removed him from its membership, since it could “no longer affirm that he is truly a regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.” And psychologists have explained that there is no evidence linking compulsive sexual behavior to violence and that in any case, sex addiction itself is not a diagnosable disorder. Many believed Long’s claims to be an excuse for a hate crime against Asian women, a violent attack on sex workers, or both.
But as a sociologist who has spent years studying the peculiar but persistent relationship between conservative Christianity and “sex addiction,” I do not believe these motivations exclude one another, and they’re well worth understanding in tandem. I’ve written previously for this magazine about how many conservative Christians frame men’s sexual desires as potentially out of control, given what they perceive as men’s natural biological urges and the secular social pressure for men to indulge in their sexual fantasies. In turn, a Christian industry has cropped up to include literally hundreds of products and resources—books, websites, support groups, apps, and software programs—created by and for Christians to overcome reputed sex and pornography addictions. Long himself was reportedly a patient at an in-patient Christian treatment center that specialized in sex and porn addiction. Young white Protestant men like Long are indeed the most likely group to perceive themselves to be addicted to pornography, even though they use it less frequently than their secular counterparts. These “addictions” may not be traditionally diagnosable, but the system that pushes them—and in some cases profits from them—is very real. Many of the people behind this system are deeply rooted in the church and believe not only that young men’s sexual desires are pathological but that porn and sex work are an evil temptation that must be criminalized. We still have much to learn, but the killings in Atlanta should be cause for a reckoning among white evangelicals to reconsider the messages they send young people about sex, gender, and race.
To understand the Christian sex addiction complex, a little history helps. Founded in 1977 by a longtime Alcoholics Anonymous member, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, or SLAA, was the first established sex addiction support group in the U.S. In the following decades, conservative evangelicals took up sex addiction rhetoric to reinforce their beliefs about sexuality. Most sex therapists do not believe an addiction recovery model is well-suited to treat sexual problems, since their goal is sexual freedom and self-acceptance, rather than abstinence and control. For decades, sex therapists have named, diagnosed, and treated a multitude of “sexual dysfunctions,” but the field has been careful to distance itself from language that described sexual indulgence as itself wrong or harmful. Because the existing sex therapy network was antagonistic to an addiction model, one SLAA member, Patrick Carnes, who had a Ph.D. in counseling education, decided to start a new profession. He created the first certificate program in sex addiction therapy—the CSAT, or Certified Sex Addiction Therapist—and a companion organization, the International Institute for Trauma and Addictions Professionals, or IITAP. Today there are more than 2,000 certified CSATs nationwide.
Carnes himself was never a conservative religious activist, and the current president of IITAP, his daughter Stefanie Carnes, has gone to great lengths to distance the organization from any affiliation with religious conservative beliefs. IITAP has updated its curriculum to be LGBTQ inclusive and has denounced conversion therapy. It states repeatedly in its materials that it is nonreligious and insists that it does not have a moral opposition to pornography or sex work. Some of its therapists, like Rob Weiss, integrate sex addiction into a broader therapeutic framework that validates diverse sexual identities and practices.

 
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