It was an email that prompted Gary to finally come clean.
A man in his Bible study group had written to the other members, confessing to a pornography addiction. After reading the admission, Gary closed the door to his Dallas office and stared out his window for an hour, stunned into silence.
“I was completely blown away by his courage,” said Gary, who asked that his real name not be used. “I met with this guy every week for the purpose of being honest with one another. I could not sit here and have this one-way relationship and continue to lie to him about my own sin.”
After several agonizing weeks of inner debate, Gary sat down with his friend and owned up for the first time about his sexual addiction. He spoke about how it began with the occasional glance at magazines as a kid; how it bloomed into something worse when his office was equipped with Internet access; how pornography had been “the gateway” to strip clubs, prostitutes and a lifetime of self-hatred.
“That’s what makes it different than alcohol, drugs, gambling,” Gary said. “This is fundamentally different and more difficult because of the tremendous shame attached to it.”
Widespread Internet access and a booming video industry has profoundly intensified pornography’s pull on America. The potent cocktail of instant access and anonymity is creating more addicts, many who can’t stop looking whenever they’re connected, whether from office cubicles or home desktops, according to past addicts and experts.
But as a problem many find unseemly is snaring more victims, those directly affected are refusing to stay quiet, and some Christian groups are addressing the problem straight on with persistence and tact.
Viewing pornography is the most popular activity on the Internet. Of all Americans online in September, visitors to adult sites made up the largest group with 18 percent, according to Hitwise, a company that measures Internet audiences. The next largest groups were visitors of search engines and directories, making up 14 percent, and email services at 9 percent.
Ava Cadell, a clinical sexologist in Los Angeles, has prescribed looking at pornography in the past for couples with intimacy issues. Yet she’s noticed a rise in Internet porn addiction, indicating that some people are having trouble handling the unlimited access.
Porn “can enhance relationships and add variety, but things are only good in moderation,” Cadell said. “It can infringe upon your life and become destructive.”
A 2002 survey of members of the American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers showed almost two-thirds had seen the Internet play a major role in recent divorce cases. Of those, 56 percent said a problem cited was an “obsessive interest in pornographic sites.”
“People who previously wouldn’t access it are now accessing it,” said Dr. Dan Greenfield, author of Virtual Addiction. “It lowers the threshold to act out in this way, and people are having trouble handling it.”
Greenfield is the founder of the Center for Internet Studies in Connecticut and treats online pornography addicts. His patients are almost always men because they’re generally more turned on by visual stimuli, he said.
In many ways, porn addiction is like any other addiction, Greenfield said. For addicts, porn produces feelings of pleasure, followed by depression brought on by shame, which leads to the desire to look at more porn. The cycle of depression and elation is similar to that experienced by other types of addicts.
The Internet can amplify those feelings by making accessing porn so convenient and private, Greenfield said. “You combine [the Internet] with a very stimulating and potentially addictive content form and it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire,” he said.
Confronting the habit
For Bernie Anderson, a pastor at a suburban Dallas church, it was the anonymity that made online pornography irresistible.
Anderson, 33, said he started visiting porn sites in 1996, while a pastor at a church in Arlington.
“You fall into this cycle of habitual use, and you’re hooked before you know it,” he said.
Anderson finally faced his addiction last October.
“I told a fellow pastor,” he said. “Immediately I felt like shackles had begun to fall off my body.”
Once he committed to freeing himself of the habit, Anderson attended a sexual-addiction workshop and has remained porn-free, or as he and other former addicts refer to it, sober. He soon spoke to the leaders of his church about his problem and his interest in addressing other pastors about it. He has since spoken to groups around the country about his addiction and rehabilitation.
It was the porn addiction of a fellow pastor that made Bob Roberts realize churches weren’t doing enough about porn addiction.
Brooks, senior pastor at NorthWood Church for the Communities in Keller, described how helping a pastor from another local church about two years ago made him aware of how serious a problem porn addiction was.
“I literally had to help him step down from his church and he … had to put his life back together,” Roberts recalled.
He chose to research the issue and devote four weeks of sermons to the topic.
“Obviously we were nervous about it,” Roberts said. “What would people think of a church talking about pornography?”
The response was unexpected. The church had some of its best attendance, and several men came forward to confess their own addictions to porn.
The church now holds two support groups for men with sexual addictions and a separate one for the spouses of addicts. In addition, a mass mailing to the community sought to spread awareness of the dangers of pornography addiction. On the cover of the literature was a computer.
“I think it was a problem [before the Internet], but I don’t think it was anything near what it is now,” Roberts said. “It’s probably one of the least addressed issues in our society today.”
In February, billboards along Interstate 30 and the North Dallas Tollway offered a blunt suggestion: “Her gift for Valentine’s? Stop looking at porn.”
The ads were bought by NetAccountability, a Christian company in Dallas devoted to helping people drop the porn habit. Its software doesn’t filter out porn sites, assuming addicts will find a way to bypass it. Rather, it allows a person trusted by the user to see what sites he or she has visited.
Company founder Brandon Cotter helped create the software in 2000 as a response to what he sensed was a growing problem. Thousands are using the service, he said.
“So much of the Christian community is trying to fight this battle in a judgmental, confrontational kind of way. You know, like you’re going to hell,” Cotter said. “We’re not here to say you’re a sinner.”
Cotter sold the software this year to BeSafe, an online filtering company. He’s now focused on offering a more hands-on approach to porn addiction.
The group held its first workshop for men recovering from porn addiction and other forms of infidelity in March under the name Pure Restoration. All paying about $1,000, men from across the country came to Dallas for the four-day addiction-recovery program.
The success of the first workshop showed that there was a market for such a service, Cotter said. Along with planning similar sessions, the company launched an online version of the program, Pure Online, last month.
Pure Online will comprise short lessons designed to be accessed online over 30 days, Cotter said. It includes a step midway in which users confess to a close friend about their problem. The program costs $99. The product’s tagline: “30 Days to Purity.”
Cotter said the program was designed not just for addicts, but for casual viewers of porn who feel vulnerable to becoming addicted and for those who can’t afford the four-day workshop.
“It’s an Internet-based problem, so we just felt it was a good idea to let people get help online,” he said.
At the National Youth Workers Convention in Dallas this month, more than 200 Christian youth workers listened to Craig Gross talk about porn.
In 2002, Gross and his partner, Mike Foster, began the online ministry xxxchurch.com. They have since gained national attention as being the Christian ministry willing to push the envelope to get out their message about porn.
“The church, for the most part, is uncomfortable talking about pornography,” Gross, 28, of California, told his audience.
It quickly became clear that Gross was perfectly comfortable talking, even at times joking, about porn. For over an hour, he spoke about nothing else. He screened video clips of him and Foster attending porn shows and speaking with sex addicts in an attempt to better understand the world of pornography and reach its members.
He also spoke about Jimmy DiGiorgio, a veteran pornographer who shot a commercial about protecting children from porn for xxxchurch. The move was condemned by many as giving tacit approval of the adult business lifestyle, Gross said.
“It’s about people, not porn,” Gross said. “We knew we were going to shock people.”
Xxxchurch.com has received more than 50 million visitors, which is proof, he said, that the best way to reach people is to make clear you’re not judging them. He referred to the approach he and groups such as Pure Restoration use as a direct response to the right-wing approach of Christian leaders like Pat Robertson.
“We didn’t get into this because of an addiction to porn. We got interested because we didn’t want the new face of Christianity to look like [that] ,” Gross said.
Help is out there
One of the main goals of these anti-porn crusaders, they say, is to make it common knowledge that anyone can become addicted to porn.
Gary says he’s been sober for two years this month. Soon after he told the friend from his Bible study group in 2002, he confessed to his wife. He later told his closest friends and members of his church.
Now, local pastors regularly refer people struggling with porn and sexual sin to speak to him, he said. In many ways, only someone who has submitted to temptation as he has can understand the difficulty of overcoming it, he said.
“I know full well that when I confessed to my church, some men were going to gather their children closely around them when I walk by,” he said. “For other men, one of the most powerful things I can do is help them understand you’re not alone.”
By the numbers
33 — million visitors to adult Web sites in August
71 — percent of visitors that were male
13 — percent of visitors younger than 18
78 — average number of minutes spent at an adult site