How the defense of “sexual addiction” shields evangelical men

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Produced with the Association of Religion Data Archives.
(RNS) The details emerging from the eight-person massacre in Atlanta, Georgia, are chilling. Currently, it is known that Robert Aaron Long, a white Georgian, targeted Asian women who worked in massage parlors he frequented. We also know that Long was a devout evangelical Christian who cited his addiction to sex and pornography as the reason he murdered the women in cold blood to eliminate temptation.
What should we make of this justification?
According to survey data, Long’s experience with sex and pornographic media addiction is not exceptional. In fact, according to data from the 2019 Public Discourse and Ethics Survey (Figure 1), although evangelical men are significantly less likely to be frequent porn viewers than non-evangelical men, roughly 30 percent of evangelical men consider themselves addicted to pornography, nearly one-third more than non-evangelical men.
Survey of Public Discourse and Ethics (August 2019)
Long was a member of a Southern Baptist congregation and had previously visited a Christian addiction treatment facility specializing in sex and porn addictions. It is simple to find Christian support programs for sex and pornography addiction recovery on the internet, despite the fact that these diagnoses are controversial and not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
As sociologists, we have endeavored to delve deeper than surveys and the official messaging of porn addiction treatment programs in order to hear the experiences of those who have participated in them. Both of us have conducted interviews with program participants, some of whom were explicitly Christian and others who were not Nearly all participants were religious, and the majority, like Long, were conservative white Protestant men.
This booking image supplied by the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office depicts Robert Aaron Long on March 16, 2021. Authorities said that Long was arrested as a suspect in the fatal shootings of multiple Asian women at three massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Image courtesy of the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office
White conservative Christians are among the most vociferous advocates for laws that restrict the production and consumption of porn, while also promoting the cultural message that pornography is unacceptable. According to the 2018 General Social Survey, nearly half of evangelical Christians (49.1 percent) would support an outright ban on all porn, nearly double the percentage of non-evangelicals (25.3 percent ). According to the 2014 Relationships in America Survey, only 10% of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants viewed pornographic viewing as morally permissible.
Christian sex and pornography addiction treatment programs continue to send mixed messages regarding men and porn. In all of our interviews, participants agreed that pornography is morally wrong, but that men’s desire for sex and pornography is natural and normal.
According to a common metaphor, men’s brains are wired in a way that biologically preconditions them to become sexually aroused by visual stimuli. Christopher, a white evangelical of 28 years of age, asserts that my pornography addiction manifested physically in my brain.
Deborah, the 52-year-old white evangelical wife of a pornography addict, describes it as a sexual high from all the chemicals and endorphins going to the brain. To explain how men become addicted to pornography, this explanation emphasizes natural biological processes rather than sin or poor choices.
In effect, appeals to addiction establish a distance between the man and his behavior. Heather, a member of a Christian women’s group for dealing with men’s porn addiction, stated that she once believed that pornography was solely a moral issue, but no longer holds this view.
When I realized what pornography actually did to the brain, i.e., how it caused actual brain changes, I began to comprehend why it is so difficult to quit, she said. Once I realized this, displaying grace became much simpler.
Ultimately, men struggle with lust. It is every man’s battle, as the popular Christian recovery text states. And the temptations of porn, immodestly attired women, and exotic massage parlors are comparable to sirens that lure sailors to their deaths. How can they hold out?
However, invoking the concept of powerlessness is more rhetorical than actual. As demonstrated previously, evangelical men are unlikely to view pornography frequently enough to indicate a clinical problem. Even fewer would qualify as sex addicts out of control. Despite this, the increasing popularity of sex and porn addiction rhetoric among evangelicals allows men to maintain their status as church leaders and members, husbands, and fathers while admitting to sex and porn addiction.
Thus, white, cisgender, Christian men in recovery programs for pornography addiction can admit to being powerless over their addiction without losing their positions of power.
Given Longs’ exposure to Christian porn addiction recovery rhetoric, it is likely that this exposure contributed to his claim that his out-of-control sex addiction was responsible for his heinous acts of violence. But there should be no doubt that he was motivated by the toxic combination of racism and misogyny that exists within evangelicalism and broader American culture.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaboration between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. View additional Ahead of the Trend articles here.
(Samuel L. Perry is an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Addicted to Lust: Pornography in the Lives of Conservative Protestants and Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Kelsy Burke is a sociology associate professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the author of Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet. These opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

Summary

(RNS) Given Long’s exposure to Christian porn addiction recovery rhetoric, it likely contributed to his claim that his out-of-control sex addiction fueled his atrocious violence.

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