Why Do Evangelicals Think Everyone Is Addicted to Porn?

In light of the news about the Ashley Madison hack (which itself contains questions about whether or not it is ethical to use the fruits of illegal activity to shame public figures), a lot of evangelicals have started up the conversation about pornography and sex addiction again. Tim Challies wrote this week about 7 Reasons To Stop Looking at Porn. Josh Duggar, in apologizing for his affair, initially wrote that he had become addicted to pornography and blamed his desire for other women on that (at least he didn’t blame his wife?). And John Piper has been harping for years about porn addiction, while simultaneously seeming unable to define what addiction is.

I grew up in the world of XXXChurch. My youth pastor partnered with them on occasion and they sponsored stages and booths at local Christian music festivals. XXXChurch is, first and foremost, an accountability program. It’s software that monitors your internet activity and sends an email to an accountability partner every time you look at or view porn. The goal was to prevent any activity that might be scurrilous or questionable. And all the testimonies of it, including some from friends of mine, spoke of porn as an addiction, as something they needed to be freed from, as a habitual sin into which they fell.

Now, I’m gonna get personal. I wrote about this stuff in the book, but I’ve not really written directly about it on the blog. I didn’t start exploring myself sexually until I was in my 20s. I didn’t even understand what arousal was until I was 21. I was so damn good at repressing any and all sexual feelings and sexuality that I didn’t quite understand what was going on when I became aroused, despite this being a fairly normal occurrence for the vast majority of people.

And I remember beating myself up for “becoming addicted” to masturbation. I had so little information about what addiction was or what it looked like that I thought my occasional, every couple of weeks stress release was a sign that there was something ridiculously, terrible, awfully wrong with me. I was addicted; I was sure of it. I wasn’t watching porn and I was really just exploring myself and figuring out what my body was like. But to my purity-culture infused mind, any desire to engage in the pleasure of sexuality outside of a commitment with a husband – especially as a woman – meant that there was something deeply and deadly wrong with me.

I feared the worst – that I was an addict and I couldn’t help myself. Despite all the evidence that I had perfect control and decision making capabilities over my supposed addiction and that it didn’t change how I scheduled my life or how I lived, I was so scared that I was becoming addicted that my journals from the time are full of pleadings to God to take the feelings away, to stop up my sexuality, to prevent me from sinning further.

Because I didn’t actually know what addiction was or what it looked like, it was easy to fill in the gaps of my knowledge with the idea that wanting to experience sexuality outside of a marriage exemplified some kind of corrupting addiction, instead of perfectly common sexuality.

Addiction is defined as “immoderate or compulsive consumption … despite adverse physical, psychological, or social consequences.” An addict is handing over a large portion of their control to this addiction, focusing their lives on when and where they will get their next “fix.” They may be able to function for a time in their regular life/society – hence the term “functioning alcoholic” – but all too often, this addiction catches up to them and they are unable to continue with their lives unless something changes.

Sexual addiction – which has an incredibly few number of studies performed on it – is the addictive prioritizing of sexual pleasure and desire, to the detriment of the personal life. Sex addicts will take major risks to receive their satisfaction, from looking at pornography at work to devoting large parts of their day to finding a new sexual partner. According to some researchers, sexual addiction may be a symptom of further personality disorders – for a long time, promiscuity was a diagnostic symptom of borderline personality disorder in women (which has its own complications).

But actual statistics are very hard to find, as there have not been reliable, credible studies on sexual addiction. Therapy groups online argue that 6% of Americans are addicted to sex while citing that a similar amount of Americans watch “1 to 10 hours of porn in a week,” bringing into question the sexual addiction statistics. The truth is: we simply don’t know how many people have a sexual addiction that meets diagnostic criteria.

A major part of the reason we don’t know is this ongoing pathology of sexual activity created by evangelical purity culture. Any kind of lust, any kind of sexual desire or arousal becomes a warning sign for sexual addiction, further convincing people that they are not in control of their own lives – further the sexual addiction narratives. To hear evangelicals talk, nearly every person who has every watched a movie with nudity in it is addicted in some way to pornography and sex.

But the pathologizing of everyday human interaction with their own bodies and their own sexuality is a further example of purity culture and the evangelical fear of our own bodies. Because sexuality is so scary and so fleshy and so much a part of our physicality, the conservative theological reading must reject any part of bodily experience as something pathologically wrong. Our very bodies, our very sexual experiences become fraught with fear of addiction, of sin, of destruction.

In such a world, addiction also becomes a convenient scapegoat for ownership of our own failings. Josh Duggar checked into a sex addiction recovery group this week. Pastors who cheat on their wives use the pathology of addiction as an excuse, though it’s statistically much more likely that the cheating pastor is simply a cad.

When we pathologize certain behaviors while simultaneously misunderstanding what that pathology actually means, we create a world of fear, a world of shame. We make it impossible for people to differentiate between normal sexual expression and experience and the dangerous, life-altering effects of sexual addiction. And that, of course, is the goal – evangelicalism thrives on the fear of our own bodies, so keeping us in the dark about potential addictions prevents us from actually confronting the idea that we might be sexual beings altogether.