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Please Back Away from the Porn: Sex-Addiction Groups for Evangelical Women

May 9, 2010

Chastity: Now Portable!

According to this article in the New York Times, a few American churches are beginning to worry about women and pornography.

Not “worry” in the sense that they’re afraid porn exploits women or objectifies them or anything like that, but “worry” because women might become addicted and thus be unable to fulfill their duties to their partner.

The group at the center of the article, Victory Over Porn Addiction, is led by a woman named Crystal Renaud, who also heads up a website called Dirty Girl Ministires and (not at all shockingly) plans to write a book with the same title.  My reaction to Renaud’s mission is a complicated one.  Much like Book 22, the Christian Sex Toy website, Renaud’s ministry scores points over the usual evangelical rhetoric by openly acknowledging the existence of female sexuality and, at least initially, appearing to embrace it.  Of the need for her work, Renaud says:

In the Christian culture, women are supposed to be the nonsexual ones.  It’s an injustice that the church is not more open about physical sexuality. God created sex. But the enemy has twisted it.

She and I agree, up to a point.  We agree that Christianity often pretends that women don’t like, need, or pursue sex for their own pleasure.  And we agree that this closed-minded view of sexuality – the refusal to openly acknowledge its existence – is an injustice.  And I’m not even going to disagree with her that pornography is a problem for a few people. So I’m initially tempted to check her efforts off under the “positive development” column and call it a day.

But I just can’t do that.  Because, while part of Renaud’s mission is to convince the church that women have an active sexuality, it appears that she only wants to acknowledge that sexuality in order to squelch it.

When Renaud describes her own relationship to porn, nothing she mentions seems particularly out of the ordinary in and of itself.  According to the Times piece:

She became interested in pornography at age 10 after finding a magazine in her brother’s bathroom. After that, she said, “I wasn’t able to get enough of it.”

“At school I wanted to go home and look at it more,” she said. “Then I went online. I’d stay late at the library to look at it. Eventually I got into masturbation, phone sex, cybersex.” She also cracked the code on the family’s satellite television service, she said. “That was my life for eight years.” Then, she said, she met a Christian woman who helped her stop.

Okay, so maybe the thing about the library is a little unusual.  When I was a kid, I didn’t even KNOW they had porn at the library!  But beyond that, her tale is one that we hear in raunchy sex comedies and coming-of-age stories all the time.  She discovered a magazine, got intrigued, and then kept searching for more avenues to explore this newfound interest.  The thing is, though, it’s a tale we hear all the time about boys, not about girls.  While Renaud claims that she wants the church to openly acknowledge women’s sexuality, in her own description of her early sex life she regrets doing exactly the same things that are by and large considered normal teenage behavior for boys in the U.S.

Now I realize that according to the evangelical church, the activities Renaud mentions are technically off-limits for men, too.  The all-around evangelical attitude towards sex tends to be “Only in marriage, with a person of the opposite sex.”  That’s the reason that the Book 22 sex toy website clearly proclaims itself to be a site for married couples only. Because enjoying sex or sexuality in ANY context outside of marriage is against the evangelical message.  Back in March of 2008, John W. Kennedy penned an article for Christianity Today about sex-addiction groups for men.  In it he implies that viewing internet porn even as often as once per month is too much.  So women are not the only ones on whom tight restraints are placed.

That being said, there are still vast differences in how “sex addiction” is defined, and those differences are largely gendered.  For example, in both instances the men and women talk about “temptation.”  When the women talk about being tempted, they clearly blame themselves for sinning.  They talk about their concern that their focus on porn and masturbation will prevent them from being able to be good mates for their husbands.  Take, for example, the case of Michele L.H.  The Times tells us that when Michele was young,

relatives sexually abused her and made her look at pornography as instruction in how to behave. As an adult she needed pornography to be aroused with her husband, she said.

Notice that all-important second portion of the quote.  Michele is concerned about her own behavior because “as an adult she needed pornography to be aroused with her husband.”  Again according to the Times piece she credits Renaud with saving her marriage.  But nothing is said – nothing at all – about the group helping her to address and overcome the abuse she suffered in childhood.  The big concern here is her performance with her husband, not her mental and emotional health.

“I’m learning the correct way of intimacy and bonds,” she said of the group. “It’s learning what your spouse wants, his needs.” In her first weeks, she recalled, she struggled to avoid masturbation.

“She’ll text me with loophole questions,” Ms. Renaud said. “I’ll say, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way.’ ”

“But I need to release myself,” Michele said.

“I’ll say, ‘O.K., pray about it,’ ” Ms. Renaud said. She added, “Distraction is a big part of recovery.”

It’s okay.  Pray.  Pray in order to eliminate that need to release.  But don’t talk about that stuff that happened to you as a kid.  Don’t worry about that.  That’s all in the past.  What matters now is that you’re addicted to porn.

Meanwhile, while Michele is being taught to serve her partner’s needs, the men participating in sex addiction groups have an entirely different perspective about what defines “temptation” and about how much personal responsibility they really have to accept for their behavior.  For his article in Christianity Today, Kennedy observes a meeting of Operation Integrity, a sex addiction recovery group stretching across several churches and founded by evangelical David Zailer.  The men in the group are asked to relate successes and failures from the preceding week, and a man named Sonny speaks up:

Sonny relates the temptation of seeing a curvaceous female wearing a string bikini at a nearby beach; not only that, she came up to him and started a conversation.

“Why would a woman be wearing a string bikini during the last week of October?” Sonny asks his tablemates, and then tells them he resisted the urge to exchange phone numbers.

We’ve all heard that one before.  Out of one side of his mouth Sonny proclaims his strength at resisting temptation.  Out of the other side, he clearly blames the woman for her very existence, blames her for standing in his path in a string bikini and daring to speak to him – to TEMPT him.  There is also plenty of information in Kennedy’s article implying that the participants in OI would not have entered the program had their wives not “caught” them pursuing “sinful” behavior.  One man entered the program after he was “caught by his wife looking at Internet porn before a Sunday morning church service.”  Another was “discovered by his girlfriend carrying on an emotional relationship in cyberspace.”

Kennedy is very quick to remind his readership, over and over and over again, of the major credo of most addiction/recovery groups: “an addict is powerless to change behavior on his own.”

There is no language like this in the description of the women’s group.  No one blames men, ever.  Ever.  And no one talks about the addict’s credo, that helpful reminder that sometimes the addiction is to blame, rather than the person.  Despite the fact that one woman was abused, for god’s sake, none of the women place onus on anyone but themselves. Take the words of another of Renaud’s participants, a 17-year-old known only as Kelsie:

“You have to take into consideration what’s best for the one you’re going to be with. Say someday I’m married and my husband can’t please me as much as I please myself. That’d be terrible.”

Terrible, Kelsie.  It would be terrible not to please these evangelical men.  They sound like real catches.

I admire a small portion of Renaud’s message.  It’s a brave woman who challenges the church’s notion that women are basically nonsexual, in any context.  I just wish that part of her mission was celebrating that sexuality, rather than labeling it as sinful and putting it in a Very Special Box to be opened only by a woman’s One True Love.  In buying into the church’s basic husband-and-wife mythology, Renaud isn’t really changing anything for women at all.  She’s just opening up a new door through which they can be criticized and made to feel guilty.  After all, a sexual woman with obvious desires is just another temptation, just another thing standing in the way of a man and his god.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    May 11, 2010 10:32 am

    It’s also interesting to me that this group exists to tell young women about their sexuality only after they’ve come to know something about it/come to ‘know’ that they have a ‘problem’ (which seems to amount to the same thing). In my own evangelical experience, I had the sense that the boys learned some things about dealing with desire–though, to be fair, this probably consisted in “no no no no!”–while the girls were generally treated as though we were asexual apart from the advances of boys. In fact, this was pretty creepily reiterated:

    -I remember vividly learning (during, of course, one of those lessons about how we should make sure never to have sex before marriage or even go “too far”) that when it came to sexual situations “girls are the brakes and guys are the gas.” Because, you know, we don’t really want it, and also it’s our responsibility to make sure that he doesn’t go too far/rape us? I should note that this was said in a large-group setting with both girls and boys in attendance.

    -One of my earliest Sunday School lessons on sex was in a curriculum designed exclusively for middle-school girls. It included a fictional story that was designed to serve as an object lesson, in which a girl was hanging out in church with her boyfriend, who tried to steer her away from the group and into a deserted back room. The following is a reconstruction from memory
    Jane knew that she shouldn’t be alone with Johnny, so she said “Wait, Johnny, I think we should really go back to the group. You know what Pastor Rick said about avoiding temptation…” But Johnny wouldn’t listen. He held her hand tighter and kept leading Jane down the darkened hallway, away from the voices in the Youth Room. “Don’t worry, Jane,” he said, “remember, Pastor Rick said that God will never let us be tempted beyond what we can bear.” Jane felt uncomfortable. She knew that Johnny was twisting Pastor Rick’s words to suit his own desires. But now she was at the end of the dark hallway, with her back against the wall–Johnny leaned in to kiss her. Over his shoulder, she glimpsed the glowing red emergency exit sign. ‘That’s it,’ she thought–and said “I’m sorry, Johnny,” before running out the door and into the gleaming light of the outside.
    Jane knew that God always provides us an Exit; there’s always a way out of sin.”

    Do I even need to comment on how awful and rapey that is??? Also, how terrible was it that we were learning this not just from pop culture, but in church? There’s a need for frank talk about sex and desire at this age, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to me that the evangelical church has gotten much better between then and now in doing it.

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