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.
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.
Yet, the sex addiction model remains closely aligned with conservative Christian beliefs about sexuality, because it provides justification for pathologizing sex outside of committed monogamous marriage. The explicitly Christian facility where Long sought treatment, HopeQuest, is made up of counselors with the CSAT credential, and indeed, it was the credential I found most often associated with Christian sex and porn addiction treatment in my own research.
The Christian sex addiction treatment industry is embedded within a larger effort led by religious conservatives to criminalize pornography and crack down on sex work. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, or NCOSE, for example, hosts the largest gathering each year that brings together leaders from the Christian sex addiction industry with other groups working to criminalize pornography and crack down on sex work. Though a nonprofit, nonpartisan, and technically nonreligious organization, NCOSE got its start in the 1960s as an ecumenical group of clergy who called themselves “Morality in Media” and organized in opposition to pornography. Now the organization has expanded its work to eliminate what one spokesperson calls “sexual exploitation of any kind.” This including opposing all kinds of sex work—a term they denounce and instead refer to as “prostitution” or “trafficking.”
Long, the alleged Atlanta shooter, complained of persistent problems with pornography and told people close to him that he had used Atlanta area spas for sex. It is not yet clear any of the victims were sex workers, though reporting suggests Long viewed them this way.
In a statement released in the day after the Atlanta shootings, NCOSE expressed sympathy for the victims and emphasized that sex addiction is not an excuse for violence. Yet at the same time, it lumped in living sex workers with those killed, implicitly blaming them. All involved in sex work, including customers, are victims, according to its logic: “Buying sex inherently contributes to increased sexual violence against individuals in prostitution,” it said, and “no legal or regulatory framework can make commercial sex safe.”
Evangelicals’ core beliefs that all sex work is “inherently exploitative,” a phrase used by NCOSE, coupled with their attachment to sex addiction rhetoric, creates a lose-lose scenario for both sex workers and their customers. Men, like Long, are led to believe they consume porn or pay for sex because they cannot overcome their temptations and natural biological urges. People in the sex industry are both victims in need of rescue, as the rhetoric goes, but also a supplier of these perverse temptations. The racist stereotypes that fetishize women of color, especially Asian women, as seductresses in both sex work and porn are inextricable from how these groups frame the evils of porn and sex work, a dimension most of these groups have ignored.
Anti-porn and anti–sex work activists have suggested outbreaks of violence as in Atlanta are inevitable—if we don’t help men help themselves from these temptations, they may act out. (This despite a lack of reputable evidence that links hypersexuality and violence or aggression.) Many have even sought to legislate this idea: To date, 16 states, with bipartisan support, have passed resolutions declaring pornography to be a public health crisis. Each of these closely resembles an original resolution drafted by NCOSE leaders: All declare pornography to be “biologically addictive,” and most claim that viewing it directly causes violence.
The Atlanta shootings should spur profound soul-searching among these evangelicals about the messages they’re sending to young people, especially young men, about what their sexuality means for their character and the status of their souls. Instead, so far, leaders have insisted that Long’s alleged violence has no connection with them. “These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind for which Aaron is completely responsible,” his church said in its statement, condemning Long’s sexual desires as “depraved” in the same breath it washed its hands of him. (The treatment center where he was a patient has declined comment.) Long is not the first person to blame killing on sex addiction, and he likely won’t be the last. Christian sex addiction rhetoric alongside the anti-pornography and anti-trafficking movement offers a disturbing script for this violence.