The Next Big Challenge for Clergy
The temptation of online sex sites seduces evangelicals
Paul M. turned up at his pastor's house five weeks ago, in the middle of the night. "In the pouring rain," says Paul. "It was like something out of a movie. But I was desperate, and that's what pastors are for, right?"
Paul hadn't committed murder, or realized he was an alcoholic. He wasn't flirting with atheism. He was spending two hours a day glued to his computer screen, hooked on web porn.
Paul--a Boston-based 28-year-old graduate studentin sociology--says praying with his pastor put him on the right track. But he's not taking any chances. "For now, my computer is in thegarage." A Baptist who was born again at age 12, he says he used to "walk right with the Lord." But once he was hooked on web porn, he began skidding down what could have been "a slippery slope into debauchery."
Evangelical Christian leaders are increasingly worried about web porn, especially among clergy. It's hardly news that, like everyone else, evangelicals sometimes get burned-out and lonely. But it is surprising that in a community that puts so much emphasis on combating sexual sin--premarital sex, homosexual sex, and adultery--stressed-out evangelicals are turning to web porn for relief.
And not all pastors are as helpful as Paul M.'s. Many Christian ministers, it turns out, are also logging on late at night.
"This is going to be the next big challenge for the pastorate," predicts Eldon Fry, manager of Focus on the Family's Pastoral Care hotline (877-233-4455). "In terms of immoral things that really catch pastors in temptation, this is the big one."
Fry says pastors are often stressed to the breaking point and have no one to lean on. "One way they can relieve their stress when they can't be intimate with other people is to go to the false intimacy of web pornography." (Recall the scandal at Harvard Divinity School when, in the fall of 1998, the Rev. Ronald F. Thiemann was forced to resign as dean after thousands of pornographic pictures were found on his school computer.)
Fry said a quarter of his hotline's monthly calls from ministers and their spouses have to do with web-based porn. He has even compiled a sampler of some of the hotline's most notable calls: One pastor finds the internet is not enough and has taken to visiting topless bars; another began with the internet but then started calling 900 numbers; a minister in an interracial marriage feels isolated and relieves his stress and loneliness at sexy web sites.
The congregation at one major church has had an especially rough year--the senior pastor had an affair; as he vacated the post in scandal, church staffers discovered that the minister in line to take over had spent hours at church surfing porn sites.
A pastor's wife called the hotline recently to report that her husband had been on a porn site not three minutes before he climbed into the pulpit Sunday morning.
Dr. Mark Laaser, director of Faithful and True ministries, an organization that counsels Christians struggling with sexual sin, says web porn may become the number one problem facing the church in the next few years.
"It's an epidemic," says Laaser. "People are getting addicted to it. All the classic signs of addiction apply. They get totally out of control." Laaser said one man he counseled recently spent $85,000 accessing web porn in just one month.
In March, Focus on the Family and Zogby International surveyed 1,031 adults--Christian and non-Christian--and found as many as 20% of American adults have looked at a sex site online. The number, Focus says, is about the same for Christians: One in five people in the pews has looked at web porn. Broken down further, the survey shows that one in every three men has looked at a sex site, and close to half of men under 35.
Privacy--and lack of accountability--help to explain the increased interest in porn. "There's a whole population of adults getting hooked who wouldn't have before," says Laaser, "because of the socialprohibitions on purchasing pornography in a drug store orbookstore. Now they're just a click away in the privacy of their own home."
Laaser says women are increasingly wandering into the once-male preserve of pornography. As recently as five years ago, women who got sucked into cybersex usually stuck to chat rooms. Now they are heading straight to the porn sites.
Although Christians are interested in tackling porn from the demand side, they haven't overlooked the question of limiting access to web porn. Last spring, Laaser testified before a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce committee. He urged Congress to crack down on web porn.
Both political parties talk about responsible web use. But, says Steve Watters, Focus's internet research analyst, "when it comes to something like this, both sides are being lobbied by the tech industry not to limit free expression on the internet."
When political candidates are willing to talk about web porn, they usually talk only about children. And even then, they are not taking a forceful enough stand to satisfy some Christians. For the mostpart, politicians want to put the responsibility on parents, but that'snot practical, because parents have their own problems with web porn,Watters says.
Watters has developed a website calledPure Intimacy
. Many Christians tackling the problem of web porn, says Watters, are worried about the supply side. "They approached it by saying, 'If we can just regulate the amount of porn that people have access to.'"
But Watters took another tack: he wanted to know "What drives people to porn? Can we redirect that drive to something healthier?" Like Fry, he believes people turn to pornography because they are looking forintimacy.
Focus has run two ad campaigns (on the LookSmart search engine) and spent almost $40,000 in advertising. The ads popped up whenever users typed in "sex," "porn," or some other related word. Both campaigns, says Watters, "were very successful--generating 5-10% response rates against an industry average of less than 1%." Since Pure Intimacy launched last summer, over half a million people have visited the site. Many of them stumbled onto it by accident.
"Numerous visitors have e-mailed to tell us that they were looking for porn when they saw the ads and were drawn to our site," says Watters.
The website tells porn users that healthy intimacy is found with two partners: one's spouse, and God. "People need to build a healthy marriage. But even a spouse can't meet all of someone's needs. Only a relationship that applies intimacy with God to intimacy with a committed relationship" can be fulfilling, he said.
Paul M. seconds that. "It's like someone who overeats when they'reunhappy," he says. "I am learning now not to turn to pictures of nakedwomen when I'm lonely, but to turn to God."
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