Produced in collaboration with the Association of Religion Data Archives.
(RNS) — The details emerging from the Atlanta, Georgia, massacre that left eight people dead are chilling. At present we know that Robert Aaron Long, a white Georgia resident, targeted Asian women working in massage parlors that he frequented. We also know Long was a committed evangelical Christian who has cited his “addiction” to sex and pornography as cause for him to “eliminate” temptation by murdering the women in cold blood.
What are we to make of this excuse?
According to survey research, Long is not an outlier in his experience with sex and pornography addiction. In fact, data from the 2019 Public Discourse and Ethics Survey (Figure 1) show that even though evangelical men are far less likely to be frequent porn viewers compared to non-evangelical men, roughly 30% of evangelical men consider themselves “addicted to pornography,” nearly one-third more than their non-evangelical counterparts.
We know Long was a member of a Southern Baptist church and had previously visited a Christian addiction treatment center that specialized in sex and porn addictions. It’s easy enough to search the internet and find Christian support programs for sex and pornography addiction recovery — though diagnoses are controversial and not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
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As sociologists, we’ve sought to dig deeper than surveys and the official messaging of porn addiction programs to hear the stories of people who have been through them. Both of us have interviewed participants from different programs, some explicitly Christian and others irreligious. Nearly all participants were themselves religious, and most were, like Long, conservative Protestant white men.
White conservative Christians are among the most vocal proponents of laws that crack down on porn production and consumption, while pushing the cultural message that pornography is wrong. According to the 2018 General Social Survey, roughly half (49.1%) of evangelical Christians would support an outright ban on all porn, which is nearly double the percentage of non-evangelicals (25.3%). In the 2014 Relationships in America Survey, only 10% of evangelical or fundamentalist Protestants felt viewing pornography was morally acceptable.
Still, Christian sex and pornography addiction treatment programs present mixed messages about men and porn. Across all of our interviews, participants agreed that pornography was morally wrong but also that it’s natural and normal for men to desire sex and pornography.
A common metaphor was that men’s brains are “wired” in a way that makes them biologically preconditioned to become sexually aroused by visual stimuli. Christopher, a 28-year-old white evangelical, says that pornography addiction was a “physical manifestation in my brain.”
The wife of a pornography addict, Deborah, a 52-year-old white evangelical, describes it as a “sexual high” from “all the chemicals — all the endorphins going to your brain.” This language emphasizes natural biological processes, rather than language of sin or poor choices, to explain how men become addicted to pornography.
In effect, ready appeals to “addiction” create rhetorical distance between the man and his behavior. Heather, a participant of a Christian women’s group for dealing with men’s porn addiction, said she once thought pornography was only a “moral issue,” but now she doesn’t see it that way.
“When I started to realize what pornography really did to the brain — I mean, it really caused changes in the brain — that’s when I started to get it, and why it is so hard to quit,” she said. “Once I learned that, grace was much easier to show.”
After all, guys struggle with lust. It’s “every man’s battle,” to quote the popular Christian recovery text. And the temptation of porn or immodestly dressed women or exotic massage parlors are like sirens luring entranced sailors to their deaths. How can they resist?
But evoking the idea of powerlessness turns out to be more rhetoric than reality. As we showed above, evangelical men are relatively unlikely to view pornography with any regularity that would suggest a clinical problem. Even fewer would qualify as out-of-control sex addicts. Still, the growth in popularity of sex and porn addiction rhetoric among evangelicals means that men can maintain their status as church leaders and members, husbands and fathers, all while admitting to the “struggle” of sex and porn.
Thus, white, cisgender Christian men in pornography addiction recovery programs can admit to being “powerless” over their pornography addiction without actually losing their positions of power.
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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. But we should make no mistake that it was the toxic combination of racism and misogyny that exists both within evangelicalism and broader American culture that compelled him.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religion Data Archives made possible through the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other 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 a co-author of “Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States.” Kelsy Burke is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska Lincoln and the author of “Christians under Covers: Evangelicals and Sexual Pleasure on the Internet.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)