by Ramona Richards
Dirty Little Secret
Men aren't the only ones lured by Internet porn. A revealing look at the shameful addictions of a rising number of Christian women.
34 %. That's how many readers of Today's Christian Woman's online newsletter admitted to intentionally accessing Internet porn in a recent poll. While many women wrote in to explain they'd accessed these sites to better understand what was luring their husbands time and again, it was the other e-mails—from Christian women who shared about their own Internet porn addiction—that caught our attention. Apparently online sex addiction isn't just a male problem anymore. Read on for startling statistics about this new phenomenon, personal insights from those who are hooked, information about pioneering ministries reaching out to these addicts, and hope that exists in the face of this disturbing trend.
Maggie* had promised herself she would stop. But at the end of another long day filled with work and errands, church and choir practice, carting her daughter to school and helping her with homework, she was beat. After she'd finally gotten her daughter to bed, Maggie fixed herself a cup of peppermint tea and sat down to read her e-mail. She vowed that was all she'd do.
It was a promise she broke less than 15 minutes later.
One of her e-mails was from Bob*, a man she'd met in a chatroom who'd helped ease the loneliness that had followed her divorce. After a sweet greeting, Bob wrote that he'd thought of her when he read a story online, and he included a link to the story. Maggie knew she shouldn't read it; she suspected it was an erotic story that would tap into an addiction she'd been trying to break for several months. But his words were enticing: She'd been on Bob's mind when he read it, and his interest in her made her feel important.
She clicked the link.
The story's heroine was smart, funny, and beautiful, and Maggie felt flattered. The story also aroused her, recalling the delicious intimacy and the physical "high" of sex she missed so much since her divorce. Maggie didn't want to let go of that, so she read another story. Then another. Some of the stories had links to photographs that showed couples gently caressing each other, then becoming more intimate. The high continued as long as she clicked.
As Maggie finished a fifth story, she reached for her teacup and discovered it was ice cold. Startled, she looked at the clock. It was after midnight, and she'd been surfing a porn site for more than three hours.
Disgusted, Maggie turned off her computer and went to bed. The high was gone and she felt lower than when she'd started. Tears flooded her pillow as she begged the God she'd known and loved for years to give her help, direction, and answers. She'd never felt so alone.
Not Just a Man's Issue
Unfortunately, Maggie isn't alone. One of the great myths about pornography addiction is that it's only a male problem. Although the church has begun to recognize that pornography addiction is almost an epidemic among Christians, most ministry programs still focus on men as addicts and their wives as victims.
Yet the statistics are both startling and terrifying: One out of every six women, including Christians, struggles with an addiction to pornography. That's 17 percent of the population, which, according to a survey by research organization Zogby International, is the number of women who truly believe they can find sexual fulfillment on the Internet.
Surprisingly, many of the women who find themselves drawn to online porn sites are much like Maggie, a respected business owner. These women are wives, moms, and sisters who all profess faith in Jesus Christ; they have normal jobs, attend church regularly, and sing in the choir. Though their lives appear normal on the surface, they're hiding a dirty little secret from their families, friends, and colleagues.
So how—and why—does an average Christian woman become addicted to pornography?
According to Marnie Ferree, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinician at the Woodmont Hills Counseling Center in Nashville, one of the few centers in the country that treats female sexual addiction, the draw of pornography can be as complicated as childhood sexual abuse—or as simple as unresolved loneliness. Marnie, a recovered sex addict and the author of No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Shame, counsels more than 50 women each year and fields calls from almost that many each month.
Typical of the type of women Marnie counsels is Julie, a young wife and mother from Georgia, who first saw pornography as a child in the home of a relative, and whose curiosity led her to explore it further as she grew older. She and her husband later rented X-rated videos after hearing it would help their faltering sex life. "That's the ugliest lie out there," Julie explains. "Instead of bringing you closer, it drives a wedge between you and your spouse!" As many couples who turn to porn experience, their marriage continued to falter, since they now also were dealing with unrealistic expectations. As the problems persisted, Julie's husband withdrew from her and she turned to porn to ease her increasing loneliness. "I was using it as a tool to escape the problems in my marriage."
Loneliness also is the reason Rose*, a single mom, turned to porn. She didn't go looking for it in the beginning. "I was seeking companionship. In chatting with other lonely people struggling in their marriages, I learned of some Internet sites I could visit to make friends and have fun. At first, the sexual talk in these chatrooms seemed harmless and non threatening. My loneliness and craving to feel wanted drew me into relationships I really didn't want."
Lacey*, who's 30 and single, wasn't particularly lonely, but she was in search of her "soul mate." She'd developed her ideas of romance and love from popular novels, and believed much of a woman's worth is based on her sexuality—which led her to Internet pornography.
Women desiring to find companionship often prefer cybersex and online chatrooms to porn sites that offer only pictures and graphic stories, but they eventually start surfing both. All forms of pornography can stimulate the user, releasing chemicals in the brain that act on the body in much the same way as cocaine does. It's an exhilarating but unfortunately short-lived euphoria. The loneliness returns, leaving the woman wanting more contact and more stimulation, thus creating the cycle of addiction.
This need for connection doesn't always stop at cybersex, which leads to one of the more alarming statistics about a woman's addiction to pornography. "More than 80 percent of women who have this addiction take it offline," says Marnie Ferree. "Women, far more than men, are likely to act out their behaviors in real life, such as having multiple partners, casual sex, or affairs."
The Lure of a Triple Threat
One of the lures of Internet pornography lies in the fact you don't have to go anywhere or spend any money to become seduced by it. More than 70 percent of porn sites offer free images and stories to draw in people. The abundance of sexually related "spam" (unwanted e-mails) also lures many unsuspecting computer users. According to Marnie, easy access is one of the three As of pornography: accessibility, anonymity, and affordability, reflecting research reported by the Sexual Recovery Institute of Los Angeles. That combination makes becoming an addict incredibly easy.
And, since more than 25 million people visit porn sites every week and one out of every ten websites is dedicated to explicit sex, this industry is quite profitable. The mere financial details about online pornography are overwhelming. Seventy-four percent of all revenue collected online comes from porn sites, which amounts to almost $1.2 billion annually. Thirty-one percent of all online users have visited porn sites, and 60 percent of all website visits are sexual in nature.
Beth, a former missionary and one of Marnie's clients, knows about this firsthand. "I would spend literally hours on the computer surfing for porn. At one point, I spent three to five hours daily. I neglected the very thing I longed for: relational intimacy with my friends."
Rose neglected her housework, even her children. Julie neglected her husband and her home, often spending all day on the computer. Maggie says it was her spiritual life that suffered the most: "When you're not doing it, you're thinking about it. Pornography crowds out God and everything else."
Lacey agrees. "The thought of reading porn, or alternatively, the condemnation I felt once I'd fallen into sin, took a lot of time. I would go to church and think about how I didn't deserve to be there."
"It's an insidious industry," Maggie says. "I hate it. And I hate that I kept going back."
Most women addicted to pornography struggle to understand themselves and why they have a compulsion they can't ignore. They long for help, yet they hesitate to seek it because they feel ashamed and alone.
"No one plans to get hooked on this," Maggie says. "I thought this would be an answer to my loneliness, but it only made it worse. I was so ashamed of what I was doing that I isolated myself."
"I always felt condemned," says Lacey. "I felt like an insect—scared of coming into the light—and I wanted to stay in the shadows as much as possible." Julie also felt "very removed from church and my girlfriends. I felt like I wasn't human. Like I was the only one dealing with this."
Beth agrees. "I thought no other women struggled with this addiction. By feeling all alone, I lost hope." Rose is even more blunt. "I thought the Lord never would forgive me."
The Path to Hope and Healing
The first step toward healing for an addict is to realize she's not alone. She needs to know there are people out there who understand and can reach out to her in love.
"Women addicted to porn need professional therapy with a Christian counselor and a renewed sense of kinship with other women who understand," says Marnie. "The worst thing you can do with these women is lecture them about praying more or asking God for help. They've already done that, often to the point of despair. They do need to be held accountable for their sins, but they also need help, support, and unconditional love."
The first few people Maggie turned to for help told her all she had to do was get rid of her computer. "That's nonsense," she explains. "I use my home computer every day for my business. That wouldn't stop my addiction, only one way to access it."
Lacey also sought help many times, with similar results: "I'd told friends and pastors, but I discovered that many people who should be able to help aren't completely equipped to deal with a woman's addiction to porn." She finally found assistance in the same place she'd found her addiction: the Internet. "Setting Captives Free helped me the most," she says, referring to the Internet-based ministry that offers a free 60-day interactive online course—available to individuals and churches—for people trapped in sexual addiction. "The journey to recovery isn't easy. Am I 'there' yet? No. Breaking this cycle is one of the hardest things I've ever done."
Rose also found help on the Internet from Pure Life Ministries, which provides numerous resources, including guided studies with qualified counselors and curriculum to be completed at home, to help sexual addicts. Beth and Maggie eventually turned to a Christian counselor to assist in their recovery process. Julie sought help from her husband, then gave up her computer for a while and still limits her use.
Donna Rice Hughes, president of Enough Is Enough, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing the ills of Internet porn and to making the Internet safe for families, says a program isn't enough. "I don't believe true healing can happen without the power of Jesus' blood," she says. "Many people in the church struggle because while they've changed their behavior, the images from pornography exposure still are there. Christ has to renew their minds."
Donna also strongly recommends Internet filtering tools, as well as getting an accountability partner who can check the monitoring feature most of these programs offer. "God calls us to understand our culture and the temptations we face, and warns us to guard our hearts and minds. We can't just ask him to protect us and not take practical steps. We have to do everything we know how to do, then pray for spiritual protection, because in many ways this is a spiritual battle."
As Maggie worked with a trained therapist to overcome her addiction, she also found help in reading the Bible and journaling. There's a verse in Corinthians that hit home for her: "We must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever" (, MSG). "I love that verse," she says. "I'm making it my life's theme."
Beth, who underwent counseling with Marnie Ferree, knows healing is a matter of taking small steps. And someday she hopes to use her experiences to help others.
"God's calling me to take steps of faith out of hiding and shame," Beth says. "The truth is, many people, well-meaning Christians especially, aren't aware of how prevalent this struggle has become among women. But there are those who understand." As well as a God who freely offers his healing and hope.
*Names have been changed