After decades of success in cinematic and VHS/DVD markets, the online sphere has become the new official residence of the pornography industry. Low overhead, increased speed, and near-limitless distribution offer an intersection of profitability that, despite serious setbacks related to piracy and DIY-culture, has led to unimaginable exposure. This increased presence of digital access to pornography has created a backlash of public concern and moral panic over medium-specific affordances—instantaneity, accessibility, and privacy—and one of the results of this social sensitivity is that “pornography addiction” has become mainstreamed as a mental health condition (despite the fact that it is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In 1994, Dr. Patrick Carnes normalized “sexual addiction” in Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, and as increased online pornography use officially entered the cultural domain of concern, the “powerlessness” that Carnes associated with sexuality addiction was also applied to unmanageable pornography consumption.
Recovery from sexual and now, pornography addiction, is typically organized through an adaptation—courtesy of Dr. Carnes—of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which includes the belief that “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” (Step 2). Despite this explicitly spiritual direction, non-religious individuals are implicitly invited into this belief system, and it has been successful for many. On the other hand, there has been a specifically Christian response to pornography addiction that highlights additional concerns during the recovery process. The most notable is the experience of shame from an individual’s church community, God, and their family due to their fall from purity. Because of this added dimension, therapy and recovery from pornography addiction in the Christian church is an isolating struggle. Interestingly, this struggle to maintain a strong religious identity while also individually working through issues related to pornography consumption has been successfully addressed in that same space that has lured individuals to turn away from God: online. The most successful (and criticized) of these Christian-based, online pornography addiction recovery sites is XXXchurch.com, a site that boasts they are “the largest site online and the most recognized voice on the planet on the issue of pornography.” In an interview with Martin Bashir for ABC News Podcast (2.27.2007), “Porn Pastor” J.R. Mahon noted that, “My inboxes are full with youth pastors, main pastors, and group leaders that struggle with this issue. A lot of them fear that if they talk about the dirty little secret, they will get canned.”
Unlike offline programs that center on group meetings, sponsorship, and public confession, XXXchurch—a “parachurch ministry”—offers a multimedia space that includes blogs, accountability and filtering software, X3pure (a 30-day online recovery workshop), videos, and a confession option, as well as offline “places” including speaking engagements, debates (with Ron Jeremy), representation at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, and awareness events such as Porn and Pancakes and Porn Sunday. While the ideology behind this Christian recovery process is similar to offline programs—put simply, purge your materials and turn back to God—the experience that XXXchurch offers is undoubtedly different. In fact, due to its non-traditional, media-centered, pop culture-oriented approach, this experience could be categorized as an intervention on traditional religious recovery practices. While the American church has, according to Mahon, “stuck their head in the spiritual sand, if you will, on the whole issue of porn,” XXXchurch has harnessed digital media to shine a bright light on it, “raise awareness about the true addictive and destructive nature of pornography,” and create a recovery practice that is propped up by the power of consumer culture and the promises of neoliberalism.
When you embark upon the home page of XXXchurch, you are immediately greeted with a large purple-hued rotating graphics banner that begins with an advertisement for X3pure, options for navigating the site, and a clear message: “Porn addiction is one of the most difficult addictions (remember the DSM point made earlier?) to overcome, but XXXchurch is your resource online to fight porn addiction.” After reading this introduction, you are given the option to take a test to see if you’re addicted and/or to donate to the maintenance of X3pure. Blog excerpts, event announcements, and confession excerpts take up the rest of home page space. At the top of the page, the user will find options to explore how XXXchurch addresses various identities: men, teens, women, parents, and the industry (this ministry includes recovery for members of the sex and adult industry). Users can then tailor their recovery experience based on these markers. As expected from any digital extension of our social condition, the men’s and women’s sites are gendered, the parent’s site is alarmist and cautionary, and the teen site is conversational: “We get it. We understand your world. Some of us are not much older than you. We are here to help and let you know you are not alone. There is hope.” Each of these sites offers various ways to connect with the online, anonymous, and Christian community; blogs and confessions are updated daily in order to provide support throughout the process. The 30-day online X3pure workshop ($99) is available for men, women, couples, and parents.
Through XXXchurch, founder Craig Gross has created a productive, online space that combines the offline recovery strategies of confession, group meetings, and sponsorship with the online affordances of anonymity, visual culture, virtual community, and streaming. Here, we find a Christian project that borrows from both offline and online spheres and privileges the navigation of the user rather than top-down organization while offering the promise of anonymity, a fundamental concern that circles around the shame of pornography consumption in this community. Aside from some obvious red flags concerning sourcing for their statistics (“online MBA,” “online education,” Internet Filter Review, USA Today, and CNET) and the dearth of discussion surrounding pornography content, XXXchurch’s success comes in the form of its ability to create a new, third space of digital religious practice that serves as a one-stop-shop for hip, Christian pornography addiction recovery. But while online users can participate in workshops, monitor their progress through accountability software, and connect (or prosume) with the XXXchurch community through blogs and confessions, they are also participating in the marginalization of pornography consumption in the Church by retreating to an online warehouse. The “elephant in the pew” is certainly discussed directly and openly in XXXchurch’s online space, but its digital affordances (i.e., anonymity) obscure the need to question the reason it prospers online in the first place.
By Rachael Liberman