I’m overwhelmed with sights and sounds as I walk into the convention centre for the first time. Electronic dance music thumps from giant loudspeakers. Men and women in underwear dance on poles and in cages. Sex toys in assorted shapes, sizes and colours hang off the walls of display booths, like stuffed animals at a carnival. “Come on over,” the vendors bellow. “Try our newest personal devices!”
This is Exxxotica, America’s largest and longest-running pornography convention, held over three days in Dallas last August. Unlike the hundreds of patrons and the dozens of vendors and pornography actors in the mix, I’m here to take a critical look at this multi-billion-dollar industry and to consider how some Christians are responding to it.
Amid the sensory onslaught, I head for an unlikely booth: XXXchurch, an evangelical non-profit based in Pasadena, Calif., that attends pornography conventions to provide support to Christians struggling with pornography addiction and to industry professionals looking for a way out. This booth is supposedly a refuge from the excesses of the event — the Eden of Exxxotica, if you will.
I locate it just steps away from some gyrating dancers. It’s not what I expected. No crosses. No images of Jesus. Instead, a hot-pink backdrop emblazoned with the group’s slogan, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars.”
A tattooed man in cargo shorts welcomes me. “I’m so glad you could make it out,” Carl Thomas Jr. says before hugging me. I’m taken aback by his forwardness.
Thomas is an outreach pastor with XXXchurch and the leader of this mission trip. He and 21 other Christian volunteers will chat up attendees all weekend with one goal in mind: to remind them that Jesus loves them. The group is chipper, willing to talk about God with anyone who will engage. For the less chatty, the Book of John is bound and labelled with the group’s tagline, laid out on tables and free for the taking.
“We aren’t here to stop you from looking at porn or buying it,” Thomas tells me. “We just believe that there is something far better than porn in Jesus.”
That XXXchurch is here testifies to the staggering growth of pornography in the age of the Internet. Most pornography now lives online, raking in billions a year. Viewers no longer have to head to sketchy adult shops or reach into the back row of magazine stands to get their fix. Instead, they can access professionally produced videos and photos from the privacy of their laptops or tablets.
Though it’s difficult to find current numbers, a Google search for “porn” yields over 300 million results, while the popular streaming site Pornhub recorded over 18 billion visits in 2014 alone, averaging 35,000 visitors worldwide per minute. A growing number of pornography viewers are addicted to it.
Curiously, mainline Protestants who take principled public stands on vices like alcohol, drugs, gambling and even atmospheric carbon seem to run for cover when it comes to pornography and the harm it can cause. And so the job of initiating dialogue and offering help is left to evangelical ministries like XXXchurch. Perhaps it’s time for all churches to talk about the birds, the bees and the potential risks of the porn explosion.
For a recovering pornography addict, Thomas spends a lot of time surrounded by porn stars. This convention is not the 44-year-old’s first: he’s been with XXXchurch for about five years, and in addition to flying from state to state with the ministry, he runs one of its online recovery support groups. Despite his past, he seems at ease at Exxxotica. It is strictly work — not once does he glance at the women in short latex skirts in the booths across from him. In fact, his wife, Katie, accompanies him on the trip, handing out Bibles and chatting up passersby. Before the convention, I ask if he ever feels tempted being around so much pornography — like an alcoholic in a bar. “Nah,” he responds.
It wasn’t always this way. Thomas was first exposed to pornography when he was 10 and found a Playboy magazine. He soon became hooked on images of sex and naked women, tuning into adult channels on cable TV while his parents were at work. As a young adult, he turned to the Internet.
After he married, he revealed his addiction to Katie, but the problem persisted. “I didn’t just confess and say, ‘Okay, now I’m done.’ I still continued to use it,” he says. “I didn’t want to use it, but I still kept failing and falling into it.”
He calls the moment he quit pornography “a perfect storm”: in 2010, he signed on through his New Jersey congregation for an outreach mission with XXXchurch — one just like the trips he leads today. “It was a God-given opportunity, because really, I had no business being in there with a pornography addiction,” he says. While there, he met a minister who explained the process of overcoming the addiction, “and something clicked.” Before the trip, he had enrolled in seminary, but the mission led him to his true calling. “I realized, ‘Hey, this is messed up. As long as I’m doing this, I’m always going to be getting second best,’” he reflects. Today, Thomas says he has been porn-free for five years.
His success story is the kind that XXXchurch prizes. Founded in 2002 by Craig Gross, the mission began as a small website to help Christians cope with porn addiction. “It’s so much easier to have an alcohol or drug problem in the church than a sex or porn problem,” Gross told the online magazine VICE last January. Clearly, he found a niche: 13 years later, XXXchurch.com averages anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors a month.
In 2002, the group also set out on its first outreach mission trip: the AVN Adult Expo in Las Vegas. Thomas and his associates now make tracks to six or seven pornography and sex conventions a year, hauling a silkscreen T-shirt press back and forth across the United States, with a stop or two in Canada.
On this August Friday, Thomas is operating the T-shirt machine. It’s a workout, he jokes, patting his biceps. Everyone who passes the XXXchurch booth, it seems, wants a free T-shirt proclaiming “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” in a garish typeface. Many laugh at the message but nevertheless agree to have their photo taken against the booth’s backdrop and to upload the image onto social media.
XXXchurch insists it’s not out to convert, but to preach. It’s little surprise that the crowd in Dallas seems keen to talk religion; this Bible-belt city is built on churches. By nightfall, Thomas and his group have handed out so many T-shirts that they shut down the press to preserve their stock for the remainder of the convention. Business isn’t always this brisk. Thomas admits that other, less churchy cities such as Vancouver have been “indifferent” and “cold” to the group’s message.
Ask any sex therapist: viewing pornography carries a risk, just like drinking alcohol or gambling. After 15 years in the field, sex therapist Paul Ricketts of Hamilton believes porn addiction has reached epidemic proportions. He has seen marriages unravel, jobs lost and heavy porn users beset with mental health issues. The problem, he says, is only growing: “I can work until I’m 150. That’s how much demand there is for help with porn addiction.”
Therapists including Ricketts agree that addiction to online pornography is fuelled by the “triple-A engine”: anonymity, affordability and accessibility. Many websites offer free videos without requiring users to set up an account — users remain anonymous, and what they watch is virtually untraceable. Moreover, there is little filtering: anyone can easily bypass a “must be 18” warning and view just about anything.
Addiction occurs, Ricketts explains, thanks to a dopamine rush viewers experience while accessing pornography; it’s the same sort of elation felt by problem gamblers or substance abusers. The desire to view pornography turns into an addiction when it becomes so frequent that it interferes with relationships and everyday responsibilities. Pornography’s particular allure differs for everyone: some addicts are compulsive, some desire control and power, while others struggle with attachment issues.
Having a porn addiction can be embarrassing. “That’s why there’s a huge self-help movement,” Ricketts says. Online, self-diagnosed porn addicts have created their own communities to cope. In a private message, one addict summed up the struggle: “You feel disgusted with yourself.”
People of faith are not immune to pornography’s dangers. Porn-addicted ministers have sought help at treatment centres for clergy such as the Southdown Institute in Holland Landing, Ont. Southdown addiction counsellor Elaine Dombi says problems often start with simple curiosity. “For the casual user, it feels good. But that use can pick up very quickly.”
A 2014 survey of 1,000 American adults by Proven Men Ministries, another U.S. evangelical group dedicated to leading men away from pornography and sexual addiction, found that two-thirds of men viewed pornography at least monthly; Christian men were no different. Overall, 13 percent of men (and less than three percent of women) said they were addicted to pornography — which is significantly higher than the 9.4 percent of American men who federal agencies say suffer from alcohol use disorders.
Unhealthy relationships with pornography can start at an early age. According to a 2008 study of American youth published in CyberPsychology and Behavior, 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had been exposed to porn before they turned 18. Other studies show that obsessively viewing pornography can alter the way human brains function, leading to issues with intimacy and sexual function. Men who become addicted to porn, for instance, may suffer erectile dysfunction because real-life encounters do not mimic the scenes they watch online. It may take teenage and young adult men longer than older men to reverse these effects because their brains are still developing.
(Child pornography, the industry’s darkest side, thrives on the illegal exploitation of minors coerced by abusive adults. This story will not explore this vast and disturbing topic, but focus instead on mainstream pornography.)
Despite evidence that pornography addiction is a growing problem, the American Psychiatric Association has not included it in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the addictions and mental health bible for those in the medical field. This omission is a point of contention: sex therapists and ministries like XXXchurch dismiss it (“We don’t really get into that. I don’t really care,” Thomas tells me), while the pornography industry uses it as a defence.
One Canadian pornography producer known as “The Madame” belongs in this camp. “The sites I’ve seen that address ‘porn addiction’ are Trojan horses for more nefarious intentions,” like stopping those who profit from sex from making a living, she explains in an email. “[They] don’t address real issues as to why people may overuse porn, mainly that people don’t have healthy attitudes toward sex.”
For some, addiction isn’t even the primary danger of pornography; it’s the exploitation of women by the porn industry. Stories of women forced into pornographic work by pimp-like agents went mainstream this year when Netflix began streaming Hot Girls Wanted, a documentary exploring teenage amateur actresses and their relationship with a shady agent in Florida. The film candidly depicts the discomfort of young performers engaging in forceful sex with older men.
Yet mainstream performers taking part in the Exxxotica show in Dallas insist that legitimate agencies and producers don’t mistreat women. “Most women in porn want to be there,” says agent and performer Shy Love. Everything is done according to contracts signed by all involved; producers and directors are obliged to ensure the performers are comfortable with the shoot and paid well for their work. The industry calls this “ethical porn” — and it tends to be the content consumers pay to view.
Combined with healthy sex education, mainstream pornography can actually enhance sex lives and open up a world of discovery and fantasy, say its defenders. That message certainly comes through loud and clear in Dallas.
After a long night of preaching and silkscreening, the XXXchurch crew gathers at a coffee shop for a Saturday morning pep talk. These meetings, Thomas tells me, help the team reflect on their experiences from the night before.
“You guys were great last night!” effuses Thomas. In just seven hours, the crew gave away more than 700 T-shirts. “I know I say this every time, but this was genuinely the best turnout I’ve seen.”
Next to me is David Domanski, a 23-year-old from Pennsylvania who has heard Thomas’s speech before. This is the fifth outreach mission he’s taken with XXXchurch. In many ways, Domanski is like Thomas: he was first exposed to pornography at age 12 and is now a recovering addict, leading one of the church’s online support groups.
Domanski is convinced that the pornography industry is rife with misery. “I just think everyone there [in the industry] is unhappy with their jobs,” he says. It’s a sentiment shared by the XXXchurch team. Recalling a group of female performers standing near a man she presumed to be their pimp, another member says, “They just looked trapped.” Others suggest starting a conversation with these women. “It’s amazing how great it feels when you know someone has been saved,” one member pipes up.
That afternoon, three young women from the crew make their rounds, gummy bears, bottles of water and energy drinks in hand. I trail a safe distance behind them. Mary Ferrer takes the lead. “We’re from the XXXchurch booth,” she tells the performers. “We thought you might need some water or snacks. We’re just over there if you need anything else.” Many of the stars flash a quick, forced smile and agree to take the goodies, whether or not they buy the group’s message.
‘The sites I’ve seen that address porn addiction are Trojan horses for more nefarious intentions. . . . [They] don’t address real issues as to why people may overuse porn, mainly that people don’t have healthy attitudes toward sex.’
On our way back to the XXXchurch booth, we pass a vendor selling sex toys that resemble bouncing tubes of cookie dough. Ferrer makes an awkward joke about the toys, suggesting their use could somehow be dangerous. The others giggle.
The three women seem oblivious to the discomfort they’re both experiencing and creating. Returning to their own booth, they wear self-satisfied grins. Ferrer is jubilant: “That went great!”
Slipping away from the ministry team, I chat up patrons and industry people to find out how they really view XXXchurch. Most of the dozens of patrons I speak to seem indifferent to the group’s presence. Some performers applaud the church for making its way into uncharted territory. But a few attendees are uneasy. “I just don’t understand it,” says one patron. “And no, I will not be taking a photo with them.” A performer named Stoya says she would rather the church left altogether. “If I were running the show, I wouldn’t have them here. But I’m not running the show.” She adds, “I don’t want their Jesus coffee.”
It’s easy to understand why a performer like Stoya might be suspicious of Christians. Throughout the weekend, six Christian men — members of the Louisiana-based Open Air Ministries — protest outside the convention centre, shaming those who enter and exit. I am called a whore each time I walk by. Their signs denounce women in the industry. “You deserve rape,” one placard reads.
When I stop to talk to them, Leonard Michaels tells me he too has struggled to overcome a porn addiction; but to enter the convention to preach is to “go into sin.” The protesters insist that XXXchurch’s decision to work from within the convention is “just plain wrong.”
“You’re going into temptation!” bellows another member named David Stokes. Days later, Open Air Ministries posts video of the men singing: “Old MacDonald had a whore, HIV galore.”
While XXXchurch’s effort to engage is certainly a step above Open Air Ministries’ attempt to shame, the two groups may have more in common than they realize. Both groups believe female performers are vulnerable and trapped and that pornography fans are on a path of destruction — all fallen people in need of salvation. But adopting a saviour complex blinds them to another possibility: that at least some performers have freely chosen the career, and that at least some couples and individuals can explore their sexuality through pornography without becoming addicted.
One chilly Sunday morning last January, sex therapist Paul Ricketts made his way to Lawrence Park Community Church, a United Church congregation in north Toronto, to deliver a low-key lecture on pornography addiction. The group of mainly older parishioners had never heard anything like it in church before. Afterwards, they peppered Ricketts with questions. Many asked about the science behind the addiction — they had no idea that a pornography dependency was even possible. Overall, Ricketts recalls, the response was overwhelmingly positive: “Many said, ‘I have more sympathy for [addicts].’ I think we’ve tended to see them as bad people, when they’re really good people with a bad addiction.”
The success of the morning is perhaps a sign that mainline Christians are keen to learn more about pornography and the harm it can cause, and that church is the place to talk about it.
But United Church members won’t get far if they look to their own denomination for guidance. It has been silent on the subject for decades.
Rev. Tracy Trothen, a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., lays out the brief history of the church’s stance on pornography in her book Linking Sexuality and Gender. In 1977, General Council declared pornography a sin because it “involves exploitation, hatred and violence; the buying and selling of the human body; and the degradation and dehumanization of our bodies and persons.” The statement was rooted in the second-wave feminist ideologies of Catharine MacKinnon and the late Andrea Dworkin, who believed all pornography was a form of violence against women. In 1983, the church’s Division of Mission in Canada established a task force on pornography. The following year, General Council endorsed the distribution of the task force’s educational kit, which described pornography as a negation of the United Church’s view of sexuality as an “expression of love and a form of intimate communication” between equals.
Since then, nothing. In the meantime, the production and consumption of pornography has grown colossally.
There are, however, other resources. The Southdown Institute offers lectures and workshops about pornography addiction. Sex therapists with theological backgrounds, such as Gary Collins and Mark McMinn, have written extensively on the topics of sexuality and faithfulness. Others, like Ricketts, make themselves available to visit churches to speak openly about pornography and sex.
It’s Saturday evening at the Dallas convention. As the day winds down, some of the XXXchurch women are loosening up. One playfully places stickers atop the pecs of a patron in a “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” T-shirt and giggles. “Make ’em dance!” she shouts until he flexes his chest up and down. For the first time this weekend, the team appears to fit in, perhaps finding some common ground with the porn stars flirting with men and posing for photos a few metres away.
By Thomas’s accord, the convention has been a success. Hundreds of T-shirts have been distributed. Dozens of photos have been uploaded to social media. Bibles have slowly disappeared from the tables.
Around 10 p.m., the convention centre begins clearing out for the night. But a few XXXchurch members are still preaching. “Jesus loves you,” one woman says. “And we’re here to talk about porn addiction.”
I walk away, wondering how long it will be until I hear the same conversations in churches back home.
This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Observer with the title “The topic churches won’t touch.”