Clay Allen, a successful real estate executive and a pillar of his church, was through hiding. He stood before his congregation to confess. Word after sordid word spilled down the aisles, where his wife sat among disbelieving churchgoers.
For the previous 15 years, Allen said, he had been addicted to pornography and prostitutes. He had once promised himself to become “the best Christian known to man,” but now his double life had nearly driven him to suicide and wrecked his marriage.
Churches have long campaigned against pornography in the marketplace and on the Internet. But few have faced down the sexual demon in their own pews and pulpits like this.
Allen, who confessed to the East Bay Fellowship in suburban Danville, Calif., in 1994, went on to create a “sexual recovery ministry” at the church last year. Hundreds of men have since gathered weekly to rid themselves of addiction through biblical teaching and “accountability” groups.
Allen’s odyssey is perhaps the most dramatic example of how a small but growing number of evangelical and Pentecostal churches across the U.S. are starting sexual recovery programs.
Most churches are uncomfortable admitting that the faithful could be hooked on porn, and confession is especially shameful for church members torn between their behavior and biblical virtues. The ministries also come in for criticism from some secular sex therapists, who oppose injecting religion into what they consider a clinical issue best left to professionals.
But anecdotal reports suggest that growing numbers of church members and pastors are being ensnared by addiction to pornography, in large part because they can easily access it anonymously on their computers.
“It’s just thick in the church,” said Pastor Ted Roberts of East Hill Church in Gresham, Ore., a recovering porn addict and a pioneer in sexual recovery ministries. “We love to point fingers at the world, but we’re not taking care of our own dirty laundry.”
* Promise Keepers, the evangelical men’s movement, reports that one out of three men who attended its revival-like rallies in 1996 admitted that they “struggle” with pornography.
* A major Pentecostal denomination that operates a telephone hotline for pastors and their families says that 25% of the calls involve porn addiction.
* Focus on the Family, founded by Christian psychologist James Dobson, reports that one out of seven pastors who call its toll-free help line say they are addicted to pornography.
“With over 100,000 porn sites it’s as easy as referencing a Bible verse,” said the Rev. H.B. London, who heads Focus on the Family’s program.
Sex Recovery Ministries
More than 200 pastors and lay leaders were trained by Roberts this week to set up ministries modeled after his “Pure Desire” program, launched eight years ago to help with recovery from sex addiction. He led a seminar last October at the Church on the Way in Van Nuys that drew 400 pastors.
Upswings in interest are reported by other sexual recovery ministries, among them Laguna Hills psychologist Laird Bridgman’s “RSA–Renewal from Sexual Addictions,” which has a program at Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, and Mark Laaser’s Minneapolis-based “Faithful and True Ministries,” which operate in 70 churches, primarily in the Southeastern United States.
Internet porn surfing transcends religion. One study of nearly 10,000 Internet users found that 8% were sexually compulsive or addictive. But Christian sexual recovery programs, modeled in part after such secular 12-step programs as Sex Addicts Anonymous, unabashedly make belief in Jesus Christ and acceptance by a forgiving God a cornerstone.
On a Saturday morning at East Bay Fellowship, the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” waft from the basement where 100 men gather for the weekly half-day retreat of Allen’s sexual recovery ministry, “Avenue: Resource for Healthy Sexuality.”
Allen, 42, dressed in cowboy boots and jeans instead of the expensive suits he once favored, tells the men that, “In spite of what you’ve done, and despite what you’re probably doing right now, you can come home.”
Even the Apostle Paul struggled, he tells them, quoting Paul in Romans 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
“It’s not that he did the bad thing once,” Allen says. “He kept doing the bad thing over and over again. He couldn’t understand why he couldn’t stop.”
Allen knows what it is to be that “wretch like me” in “Amazing Grace.” He remembers the midday forays into gritty neighborhoods of Oakland and San Francisco, the dimly lit hotel rooms that smelled “as if animals had slept on the furniture,” the prostitutes high on drugs. He remembers not giving a second thought to his Rolls-Royce parked outside, or about God.
Each time, Allen promised himself, was the last. But he didn’t know how to stop. He thought about suicide. He confided in no one. Silence led to secrets. Secrets led to shame.
Paul’s way out is your way out, he tells them. It’s about God’s love. With God’s acceptance comes self-acceptance.
Here faith and psychology intersect. Sex therapists believe that acceptance–whether by God or mortals–breaks core beliefs common to sex addicts. Psychologist Patrick Carnes, author of “Out of the Shadows,” describes these beliefs this way:
I’m basically a bad and unworthy person. No one would love me as I am. No one else is going to meet my needs. Sex is my most important need.
Allen holds a Bible aloft in one hand, jabs the air with the other. “You have a Father who never stops thinking about you and awaits for you to make a move toward him. That’s all he’s looking for, a move toward him.”
The biblical allegory of father’s love is calculated. Therapists report that many male sex addicts have unresolved issues with their fathers. They call them “father wounds.”
Allen turns to Luke 15:20: “Do you realize the prodigal son never got home before his father came and embraced him?” He paces back and forth, shifting from stern father figure to beaming buddy.
“You’re thinking, ‘My needs are never going to be met if I have to depend on others.’ God will meet all my needs as I trust in him. You’ve got to exercise something, guys. It’s called trust.”
Allen’s program, which has drawn 500 participants so far, operates on an annual budget Allen estimates at $400,000, raised from donations. Participants pay $50 for workbooks and literature. On a few occasions, a lie detector has been used, at an extra cost, when a man’s wife requested it to check his compliance.
Participants are asked to undertake a “media fast” of at least 30 days, and a “sexual fast” of varying lengths to wean them from using sex as a drug. Newspapers, magazines, motion pictures and television are banned to remove constant media messages in advertising and programs that men are somehow deficient if they don’t buy the right clothes, drive the right car or look cool. Bible readings and sexual recovery literature are substituted.
These churchgoers, as well as those outside the church, come to Allen to solve a variety of compulsions. Some men view pornography. Others go to strip clubs, pick up prostitutes or have anonymous sex. All of them, therapists agree, are caught up in a misdirected attempt to cope with pain, unresolved problems or traumas, anxiety, boredom or a lack of intimacy.
Allen estimates that 20% to 25% of the men drop out before completing the course, and that the rest usually require two to three years of participation to turn away from sexually compulsive behavior.
Most sex addicts, clinical studies show, have a history of childhood abuse–emotional, physical, sexual or some combination of those. Often, the addict does not connect the abuse with the sexually compulsive behavior. Many sex addicts were also exposed to pornography or sexual experiences early in life.
Psychologist Bridgman said reliance on sex to dispel emotional pain is not unlike a hospital patient’s using an IV morphine drip. “When the pain gets too bad, lust is like that. They can push the button and get a little shot of endorphins.”
Blurting Out a Confession
Allen became that kind of man with pornography, then strip clubs, then with prostitutes. His wife, Susan, was suspicious. She found odd calling patterns on the telephone bill, and credit card receipts that contradicted alibis. She fell into denial and depression.
Wives, she reflects now, are afraid of drawing the line. “They’re afraid of losing it all. They’re afraid of losing the companionship, the fear of being alone in the world, the financial fears of being alone.”
In 1990, after eight years of marriage, Susan started going to church. A week later, her husband joined her. Three years later, he heard Pastor Ron Pinkston preach a sermon, “The Black Door,” challenging congregants to walk through the black door of denial. Jesus, the pastor said, awaited on the other side.
Allen was torn. He had partially confessed to his wife a year earlier. He feared going through the black door, but he also feared, after listening to Pinkston, that if he didn’t confess he would ultimately be accountable to God.
He soon told Susan everything.
“It was like putting a red hot lance very slowly through her heart,” he said. “It killed something that was very precious, her dream of a guy she thought she had come to know and marry.”
The next day was Sunday. Making his way to the pulpit, Pinkston came across Allen standing in the left aisle, put a hand on his shoulder and asked him how he was. Allen blurted out a confession, saying that he thought his life was ruined.
The pastor, stunned, would later decide that Allen was one of the “best-dressed, self-made men on the verge of complete collapse” he had ever seen.
In the year that followed, leading up to Allen’s public confession to his congregation, he immersed himself in his recovery, working with the “Pure Desire” program developed by former sex addict Roberts. Other men sought his help, and by last year he launched his own ministry.
Susan Allen became a source of support for other betrayed wives. She estimates that 80% of marriages are saved when husbands complete the program. “There’s not always a happy ending. There’s not always a Cinderella story.”
Allen’s program uses what he calls a “biblical model,” contending that God heals a man’s heart–a departure from the 12 Step model that believes an addict is always recovering, never cured. Allen maintains that a change of heart enables a man to “conquer” his past, to deal with temptation more successfully.
Robert Weiss of the Los Angeles Sexual Recovery Institute has his doubts. “This is a clinical issue. It’s a psychotherapeutic issue. It’s no different than depression or compulsive gambling or overeating,” Weiss said. “It needs to be dealt with clinically in a value-free environment.”
Weiss worries that religious prescriptions may sometimes make a bad situation worse, particularly if a man is told to pray, only to fail again. “The message is, you weren’t trying hard enough. You have to read more, pray more, do more. But he may have a neurochemical issue.”
Allen is undaunted.
“At the lowest point in my life,” he tells his men’s group, “when I thought about taking myself out with suicide after I had confessed everything . . . a very godly man told me that I was the luckiest guy in the world. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You have a chance to start over. No secrets! How many guys do you know that have no secrets?’
“It’s the same with you guys. You’re starting over.”