wackmass

Extremely Online Preachers Are Waging a New War on Masturbation

The Bible never anticipated the internet — or internet porn. So all over social media, a new generation of church is stepping up to tackle it

This is Wack Mass, an offbeat collection of stories about religion and internet culture.

Did Jesus masturbate? What does the Bible say about porn? Is it okay to jerk off if I’m thinking about my Christian wife? Is it okay to watch porn if it helps me avoid premarital sex?

These are questions the Christian establishment never really needed to address before the internet. It’s possible that it’s never been harder (pun intended) to abstain from what some Christians call “sexual immorality” — a blanket term including pre- and extramarital sex and “lustful” behavior like watching porn — than it is today. For some, this is an issue fraught with shame and self-hatred, exacerbated by the pervasiveness of sexualized digital culture.

So what is a young Christian man to do about what most folks today consider the natural and morally neutral urge for sexual release if he’s determined to adhere to the Bible?

The Porn Pastor

Pastor Craig Gross is a pioneer in this space. Gross, a married fortysomething father of two with hair like a tween YouTube star, is a co-founder of XXXChurch, a ministry dedicated to helping Christians of all ages who are trying to quit porn. XXXChurch was one of the first organizations (if not the very first) to offer guidance to Christians consumed with shame about their relationship to porn and masturbation. There’s nothing new about XXXChurch’s proposed solution — which is essentially abstinence from porn, masturbation and pre-/extramarital sex — but the group’s delivery is unprecedented.

In the mid-’90s, Gross was quick to catch on to the increasing availability of porn and the cultural shift it precipitated. “I remember [first] seeing porn in Christian college in an AOL email image,” Gross tells MEL in a phone interview. He saw the prevalence of porn as a direct threat to Christians’ relationship with God. Working as a youth pastor after college, he and his friend Mike Foster toured the country speaking at events for Christian kids, presenting a “drama-comedy-speaking” performance offering a Christian take on contemporary issues. One of their talks was about the negative impacts of watching internet porn.

Churches started booking their Christian porn presentation, but just for younger audiences. At the time, Gross was glad to have that platform, but felt like it wasn’t enough. “I never wanted to be a Sunday morning speaker, but this isn’t just a youth thing anymore,” he says. “I want a church on a Sunday to be like, ‘We need to talk about this issue.’” Seeking to proselytize both producers and consumers of pornography, XXXChurch’s bold outreach tactics included setting up booths at porn conventions and passing out Bibles that say “Jesus loves porn stars.”

“We just did outrageous shit because we kind of had to” in order to get people to talk about an uncomfortable topic, Gross says. “We have a 25-foot elephant that says, ‘Confront the elephant in the pews.’ We can go all balls out on one end. … I can show up in a suit if I have to, or I can show up with a giant elephant.”

Although, as Gross says, “It’s so much easier to talk about this today than it was,” there’s still a stigma around porn, especially in religious spaces. “It took me three and a half years to get a church to give us a stage on a Sunday morning,” Gross complains. “That’s frustrating to me. … I hate that the church is so far behind on some of these issues.”

Gross realized he needed to find a way to offer counseling on porn addiction that allowed for more anonymity. Today, XXXChurch offers more than 80 online small groups that meet virtually each week; Gross says about 850 people currently participate in the small-group program, and many go on to lead their own groups.

A screenshot of a mock group chat, provided by XXXChurch

In addition to the small groups, XXXChurch has a monitoring software, X3Watch, which logs a user’s internet activity and sends it in the form of a report to a designated “accountability partner.” In 2008, Gross discussed the software on Good Morning America, calling it “kinda like a big brother” and noting that his wife receives his twice-monthly internet usage report.

Gross also advances his sense that people with a troubled relationship to porn often consume it as a form of self-medication. He recommends that individuals look beyond the “symptom” of watching porn for a deeper emotional or spiritual affliction. He suggests that drastic life changes might be necessary in order to break habits of self-medication, preaching the edict of Matthew 5:28–30, which says, “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Some of their suggestions may seem flippant, like those outlined by Gross in an interview with Wired. “Remain calm and tell yourself, ‘You don’t own me, masturbation! I’m taking my life back!’ (or something of that nature). If that doesn’t work, you can pursue alternatives like chewing gum, blasting John Lennon’s song ‘Cold Turkey,’ eating chocolate or whatever helps you best (not masturbation).”

Meet the Christian Fapstronauts

Gross isn’t the only religious voice seeking to counsel Christians struggling with masturbation. Many troubled onanists hang out on the subreddit NoFapChristians (an offshoot of the more popular r/NoFap), where they seek and share advice and support for overcoming their porn habits.

NoFapChristians is a gathering place for “Christian Fapstronauts,” an online community with almost 17,000 subscribers. It offers a specifically Christ-oriented space to help distressed Christians, mostly men, address what they describe as an unhealthy relationship with PMO (porn, masturbation, orgasm), which many describe as an addiction. NoFapChristians is one of many online resources popularized over the last two decades to support Christians struggling to abstain from PMO.

Like this guy, “energyred”:

“Is there any way to remove sexual urges? Mainly because I’m pretty much addicted at this point and can’t stop I’m just getting worse at this just did it three days in a row I’m hopeless and I’m ashamed of myself and am on a path to hell as it seem. (Maybe apart from castration).”

Or these folks:

Would God still forgive me? Is there something wrong with me? from NoFapChristians

Anyone know any good blockers I can use? from NoFapChristians

Sin 🙁 from NoFapChristians

Relapsing because of new relationship from NoFapChristians

Compared to Gross’ teachings, NoFapChristians offers similar solidarity and dialogue, but in a more informal and less private venue. Josh, whose Reddit username is DJ_Pace, is active on r/NoFapChristians. He’s a 25-year-old Southern Baptist “with a bit of pentecostal thrown in for good measure,” currently pursuing a Master’s in divinity. He loves the subreddit, he tells me. “It provides a really safe place to be vulnerable and receive help.”

Although “so many Christians struggle with this,” he says, “the lack of support, talk or just acknowledgment of this sin in local churches is depressing and frustrating. I long to help build a ministry that provides hope, grace, resources, and redemption to people like this,” through directly addressing PMO.

Several years out from his active addiction to porn, today Josh will “dedicate hours a week to the r/NoFapChristian subreddit, trying to help people,” and he’s just been named one of the subreddit’s moderators. But he’s frustrated by the limitations of virtual connection. “I can’t hug people. I can’t really dialogue with people. I can’t see them cry. They can’t see me cry. They can’t hear my gentle, humble, loving, fatherly tone.”

‘There Is Nothing Wrong With Sexual Curiosity’

Loving as Josh says they are, posts on NoFapChristians are often heavy on scripture and unequivocal condemnations of sin.

In his post “Ask a pastor anything,” Josh argues, “You deserve death, separation, wrath because of your sin. So the fact that you are continuing in it is a heavy thing, not to be taken lightly.” Although this rhetoric is often accompanied by lines extolling God’s perfect love and reminding readers of the prospect of redemption, some critics argue that this talk of sin and hellfire is damaging.

A former Christian youth director wrote of this rhetoric in an email to XXXChurch, proudly published on the site’s “Hatemail” page: “There is nothing wrong with the sexual curiosity that most human beings experience. What is wrong is people thinking they are garbage and being hurt and consumed by people like you telling them parts of themselves are evil.” (When I ask Gross about his views on homosexuality, he says XXXChurch simply focuses on porn.)

In addition to criticism both from people who disapprove of their hard-line abstinence rhetoric, XXXChurch also faces criticism from those who argue they don’t go nearly far enough, according to the “Hatemail” page.

An anonymous writer, one of many conservative Christian critics, seethes:

“First of all, do you really call yourself an authentic christian? You’ve got to be out of your mind. Show me ONE place in the scriptures where GOD uses hip or fun tactics to relate to an issue as serious as this. Young man, this is not a game to GOD and YOU ALL better wake up and see that before He shows you how foolish you immoral people are. What is wrong with you people!!!!!??”

Christians like Josh and Gross are invested in countering the shame surrounding porn consumption. They want to open a faith-based dialogue about it, a space in which struggling children of God can admit their habits and engage in open and honest communication about porn and masturbation.

They’re dragging the Christian establishment toward more progressive attitudes about sex and sexuality — but not too progressive. The leaders of the Christian crusade against porn addiction are largely evangelical, meaning they favor a more literal interpretation of the Bible. There’s a hard limit to the behavior they can condone. No one knows if Jesus masturbated — but he definitely didn’t watch porn.