In a small, plainly decorated room in Lenexa, Kansas, 26-year-old Crystal Renaud logs on to a free video-chat site. She sits at her desk and peers over her black-rimmed glasses, which reflect the dull blue glare of the computer monitor. Meanwhile, in homes scattered around the United States, five other women are staring into their webcams as well. As their faces pop up around Renaud on all their screens, they begin the 6th week of a 12-week pornography addiction recovery group for women called No Stones.
“Does anyone want to share a story where they felt they had some sort of personality disorder? Or something related?” Renaud asks, before her voice temporarily cuts out and the screen freezes. The group is having technical issues tonight. “For me, I found myself really clinging to certain personality types, those opposite of my dad,” she says when she’s back on. The assignment for this week, she tells the women, is to write down their sexual histories. “I know it’s overwhelming, but don’t be defeated by this,” she says. “There’s hope. This is truth. Even though it’s hard and painful, the truth is what sets you free.”
The No Stones recovery group is part of an organization called Dirty Girls Ministries that Renaud launched in 2009 after suffering from her own self-described pornography addiction. She says she wanted to help other women recover from their X-rated fixations by connecting with them online and holding meetings at her local church. But her use of the terms porn and addiction may be misleading. The growing group of 100-plus members who participate in the forums say that they masturbate or view porn—which they define as including erotica and romance novels—twice a week or less. For most of us, that would hardly be considered excessive. But to Renaud, it indicates an epidemic of addiction, one that can be treated by helping women stay “clean” of masturbation.
In addition to the online ministry, she speaks regularly at various evangelical churches in Kansas and has written a book called Dirty Girls Come Clean. “Whether you believe it or not, women are addicted to porn,” Renaud preached in a recent sermon. “You’d be surprised at how many women—women in your own lives—are hiding this deep, dark, and dirty secret.”
While many of the women she counsels report turning to pornography as a form of escape—from traumas like sexual abuse, infidelity, and even prostitution—Renaud compares their masturbation to alcoholism, saying that “like drugs and alcohol, so many things that feel good in a short amount of time can end up hurting you.”
Renaud’s advocacy is labeled antipornography, but it aims to treat all masturbation, whether it involves porn or not. When you peel back the layers, the core of her crusade is against sexual thought—even within marriage—unless those thoughts are about your husband while you are engaging in intercourse with him.
Abstinence advocates rarely address masturbation publicly and tend to cluster it into the issue of pornography addiction, as Renaud does. But certain leaders within this Christian movement have made it clear that masturbation is most definitely included in their efforts. Craig Gross, the founder of XXXChurch.com, one of the first online communities for Christian porn addicts, says, “Our view of sex is that God designed sex for a man and a woman, not a man and himself.”
In the past, Christians have tended to treat pornography as a male problem exclusively, setting up counseling groups for wives to deal with their husbands’ porn addictions. But a focus on females has grown considerably in the past decade. XXXChurch.com and L.I.F.E. Ministries, with the slogan “Globalizing God’s Army to Battle Sexual Addiction,” have added services for women, and Christian literature has also begun to address the purity issue for a female audience.
Mental purity is a state of mind Renaud came to after years of struggle. When she was 10, she discovered a dirty magazine in her older brother’s bathroom. She had never seen male genitalia before; she became increasingly curious and began to search for pornography. When she hit puberty, she says, her curiosity turned into compulsion, and she added masturbation to her porn-seeking behavior. At 15, she attended a Christian summer camp and heard the pastor talking about “a Father in heaven who loves you unconditionally regardless of what you do.” From then on, she became active in the church and vowed to end her masturbation and porn habits.
“I’ve been sober for seven years now,” she says of her masturbation-free life.
Although some married women participate in Dirty Girls Ministries, Renaud’s crusade is largely for single women like herself. The majority of Dirty Girls’ members are in their 20s and 30s, but many teenagers and preteen girls, some as young as 11, have also joined. Technically speaking, most are virgins, but because of their below-the-belt explorations, they report feeling tainted, undesirable, and perverted.
The “recovery process” begins with Renaud asking them to go one week without looking at porn, to determine the severity of their addiction. She then asks them to be “clean” for 90 days, which means no sex, no porn, no masturbation—not even TV shows about sex. Internet tracking software like CovenantEyes and adult-site blockers are encouraged. “When you stop masturbating or stop looking at porn, your body actually goes through withdrawal,” she says. “It’s intense.”
Dirty Girls member Amy Christine Proctor, a self-described addict and a flight attendant from Colorado, started masturbating while she was visiting chat rooms on AOL. Unmarried and a virgin at 30, Proctor has struggled with her sexual identity since puberty, believing her same-sex thoughts are a sin. Last year, she says, she was masturbating almost daily, sometimes twice a day. To rehabilitate herself, she became an active member of Dirty Girls Ministries and started driving two hours to attend a 12-step program for sex addicts called Heart to Heart. But when she realized the masturbation was stemming from underlying sexual-identity issues, she switched to a program called Where Grace Bounds that deals with “sexual brokenness and homosexuality,” while remaining an active member of the Dirty Girls forums.
Although Proctor still struggles with relapses, she praises Renaud’s ministry. Women and girls who have gone through the rehabilitation process and have become “clean” report feeling free and blissful in their new masturbation- and porn-free lives. Many have viewed their masturbation habits as products of emotional burdens or past traumas, and they describe the rehab process as therapeutic. They say they have found support, community, and friendship in Renaud’s group and feel relieved to finally discuss the taboo subject freely.
It’s hard to determine just how many Christian 12-step programs exist to address porn and masturbation “addiction,” since many of them shroud their intentions to cleanse lustful thought by billing their offerings as marriage counseling or help for recovery from sex addiction. Marnie Ferree, author of No Stones: Women Redeemed from Sexual Addiction—the book used as a guide in Renaud’s recovery group—runs a 12-step program in the hills of Nashville, Tennessee, called the Bethesda Workshops. It costs $1,400, and in addition to treating sex and porn addiction offers rehab for “romance” addiction and “relationship” addiction. A romance addict “thrives on the thrill of the chase,” she says, but has a difficult time sustaining a committed relationship. A relationship addict is someone who constantly believes her partner is “the one” and thus repeatedly creates codependent relationships.
Certainly anyone going through the pain of a failed relationship might wish for a 12-step program to heal. But even according to some Christian sex educators, the line between normal human experimentation and a dangerous addiction can be a simple matter of perspective. “To feel that they’re addicted only means that they enjoy doing it and they don’t want to,” says William R. Stayton, a human-sexuality professor and Baptist minister in Smyrna, Georgia, who believes masturbation is a healthy way to develop one’s sexual identity. “Real sexual addiction is when someone has no control over it. Things that get blamed for addiction are often just things that people don’t like.”
On the other hand, according to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied love and the human brain, the brain scans of an infatuated lover look nearly identical to the brain scans of a cocaine addict. This is because the natural stimulants dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are released when one is in love, producing a “high” similar to coke’s. Orgasms and self-stimulation release similar chemicals to the brain and can give you a momentary high. So, biologically, it makes sense that this behavior can become compulsive.
Yet exercise also releases dopamine, and so do food, shopping, and almost anything else that’s pleasurable. That’s why many doctors refuse to recognize sex addiction as a legitimate clinical diagnosis. Sex therapist Betty Dodson, for example, believes the word addiction belongs only in the substance-abuse category and sees labeling sexual desire as addiction as a form of manipulation. “This is going to mess them up, because now whenever they have any kind of desire to read about sex or look at images of sex, it’s going to be accompanied by guilt,” she says. “And guilt is the most worthless thing on the planet. People are manipulated by it through religion all the time.”
Indeed, guilt and shame are emotions commonly expressed by the women involved in Dirty Girls Ministries. “Once I’ve actually committed the sin (of porn and masturbation), I find myself feeling such sadness, frustration, disappointment, anger, shame,” writes one anonymous commenter on the Ministries’ forum. “It makes me feel sick and unworthy,” writes another. One girl even reported feeling guilty after simply dreaming about masturbating.
By contrast, secular society is embracing masturbation as a way for women to better understand their bodies and enhance their pleasure with their partners. Millions of women struggle with reaching orgasms during sex, so, more and more, sex-ed teachers are including masturbation in their curricula. Last year, the United Nations released a report suggesting that children as young as 5 learn about masturbation. The National Health Service in Britain recently released a pamphlet for teenagers with the headline “An Orgasm a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” advocating that regular masturbation is good for cardiovascular health. In Spain, one regional government has just launched a sex-ed campaign with the slogan “Pleasure Is in Your Own Hands,” stating that masturbation boosts confidence and self-esteem. And even Oprah Winfrey, the standard-bearer for mainstream American ethics, has discussed the benefits of female masturbation many times on her talk show. One of Winfrey’s frequent guest experts, Laura Berman, says encouraging girls to masturbate can help them avoid unhealthy sexual experiences.
But Renaud isn’t pleased with secular society’s increasing acceptance of porn and masturbation for women. Interestingly enough, she’s fine with teaching young children about the existence of masturbation and porn—as long as they don’t try it. “It’s a very dangerous society that we live in,” she says, “when we’re telling women that it’s OK to look at porn.”
Many girls in Renaud’s ministry think that once they get married, they will be free to express their sexuality and enjoy orgasms with a man. This causes some to take the fast track to the altar, only to find that after they’ve married, they still feel the same taboo urges. One forum commenter married at 19 in the hope that pious matrimonial intercourse would rid her of her sinful thoughts—only to find that during sex with her husband, she would have the same fantasies. “I cannot cleanse my mind of these images,” she says. “I try so hard to focus on my husband only, but my thoughts are so warped.”
For the most part, however, the young women who gather around Dirty Girls Ministries are bonding over struggles with modern courtship and their subsequent feelings of loneliness and isolation. At the height of Renaud’s addiction, she considered having an anonymous encounter with a man. She set up the meeting online, went to the prearranged spot, and was waiting for him, but “God met me there instead,” she says. So she left before meeting the stranger.
Renaud didn’t date in high school, and she has never had a boyfriend. “I would love to find ‘the one’ and get married and start a family,” she says. “When the time comes, God will bring him about, and it will happen.” But in the meantime, she hopes more women will break free from their addiction to sexual stimulation and embark, with her, on a 12-step path to salvation.
Blaire Briody is an editor at the Fiscal Times and has written for Popular Science, the New York Times, and other publications. Excerpted from Bust (Feb.-March 2011), a fierce and funny magazine that presents a female perspective on pop culture.www.bust.com
Have something to say? Send a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.