God’s grace is free. So is Internet pornography.
One saves; the other enslaves.
Pornography has become a scourge of the modern world, not just because it is so easy to come by, but also because it is so hard to get away from.
The encouraging news is that there is a growing understanding of its addictiveness and harmful effects — and an increasing number of faith-based recovery programs.
Peter Kleponis, assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, Pa., has been a clinical therapist specializing in marriage and family issues and pornography addiction for 18 years.
He is the author of a new book, Integrity Restored: Helping Catholic Families Win the Battle Against Pornography, and the website Integrity Restored, which looks at pornography through a Catholic perspective.
“There are many ways that our faith can help in the recovery process,” he said.
Addressing the Epidemic
Eight years ago, realizing how huge the epidemic was, he became certified in the diagnosis and treatment of sexual addictions by the American Association of Christian Counselors.
“I wanted a Christian perspective,” he said. Now, he is committed to a Catholic approach.
Kleponis is currently working with the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) in Arlington, Va., to create a training program for Catholic therapists. It will be housed at IPS, with Kleponis as the director.
“Catholics are as addicted as people from other faiths,” he said. “Priests tell me that it is the No. 1 sin they hear in confession, and priests and seminarians struggle with it, too.”
Since specializing in recovery, Kleponis said 75% of his patients come to him for a pornography addiction.
“It is as addictive as cocaine and impairs a person, spiritually, emotionally and physically,” he said.
According to him, new research in the field of brain chemistry shows that addiction to pornography leads to similar brain-activity patterns as found in alcohol and drug addicts.
And like with any addictive substance, he said, it is progressive and takes over a person’s life.
“What began as 10 minutes grows into two hours, and more extreme images become necessary for the same effect,” he said.
Kleponis explained that there is a high followed by a low — and then a person experiences an overpowering urge for the high again and returns. People end up turning to the fantasy of images rather than developing healthy relationships, he said, with bad results.
“The emotional consequences include shame, depression, anger and low-self esteem,” Kleponis said, “but the most dangerous consequence is the loss of one’s relationship with God.”
All brain research points to the addictive nature of pornography, Kleponis said. He explained that there is a numbed pleasure response and hyper-reactivity to porn — and also an erosion of willpower. In recovery, he said, the brain reverses itself — there is a neurochemical rebirth — and even emotional and physical problems get better as the brain reverts to normal sensitivity.
Not Just a Man’s Problem
Pornography addictions are most associated with men, but women are also addicted. The Family Save Media 2010 report reveals that women account for 17% of people addicted to pornography.
Marnie Ferree began treating women for sex addiction in 1995 and is the author of No Stones: Women Redeemed From Sexual Addiction. She directs the Christian-based Bethesda Workshops in Nashville, Tenn., for female sex addicts and their partners. It opened in 1997 as the first of its kind in the country.
Ferree uses the term “sex addiction” because pornography may only be a part of the problem. She explained that some women are drawn to sex chat rooms, one-night stands and “cyber sex.”
Ferree has been in recovery herself since 1992.
“I grew up a preacher’s kid in a conservative Christian home — with a father who struggled with porn,” she said. “I stumbled into it when I was 5 and found it compelling.”
Her mother died when Ferree was 3 years old; then, when she was 5, her father’s best friend began sexually abusing her. Her father was often absent, and her abuser acted as a father figure. It created confusion in her: She equated love with sex.
She became a promiscuous teen — while the perpetrator continued the abuse even after she married at the age of 20.
“On the surface, I was a good girl and a high achiever,” Ferree said. “I wanted to do the right thing and knew sex was supposed to be for marriage, so I was repeatedly overcome with shame.”
Her first marriage ended after a couple of years of frequent infidelity on her part.
She has been married for 33 years to her second husband, and they have two children. Ferree continued to struggle with addiction, however, until her mid-30s, when early-stage cervical cancer led her to finally confront her addiction in therapy.
She pointed out that many individuals struggling with sex addiction have something deeper going on, such as a history of sexual abuse.
Recovery With God’s Help
Todd Bowman is an associate professor of counseling at Indiana Wesleyan University and the coordinator and creator of the Sexual Addiction Treatment Provider Certification Program, the only accredited program like it in this country. He is currently working with Kleponis to create a recovery program for Catholics.
According to him, even in secular treatment that follows the 12-step treatment program first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, God plays a central role: “It’s watered down to call God a ‘higher power,’ but without him, the person is not experiencing the fullness of life.”
“The biggest lie about addiction is that it’s up to me what I do — it’s a secular, humanist narcissism,” Bowman said. “Life in Christ is about meaning and purpose in participating in the body of Christ.”
With addiction, he explained, a person is isolated by using his body and those of others for his own ends. Recovery helps addicts understand that their bodies should glorify and honor God.
“Since addiction is isolating, one of the tools for recovery is love for one another,” Bowman said, noting Christ’s love for humanity.
“Our reality of Jesus on the cross is his giving Mary to John and John to Mary.”
He also pointed to the Trinity as evidence that God uses relationships to bring people closer to him and to help them.
“Another element of community,” Bowman explained, “is encouragement for new behavior through understanding, support and accountability.”
Help Through the Sacraments
In his book, Kleponis outlines a plan for recovery that includes self-knowledge and commitment, purifying one’s life, support, accountability, counseling, a spiritual plan, education and virtue. “Each point is of equal importance,” he said. “All of them are worked simultaneously, each addressing an important facet of recovery.”
The sacraments in the Catholic Church offer powerful help with healing, he said. The Mass offers a powerful reminder of hope. “God never breaks his covenant,” he said. “No matter how wounded a person or marriage is, God can still heal.”
“The Eucharist is a necessary part of healing because it is God within us, which helps with perseverance,” Kleponis added.
The sacrament of reconciliation, where God’s mercy and forgiveness is experienced, is also a form of support and accountability, he said. “Knowing you have to confess, and then God forgives and forgets our sins, restores our relationship with him.”
He pointed out that there are additional benefits of a church-based community, such as joining church-affiliated groups. He recommends a 12-step recovery group in order to have people available who understand addiction and recovery.
Overall, Kleponis emphasizes the need to seek help and healing.
“Everyone is deeply wounded — it’s part of being human,” Kleponis said. “It’s healthy to acknowledge our wounds and work towards healing.”
In this way, he said, people can fully live their vocations and maintain healthy relationships with others and with God.
“No one wants to become an addict,” he explained. “It creeps in and soon takes over. The good news is that lives can be restored.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
Previous Register series on pornography: