Two Who Broke Free

Gene McConnell and a 28-year-old woman who asked to be called “Cheri” were sexually molested as children by people engrossed in pornography.

At age 12, McConnell was abused in a shed containing more than 300 pornographic magazines. Cheri's father made her watch sex videos and then did “some terrible things to me,” so that she can recall “pleading” with God to make it stop. It stopped at about age 14.

Pornography took its toll: McConnell, now with the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, became so obsessed with pornography that it almost destroyed his life. Cheri, a Catholic, dropped out of college to become a stripper for four years until she found herself emotionally numb after having aborted a child. Both found grace when a Christian reached out to them.

McConnell's experience with pornography “was like a drug injected into my veins” that induced him to molest a girl. “I was a pastor's kid. I knew it was wrong. I'd repent and cry that I'd never do it again, but I'd go back to it.”

He eventually married and became an assistant pastor. He avoided pornography until stress in his marriage drove him back. He returned to pornography: “I had an intense need to be loved, to be wanted. I was drawn to pornography because the women won't reject you. … I needed more graphic, more explicit, more disgusting stuff to get the same high.” He said he began visiting strip clubs and massage parlors.

Cheri said strip clubs cater to emotional neediness by “establishing a false sense of intimacy” between strippers and patrons. “You give a piece of yourself to each person, until there's nothing left of you.”

McConnell's addiction damaged his marriage, and his wife suffered from bulimia and anorexia and then attempted suicide. He hit bottom after his arrest for attempted rape. He had forced a woman into her car to attack her but was so repulsed by himself that he let her go. He lost his job, and church members shunned him outside of services.

His turnaround came 17 years ago when he poured out his heart to a pastor friend. “He just hugged me and began to weep and say, ‘I'm so sorry,’ and told me how much God the Father loved me. I never experienced love before in my life.”

Cheri said she got drunk before she stripped the first time and continued to drink “to do what I was doing. … You'd have to try to turn off your emotions or you'd go insane. Every night you go in there to face mental, psychological and physical abuse.”

Her turnabout came when she became emotionally numb after her abortion: “I'd just become the most selfish person. I was just disgusted with myself. I could kill my child so I could keep working.”

A member of a citizens group in Memphis, Tenn., offered her a way out. The group would support her financially if she was willing to “make something of herself.”

“She was a genuine person who was reaching out to me in love,” said Cheri, who is now working and studying to become a nurse.

—Eric Retzlaff