by Clint Rainey
Some pastors view Super Bowl Sunday and church attendance as inverses—if the first, less of the second. (The joke is pastors conclude their sermons the week before that second holiest of Sundays with “See you in two weeks.”) But this year, replete with bizarre props, attracting media attention like iron filings, Pastor Craig Gross decided to try riding on the game’s coattails to a victorious inverse of his own: Christians and porn use.
Through XXXChurch.com, the “#1 Christian porn site,” Gross runs Porn Sunday—this year, for the first time, Super Porn Sunday—to get churches to confront Christian porn use, what his ministry calls the “elephant in the pews.” For the weekend’s festivities, he moved his hub from Las Vegas to Dallas, home of Super Bowl XLV, where he tweeted pics of his car in the city’s freak snowstorm and complained about Texans he believes didn’t know how to drive in it. Sunday, he was 30 miles away from Cowboys Stadium in the Addison Conference Center. More than 350 church services that morning simulcast a 35-minute video he put together with a lineup of NFL players: quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and John Kitna (who tells us his Pandora’s porn box opened with Janet Jackson’s exposed breast) and Ryan Pickett, the Packers’ defensive end. “I would love to have been with you guys today,” he says at the start of the tape. “But fortunately, I’m a little busy.”
As Gross sees it, if manliness were a religion, football, beer and porn—or at least naked chicks—would be its trinity. Pigskin and bare skin go hand in hand, as anyone will attest who’s paid $9.95 at halftime for the annual pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl. (The most successful halftime counter-programming ever, last year’s Lingerie Bowl was so oversubscribed, the viewers—who’d already paid—saw the following message on the screen for three hours: “DUE TO THE OVERWHELMING INTERNET DEMAND, LINGERIE BOWL 7 WILL BE UP MOMENTARILY. PLEASE CHECK BACK SOON.”) Beer and football, fine—but what if Gross could pry off that third leg? “I’ve gotten to know players and spoken at a handful of NFL events,” he explained to me. “So last year, watching the Super Bowl, I wondered if we could get them on video to talk about porn.” No one ever asks the porn pastor “to speak on Easter or Christmas or Mother’s Day. It’s not a Mother’s Day message.” But if it’ll get them noticed on Super Bowl Sunday? Count churches in.
A hundred million Americans watched Fox’s broadcast of the game, but Gross says on that same day 40 million—presumably with some overlap—watched porn, an industry whose revenue “is larger than the revenues of the professional football, baseball or basketball leagues in this country.” Since 2001, when he left his job as a youth minister to focus on the sin he believes is besetting a whole generation, he estimates he’s taken “probably 600 people to more than 60 porn shows,” publicly spoken “thousands of times” and written seven books about the evils of smut, and befriended Ron Jeremy.
Yes, that Ron Jeremy.
“I love this guy,” Gross says of the mustachioed man who’s more the face of porn than Tera Patrick or Jenna Jameson, and he really means love. In 2006, he and Jeremy began debating at college campuses. According to the Internet Adult Film Database—the IMDb of adult entertainment—Jeremy has starred in more than 2,000 pornos. Gross hasn’t seen any of them, but he loves to use the names (who can resist 1997’s Ass Gas and the Mystical Glop?) for shock value. Aside from the preposterousness of it though, the debates are anticlimactic boilerplate. Gross: Porn enslaves us, demeans women, ruins families. Jeremy: No, porn is a right, an entertainment, no different than anything else in excess. The Internet changed how easily we got smut, but nothing changed the arguments for and against it. The debate room is full of the same old same old: the sex-positive feminists, the feminist critics like Susannah Breslin, the specters of the Betty Friedans and Helen Gurley Browns, the hot air expired by James Dobson, the hand-wringing of academics like Naomi Klein or my old professor Robert Jensen.
Pornography actually has no direct Biblical proscription. Believers infer it exegetically from Matthew 5:27–28 (“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart”), say, or 1 Thessalonians 5:22 (“Abstain from every form of evil”). But it is the rare do-not upon which almost all believers agree, and the Christian conscience is not quiet about it; it will move a believer to protest and boycott. Niche movie review sites quantify which, and how often, body parts are bared in big Hollywood releases. They see porn as a glorifier of extramarital sex, a sewage line to addiction, and a fetishizer of terrible things in society—from incest to pederasty. A 2008 Christianity Today article on sex addiction warned that porn users can “progress rapidly to increasingly exotic, perverse, and even illegal sexual behavior: exhibitionism, voyeurism, strip clubs, lap dances, massage parlors, adultery, prostitution, homosexual liaisons, rape, incest, bestiality, or child molestation—anything to feed the craving.”
Statistics do not necessarily back this up. They’re hard to gather anyway; getting ahold of accurate data on porn habits is not easy, particularly because the respondents lie—understandably. Critics of the Christian anti-porn position have countered that sexual offenses correlate to strict, repressive religious upbringing, not porn consumption, but this is specious too. One voice of reason (ironically) is Ron Jeremy’s: He says no one wants addicts. His advice to a person addicted to porn? “Stop watching.”
But if you can’t? Then perhaps it’s back to XXXChurch. Gross’s team councils and cheers on believers and nonbelievers who say they wouldn’t find this support anywhere else. Their biggest hit is free anti-porn software, called X3watch, that e-mails your “accountability partners”—the pan-evangelical term for when guys act as each other’s personal-morality Pinkertons—anytime it logs a questionable site visit. (Users can upgrade to X3watch Pro for $19.95 and then $7 a month.) For Lindsay Lohan–grade addicts of porn, there is, for $149, X3pure, a 30-day rehabilitation program that provides “the absolute fundamentals for understanding compulsive sexual behavior whether it is with masturbation, pornography use, extra-marital/pre-marital sex, strip clubs, or prostitutes.”
Evangelical Christians, as it turns out, are as or more likely to be addicted to porn, depending on your source. Gross holds the cause is environmental—call it an ignominy factor. Jeremy thinks porn probably is destructive in evangelical homes, because they tend to be more restrictive. Benjamin Edelman, a professor at Harvard Business School, published a big paper in 2009 that analyzed anonymized porn-site credit card receipts and found churchgoers consumed far less porn on Sundays than other groups, but they made up for lost time by out-consuming many of those groups the rest of the week, returning total hours logged to parity.
What Gross lacks in the Christian-scold department he papers over with impassioned pleas. He’s an oozing font of discouraging figures about porn: the amount the industry pulls in each year ($70 billion, he claims—a figure higher than midsized nations’ GDPs), the age at which most boys will see it (11), the percentage of pastors who say they struggle with it online (37). Still, gimmickry and rabblerousing have never been beneath the porn pastor, even if it means slipping down a few notches. Take Pete the Porno Puppet. The star of a public-service announcement that warns kids of the “perils of porn,” Pete is Gross’s idea, but with a crucial assist from James DiGiorgio, known as Jimmy D., the man behind Smash Pictures, leader in “the niche market of gonzo porn.” Jimmy D. was irritated at best by XXXChurch’s anti-porn efforts, but keeping explicit material out of kids’ hands, he told Newsweek, is “something I can get 100 percent behind. I have a grown daughter and an 8-year-old son who spends a lot of time online.” Jimmy D.’s set, cameras and crew pumped out an ad so values-laden yet creepy that neither the networks nor Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network would touch it. “Have you gone into your daddy’s closet and found a bunch of magazines with naked mommies in them?” Pete asks young viewers. “Did this make you feel yucky inside?”
Gross says CBN’s utter un-amusement is the typical response from the Christian establishment, although he believes his tactics emulate Jesus’, inviting himself into Zacchaeuses’ homes everywhere to eat with tax collectors. Some Christians object to XXXChurch’s materials too, like the Jesus Loves Porn Stars Bible. Ephesians 5 rebukes obscenity and coarse joking, but Gross relies on double entendres (“I met Ron Jeremy at a porn show. A few years later we were sleeping on top of each other in a bunk bed”). So, yes, his ministry, with its 30-foot blowup phalluses and porn mobiles, can seem childish and desperate for attention; when it was still in use, the inflatable penis elongated to an erect state and was called Wally the Wiener. Gross says Wally got the job done, but he’s since reconsidered the wisdom of such devices.
“I’m not saying I’d ever use him again,” Gross said last week. “But what we’ve done is get the Gospel into a new environment. People may have problems with certain things we’ve done, but it’s mostly because they don’t wanna talk about the issue at all.” He laughed and added, two days from Super Porn Sunday, “We’ve got to leverage whatever we can.”
Clint Rainey is a religious studies/journalism graduate student in New York University’s Global and Joint Studies Program, studying the intersection of evangelicalism and American culture. He has written about religion for The New York Times, NYTimes.com, Newsweek, Slate, World, The Dallas Morning News, Killing the Buddha and other publications.