Sexual anguish of Atlanta suspect is familiar thorn for evangelicals

The New York Times
Washington, DC, United States of AmericaWritten By: Ruth Graham © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 21, 2021, 03:20 PM IST
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Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the massacres that left eight people dead, told police this past week that he had a “sexual addiction,” and he had been a customer at two of the spas that he targeted.

When Brad Onishi heard that the man accused of a rampage at three Atlanta-area spas told detectives that he had carried out the attacks as a way to eliminate his own temptations, the claim sounded painfully familiar.

Onishi, who grew up in a strict evangelical community in Southern California that emphasized sexual purity, had spent his teenage years tearing out any advertisements in surfing magazines that featured women in bikinis. He had traded his online passwords with friends to hold himself accountable.

“We had a militant vigilance: Don’t let anything in the house that will tempt you sexually,” Onishi, now an associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, recalled.

The evangelical culture he was raised in, he said, “teaches women to hate their bodies, as the source of temptation, and it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and sexual immorality.”

Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the massacres that left eight people dead, told police this past week that he had a “sexual addiction,” and he had been a customer at two of the spas that he targeted. He was so intent on avoiding pornography that he blocked several websites on his computer and had sought help at a Christian rehab clinic. A former roommate said that Long agonized over the possibility of “falling out of God’s grace.”

When Long, 21, was arrested Tuesday on his way to Florida, police said, he told officers he had planned to carry out another attack on a business connected to the pornography industry.

Many people saw clear signs of misogyny and racism in the attacks, in which six of the victims were women of Asian descent.

But Long’s characterization of his motivations was also very recognizable to observers of evangelicalism and some evangelicals themselves. He seemed to have had a fixation on sexual temptation, one that can lead to despair among people who believe they are failing to follow the ideal of refraining from sex and even lust outside heterosexual marriage.

Combating pornography and improper sexual desire is an enduring theme within contemporary conservative evangelicalism. In churches, men partner in “accountability groups” to hold each other responsible for avoiding sexual temptation and other moral dangers. Others use “accountability software” like Covenant Eyes, which monitors screen activity and sends reports about pornography usage to a designated “ally.” Countless books promise spiritual and practical strategies for breaking free of the habit.

Historically, some evangelical leaders have also drawn a direct line between pornography and violence. James Dobson, the influential founder of Focus on the Family, recorded a video interview with Ted Bundy the day before the serial killer’s execution in 1989. Bundy’s message was that an “addiction” to pornography fueled his crimes.

“What a tragedy!” Dobson wrote later, referring to Bundy’s violence. “There is a possibility, at least, that it would not have occurred if that 13-year-old boy had never stumbled onto pornographic magazines in a garbage dump.”

In recent decades, many conservative evangelical leaders and their churches have begun to speak more frankly about sex.

“It’s very openly talked about that God created sexuality, it’s something not to be ashamed of, and that God made it for his purposes,” said Anson McMahon, a pastor in Buford, Georgia, who was a guest speaker at several summer trips for young people in the early 2000s at the Baptist church later attended by Long.

But if conversations around sexual issues have become more frank, the message that sex is reserved for straight married couples has remained unchanged.

Many Christians trace their condemnation of pornography back to Jesus.

“I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he is quoted saying in the Gospel of Matthew.

For Protestants in particular, whose faith prioritizes correct internal beliefs and spiritual attitudes, that passage has contributed to a worldview in which inappropriate sexual thoughts are just as sinful as wrong actions.

The problem with pornography, in this view, is how it affects the person’s mind and heart.

“Masturbation in and of itself, the act is a biological act,” said Heath Lambert, lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, and author of a book for evangelical men struggling with pornography use. “What’s wrong is lust. What’s wrong is what happens in my heart.”

The attacks at the spas violated all church teachings, Lambert said, and he thought the obvious root of the violence was the pornography that the accused gunman “was using and trying to get away from.”

White evangelicals do not use pornography more than other demographics, said Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who has researched the role of pornography in the lives of conservative Protestants. In fact, white evangelicals who regularly attend church look at pornography less than the general population.

But they report significantly more anguish around the practice. Almost 30% of white evangelicals say they feel depressed after using pornography, compared with 8.6% of white liberal Protestants and 19% of white Catholics, according to a survey that Perry co-conducted in February as part of the Public Discourse and Ethics Survey. White evangelicals are also significantly more likely to report that they are “addicted” to pornography.

Perry described a phenomenon in some parts of evangelical culture that he called “sexual exceptionalism,” in which sexual sins are implied to be more serious than other categories.

“So many men boil down how they’re doing spiritually to how often they have looked at porn recently,” Perry said, reflecting on his research in evangelical settings. “Not whether they’d grown in their love toward others, given generously of their time or spent time connecting with God, but if they masturbated.”

For some with experience in evangelical youth culture, Long’s fixation on sexual temptation was a reminder of a damaging approach to teaching young people how to address sexuality.

“It presents a very demeaning view of manhood,” said Rachael Denhollander, an evangelical advocate for sexual abuse victims. “Every time you teach a woman in the presence of a young man that it’s her responsibility to keep a man from lusting and that she has the power to keep him from sexual perversion by what she wears and what she does, what he hears is that it’s her fault.”

Jeff Chu, a writer in Michigan, attended an evangelical junior high and high school that, like many similar schools, enforced strict rules for the lengths of girls’ skirts, with the goal of encouraging modesty.

“It was so rarely about the men controlling their own desires and so often about women not being temptresses,” Chu recalled. “So many of us who haven’t fit within the norms of that culture, whether it’s women or queer people, we’re always seen as the problem.”

And while police said that Long claimed he was not racially motivated, some saw a connection between strict sexual beliefs and violence against Asian women in particular.

“Purity culture teaches young men to view young women who do not try to maintain modesty as sinister forces,” Onishi said. “It’s hard not to think about the fact that Asian women have been sexualized and set up to be viewed through the lens of an exotic other who is sexually desirable.”

Despite evangelicalism’s preoccupations with individual sexual morality, its leaders’ failures are so numerous as to have become cliché. In the most recent high-profile example, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries announced last month that its eponymous founder had a pattern of groping and exposing himself to massage therapists, among other sexual misconduct. Zacharias, who died in 2020, owned two day spas in the Atlanta area.

Long sought treatment for what he described to police as a “sex addiction” at HopeQuest, an evangelical treatment center in Acworth, Georgia, the city where one of the attacks took place. The center advertises its treatment of “sex addiction” and “pornography addiction” in addition to drugs, alcohol and gambling. The center lists indications for sex addiction including “‘crossing lines’ of personal beliefs or values in his/her behaviors, which results in extreme emotional distress and feelings of guilt and shame.”

The language of addiction is used often in evangelical circles to describe someone who uses pornography or engages in other sexual behaviors that violate their own values, but does not necessarily rise to the level of clinical addiction, Perry said.

“Sex addiction” is not an established psychiatric diagnosis, and there is a debate in the mental health community about how to define and treat compulsive sexual behavior.

“There’s no evidence-based treatment for sex addiction,” said Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University and a clinical psychologist.

Evangelical sex addiction treatment tends to emphasize total abstinence from any sexual behavior outside heterosexual marriage.

“They don’t take into account that humans are creatures with a drive for sex,” Grubbs said.

Long and his family were active members at Crabapple First Baptist Church in Milton, Georgia, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. In the church’s youth group for high school students, Long was “one of those core young men involved in everything we did,” said Brett Cottrell, a former youth and missions pastor at the church.

In November, an associate pastor at the church, Luke Folsom, preached a sermon on the “battle” against sin. He quoted a verse from the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells his followers that it may be worth gouging out an eye if it causes them to sin.

He continued, addressing the use of pornography directly.

“Cut it out by getting rid of your smartphone, getting rid of internet connection, anything and everything that would allow you to do it,” he said. “Your soul is at stake.”

Lust, he added, is “a heart problem, not just an eye problem.”

The church, which declined a request for an interview with its leaders, issued a statement Friday that condemned the violence at the Atlanta-area spas as well as the suspect’s “stated reasons for carrying out this wicked plan.”

The church also emphasized that the gunman alone was to blame for his actions.

“The women that he solicited for sexual acts are not responsible for his perverse sexual desires nor do they bear any blame in these murders,” the church stated. “These actions are the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.”