The tragic murder of eight people in Atlanta-area spas last week continues to ripple across the nation as people try to make sense of such a horrific act. My heart goes out to the loved ones of the victims and to the Asian community, as well as to the family of the shooter and even to the young man himself who admitted to this crime.
When something so terrible happens, it’s human nature to look for reasons that might have prompted the event. Two primary motivations are being widely discussed in the media: the shooter’s self-described “sex addiction,” and the racism directed toward Asian individuals, especially the historic sexualization of Asian women that resulted in a hate crime against them.
The reality is that this situation was likely the result of a convergence of contributing factors. Yes, Robert Aaron Long, the confessed perpetrator, apparently mentioned his sex addiction as a reason he wanted to remove the “temptation” of the spas, although there has been no indication that they offered illegal or sexual services.
The International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP), the leading educational and clinical organization for the treatment of compulsive sexual behavior disorder, commonly called “sex addiction,” issued a STATEMENT regarding this aspect of a possible motive. IITAP unequivocally states that “having compulsive or addictive sexual behavior should never be used as an excuse for violence, misogyny, racism, or homophobia.” IITAP also refutes the erroneous reporting by most media outlets that sex addiction isn’t real, as some so-called experts assert. (As a former journalist, I’m infuriated that neither reporters nor their editors seemed to ask, “Are there other ‘experts’ who view this diagnosis differently?” None of those commenting work in the area of addiction medicine, and Dr. Stefanie Carnes, the president of IITAP, has not been quoted.)
It is also undeniable that Asian-Americans have endured systemic racism for decades that has only been exacerbated by politicians’ use of the offensive description “China virus.” Numerous studies report that hate crimes against Asian-Americans have risen at alarming rates in the last year. Like the racism experienced by Blacks and other people of color, this reality is heartbreaking.
What isn’t being discussed widely is the shame-based religious environment in which the shooter was raised. As a Christian and as someone well acquainted with the results of overwhelming sexual shame in myself and in the thousands of people who have attended a Bethesda Workshop, I must speak out.
Shame is a killer. No, shame rarely causes the kind of violence perpetrated in Atlanta last week. Much more often, shame kills the sufferer either overtly through suicide or covertly in a suffocating blanket that stifles life. A roommate of the confessed killer said that Long believed his “very salvation was at stake” because of his “sexual sin.” “He was militant about it,” the roommate described. “This was the kind of guy who would hate himself for masturbating.” The roommate said that Long believed he was “falling out of the grace of God” due to his sex addiction and that he had contemplated suicide.
Sadly, I believe Christians and organized religion have elevated sexual “failings” to the worst of the worst type of “sins.” The conservative evangelical church where Long and his family have attended for decades publicly disowned Long in a statement published Friday, and a church vote conducted on Sunday removed him from its membership. And the point of those actions is….? This individual will spend the rest of his life in prison. It’s unlikely he will ever attend church there again, which surely will be helpful for his mental health.
Within many Christian circles, especially within the “purity culture” espoused by many conservative or evangelical groups, sex has been both demonized and elevated. Sex, especially anything outside heterosexual marriage, is viewed as the most dangerous and sinful thing a person can do. Yet some evangelical male leaders (females aren’t allowed to lead publicly) proudly talk about their “smoking hot wives” as if they are trophies they deserve to enjoy. Sex within the marriage context is elevated as “God’s greatest creation,” while sex “outside those bounds” is the worst thing someone can do. Neither viewpoint is biblical or healthy. Women are neither sexual threats nor fulfillments for men, although within the purity culture women are usually blamed for “tempting” men because they have different body shapes and parts, some of which protrude more obviously than men’s, at least while clothed.
Starting at a young age many Christian children are taught that if they “fail” at controlling their sexual desires, usually without the help of accurate, open conversation about sexuality and healthy relationships, they are doomed. Females, especially, are viewed as “damaged goods.” Males are taught to be ashamed of their normal sexual feelings and interest, which are termed “lustful.”
The statement by the conservative church where Long attended described his undeniably heinous act as displaying “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind – the total corruption of mankind.” Many churches advocate praying more or studying the Bible more or controlling oneself more as the solution to undisciplined or improper sexual behavior. Without additional resources such as mental health treatment that addresses underlying issues, the struggler almost always fails to change.
And the result? Overwhelming shame. The weight of sexual shame, especially for someone who has tried a religious solution without success, engulfs the heart and psyche. The person, indeed, often questions his or her worth before God. “How could God love me if I keep doing X-Y-Z sexually? I must be a horrible, terrible person who is far outside any hope for God’s favor.” Believe me, I know that internal voice very well, and I hear it almost without exception from the God-loving Christian men and women who seek help from Bethesda Workshops. For most, that condemnation has been screaming at them for decades, often loudest within their own churches.
In publicized statements, the congregation that this shooter called home said he is no longer considered a “regenerate believer in Jesus Christ.” Really? It seems to me that misguided as his thinking clearly was, Aaron Long seemed so desperate to do what he thought Jesus demanded that he would go to this heinous, deranged length to achieve his goal. And now eight souls are dead.
Let me be clear: I am not in any way excusing Aaron Long’s violence or letting people off the hook for their sexual shortcomings. I am saying that a toxic culture of shame only makes things worse. Sometimes, it even kills.
The debilitating shame that “fallen” people feel is both a contributor to and result of compulsive or inappropriate sexual behavior. It’s a vicious cycle, a self-perpetuating shame-fulfilling loop. Sexual addiction is, at the core, a shame-driven issue. The solution is not heaping on more shame, even when sugared-up in biblical language about following God’s plan and accepting personal responsibility. Shame is a toxic motivator that never works long-term.
The world shifted on its axis for me when a dear friend, a deeply spiritual woman, assured me nearly 30 years ago that God wouldn’t love me any more when I got my life together and stopped having affairs, and that God wouldn’t love me any less if I never took that step. That was radical theology to me then, and it’s equally radical today. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Holy wow!
Yes, I absolutely believe in living a principled life based on a myriad of values, including sexual integrity. If you are struggling in honoring your values around sex or relationships, get honest with yourself, get every assistance available, including using the gold standards of boundaries and accountability, and make a course correction. Then make another and another and another, if necessary. Just don’t fall into the trap of toxic shame, which shackles, rather than frees you to live differently.
As a culture, the systemic challenges of racism and misogyny are well-entrenched and horrifically slow to change. Fortunately, the devastation caused by sex addiction is much more easily treated: A sound neurobiological and therapeutic approach is extremely effective. The righteous rigidity of false and harmful attitudes about sex that permeates many churches is another systemic evil that must be highlighted and eradicated.
Christians, the shaming has to stop! Will you join me in assuring God’s love for all who are hurting, including those who struggle sexually? Tragically, recent events show that lives may literally depend on it.
Marnie C. Ferree