A new epidemic is afflicting people across the world and unfortunately the Church gives it little or no attention. I am speaking of “cybersex,” a term variously defined, but for our purposes here refers to “any use of a computer to in some way enhance sexual stimulation.” That definition is very broad and covers a host of behaviors that range from encounters in chat rooms, to live video cams, to the incredible proliferation of pornography on the internet. Chances are that everyone reading this post has encountered this epidemic in one way or another, either through willing participation or by inadvertently stumbling upon it from routine computer practices like surfing the web or checking your email inbox.

If anyone thinks “epidemic” is too strong a word, consider these facts (many of which are several years old and represent lower numbers than current ones – stats taken from www.xxxchurch.com):

  • Pornography generates approximately $1 billion annually with growth projections to $5-7 billion over the next 5 years, barring unforeseen change (NRC Report 2002)
  • 25 million Americans visit cybersex sites between 1-10 hours per week (MSNBC Survey 2000)
  • 9 in 10 kids 8-16 yrs. have viewed porn online, mostly accidentally while doing homework (UK News Telegraph, NOP Research Group, 1/07/02)
  • 89% of sexual solicitations of youth were made in either chat rooms or Instant Messages (Pew Study reported in JAMA, 2001)
  • 26 popular children’s characters, such as Pokemon, My Little Pony and Action Man, revealed thousands of links to porn sites. 30% were hard-core. (Envisional 2000)
  • 30% of all unsolicited emails contain pornographic information (Choose Your Mail.com study, October, 1999).
  • Estimates for the number of X-rated sites on the net range from 20,000 to 7 million (CNET.com, April 28, 1999).

The list could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. Cybersex is here in a big way and it doesn’t look like it will be going away any time soon. With the advent of this new reality has come a tidal wave of sexual addiction, promiscuity, and unhealthy deviance. Some are quick to point out that the world has always experienced such things wherever human communities live and relate. That may be true, but such an observation fails to account for the proliferation of such behavior that is possible precisely because of the medium through which it is expressed (the internet). Cybersex is so popular because it promises things that people soon discover it really can’t deliver: anonymity, safety, no-fault pleasure, and a means of escape (from flesh and blood relationships, reality, or even boredom).

So what does the Church have to say about cybersex? I have been a Christian for most of my life and a pastor for the past 11 years. During all that time, I never heard the word “cybersex” or even a close equivalent until a few weeks ago at a Conference on Sexual Ethics for Pastors entitled “Integrity in Ministry.” I was glad it was being addressed, especially the portion of the workshop that dealt specifically with integrity and the internet, but I couldn’t help but wonder why something that seems to affect so many gets such little attention in such a limited way. Why does the church wait to talk about something that threatens the faithful? Why does the church seem to postpone such discussion indefinitely until it becomes an issue that might have legal repercussions?

I am not sure I know the answer to such questions, but the skeptic in me has a few thoughts that come to mind. The Church has always had an aversion to speaking forthrightly on the subject of sex; that much is a given. When we do broach the subject, our preoccupations seem to focus on the “speck” rather than the “log.” The statistically less prominent issue of homosexuality is the clear winner for our hot button while an epidemic divorce rate gets casual attention at best. Teaching safe sex trumps discussing abstinence and moral chastity in a “hook-up” culture. In general, we like to major on the minors because that usually means that all our talk about sex can focus on someone else. Those who reject this moralistic and reductionistic finger pointing often choose just to say nothing at all, as if to grab a third, “above the fray,” alternative that does not exist. Such silence from the Church leaves this crucial subject to a sex-saturated culture hell bent on educating, teaching, and shaping our living and loving in its own way. Should we really be surprised at the result?

In posts to come, more will be said about faithful living, in real space and cyberspace. I invite you to join the discussion by posting your own comments, suggestions, and resources. I have not even broached the subject of popular sites like myspace.com or other online communities that have captured an entire generation of youth – and my intention is not an attempt to reject all such mediums (that would be kind of hypocritical since I am posting to a blog!). What I am suggesting is that the Church find her voice again amidst new challenges to faithfulness, especially those that have arisen because of a world that is wired.

Some resources worth checking out:

For help with online addiction: www.cybersexualaddiction.com / www.xxxchurch.com / www.pureintimacy.org / www.blazinggrace.org

Accountability Software (You’ve heard of prayer partners? How about an online accountability partner?): www.covenanteyes.com / http://www.x3watch.com /

Help with internet filtering: www.safeeyes.com / www.netdogsoft.com / www.cyberpatrol.com / www.cybersitter.com

My Space: From Wired Safety / Safety Tips from My Space itself

Articles worth a look:

How your Church can take on the Porn Epidemic

Clay Crosse Testimony