On March 16, a gunman shot nine people in three Asian spas in Georgia, and killed eight. The Atlanta Police Department said the shooter told them that he was a sex addict and was seeking to eliminate the temptation that he perceived these outlets represented. It’s not completely clear that sex work took place at the establishments he targeted: Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had suggested it didn’t, but neighbors called the area in Atlanta where the spas were located “a red light district.”
The police said they have not ruled out classifying the shooting as an anti-Asian hate crime—six of the women were Asian and there has been a large uptick in anti-Asian violence in the last 12 months—but they have also noted that the gunman had frequented at least two of the establishments. According to the shooter’s roommate, the shooter had sought treatment for his sex addiction at HopeQuest, a facility operated by an evangelical group and located just down the road from the first spa that he attacked in Acworth, Ga. The gunman was also a member of the evangelical Crabapple First Baptist church, in Milton, Ga., which has begun the process to expel him and called the shootings “the result of a sinful heart and depraved mind.”
It seems likely that a viper’s nest of different toxic impulses lay behind the shooter’s actions, but according to Samuel Perry, an associate professor of sociology at Oklahoma University who studies sex, race, gender and faith, and author of three books about modern evangelical culture including Addicted to Lust, the confusing rhetoric of the evangelical church about sex can lead to despair over a perceived sex addiction and a feeling that one must go to extremes to avoid it. He spoke to TIME about his research.
The shooter described himself as a sex addict. Is sex addiction a thing?
It’s not recognized as a thing in the psychiatric literature, even though it is talked about quite frequently. Some kind of a sexual compulsive disorder will be included in another forthcoming manual for mental health professionals, but it’s different from the traditional sex addiction idea; it’s describing more of a compulsion or an impulse-control kind of issue.
Why do some people regard themselves as sex addicts?
Oftentimes these things are difficult to disentangle from how somebody feels about their sexual behavior because there’s very morally charged responses to it. There are all kinds of cultural values that are entangled with how one is evaluating one’s own sexual behavior. There is an entire subculture around this idea of sex addiction and pornography addiction.
I do think there are extreme situations in which people seem to be characterized by what we would consider a clinical addiction, some kind of dysregulated out-of-control behavior, like compulsive gamblers have, ruining their lives systematically by their addiction. That usually is not going on when Christian men like [the shooter] describe their behavior as an addiction. Oftentimes what they really mean is “I’m regularly engaging in this thing that I’d rather not, but I’m doing it consistently, so I feel like I’m out of control.”
Your research has suggested that there are some Christians who feel like they have a sexual addiction when, in fact, their sexual practices would be called normal by other people. Why is that?
We have data collected in February where we asked adults how often they look at pornography, and we asked them whether or not they think they’re addicted to pornography. Men who identify as evangelical Christians are considerably less likely to look at porn on a regular basis than men who are not evangelicals, but they are a third more likely to say that they’re addicted to porn.
That suggests that evangelicals are working with a very expansive definition of addiction that is basically shaped by this idea that if I’m doing something regularly that I’d rather not do, I can call myself an addict. And that’s a core aspect of their identity: I’m a porn addict or I’m a sex addict. It works differently among white liberal Protestants or white Catholics or secular people. There’s a subculture around evangelicalism that kind of throws around that term addiction.
I’m not a porn apologist. I don’t think there’s much good that comes from it. And yet white evangelical Christians are the most likely group of all the religious traditions to say that they are depressed when they look at porn, and that they look at porn more often than they want to and they hide their porn use. What all of that suggests to me is that there is an anxiety and distress around someone’s moral violation of their sexual ethic or values that leads to a really negative self-characterization as somebody who is powerless.
Are there other beliefs that often coexist with these beliefs that people are addicted to sex or pornography in these Christian circles?
One of these interesting paradoxes among conservative Christian men is that sexual sin is a really bad sin and that you can reduce your entire spiritual life to how you’re doing sexually. It’s something I call sexual exceptionalism in my book, the idea that for evangelicals oftentimes sexual sin is the worst sin, not racism, not greed, not lack of love for your neighbor. It’s what you’re lusting over.
But on the other hand, the culture of white evangelical masculinity says it’s normal. This is something that is very, very normal for a guy to wrestle with. And in fact, if you weren’t struggling with it, as a guy, you’d be kind of weird. And so, on the one hand, it’s a really bad thing. And on the other hand, it’s kind of what makes you a guy. It’s normalized that way and people have conversations about it and you get into accountability groups and this is where you get affirmed as a man. I don’t mean to say you are patted on the back for sexually sinning; they feel horrible about it. But on the one hand, it’s condemning; on the other hand, it’s kind of affirming.
How much do you think the evangelical churches are responsible for promoting these beliefs that this is something that is outside the men’s control and dangerous?
The rhetoric of addiction obscures more than it helps because a lot of what these men are struggling with is shame and guilt. About 70% of white evangelical men say they hide their porn use. Again, I’m not advocating pornography, but there is another level of self-flagellation and self-condemnation and negatively defining one’s own identity as a porn addict that doesn’t help these men and sometimes women find healing and a sense of empowerment that they can direct their sexual urges in more positive ways.
The subculture of evangelical purity culture says, “This is an addiction like heroin is an addiction. You need to be so serious about this violation in your life that you’re willing to go to extremes to avoid it.” And that’s where it gets a little bit worrisome. When the New Testament talks about gouging out your eye and cutting off your hand in order to avoid lust, the implication is “I need to be willing to do anything to avoid this kind of sin.”
Now do I think that drove this guy to commit murder? There are mental health issues, there’s racism. There’s all of these kinds of different factors mixed in there. And yet this kind of rhetoric surrounding sex addiction, I think it escalates it.
Does this rule out the possibility that these were anti-Asian hate crimes?
I think it was racialized, obviously. By frequenting these establishments, he’s already expressing a racialized fetish for Asian women. He walked in that door, knowing that they would be Asian faces he would be shooting. He had dehumanized this entire group of people. I don’t know if there’s any evidence to suggest that it was like, “I hate all Asian people and so I’m going to attack these women.” Would he have killed a business establishment full of white women? Would he have dehumanized them in that way? Would he have gone to that establishment in the first place, because he wouldn’t have fetishized them in that way? There are racial implications that go beyond just “I hate all Asian people.” He fetishized, objectified and dehumanized Asian women in particular, and that plays a role.
What should people be on the lookout for among their friends, among their family and maybe even in their churches? Was there some tendency that those around him could have spotted?
What I suggest in my book Addicted to Lust is that there has got to be a culture built around just having conversations about what is going on in that department and destigmatizing it. I’m not saying that they should be O.K. with [porn or sex work], but there’s got to be a better culture surrounding talking about it, so that people don’t feel like they have to bury that so far down.
Correction, March 22
The original version of this story misstated the college at which Samuel Perry teaches. It is the University of Oklahoma, not Oklahoma University.