by Robert Hodge and Brent Lindquist
Our purpose is not to speak to this issue authoritatively, but to present the problem in hopes that it may stimulate further discussion and management in the larger missions community.
It started out as such an innocent thing. Sam, the missionary was going through his e-mail, and absentmindedly surfing the Internet. He almost always did these kinds of activities, especially when he was bored, stressed, frustrated, depressed or whatever… He had made an earlier commitment to simply delete the daily menu of unsolicited pornographic e-mails (“Best XXX Site,” and several other titles too graphic and offensive to print here). He’s not sure exactly which Web site reeled him in, but he does remember clicking on a nondescript e-mail, which somehow transported him into a repulsive and exciting world of nudity, sexual immorality, perversion, voyeurism, excitement…and dependency.
There have been a whole host of accompanying difficulties since that first guilty look. The Web sites titillated him, and he kept on “clicking.” He found himself getting into the porn regularly, at first rationalizing it as a stress reliever, and as a way to learn how to better satisfy his wife. However, he felt increasingly guilty about all the time he was spending, and how he was having trouble forgetting the images he looked at, even when he was with his wife.
Sally was facing a quandary. She had an active role managing e-mail newsletters to their supporters. In such a role, she responded to an offer to engage in chats with other people online. What started as a time of connection with people soon became the focal point of her life. An online “Mary,” who had become a close woman friend on the net, confessed that “she” was “Tom,” and that he was strongly attracted to her. At first, she ignored him, but she was entangled emotionally to this extremely close virtual friend. Sally tried to keep her chats with Tom platonic, but Tom became more intimate in his topics. He seemed the ideal male friend—sensitive, thoughtful and caring. He even started supporting them as missionaries, thereby giving Sally an excuse that she was communicating with donors when they were online. She looked forward to their chats, and became very defensive when John, her husband, questioned her computer time. By the time she admitted to herself she had a problem, she felt powerless to control herself.
The above vignettes are relatively accurate depictions of some of the stages a person goes through on the dark side of the Internet. The question immediately arises: “What does this have to do with missions? Shouldn’t this be in a counseling journal?” It is a question we have asked ourselves. Both of us have come here from very different places. One of us, Brent Lindquist, is a psychologist with years of experience in counseling individuals and families, as well as consulting with organizations. The other, Bob Hodge, has come from mission governance and college administration, including information resources responsibility. And yet, these concerns about pornography have brought us together. Robert utilized Brent to help prepare a presentation to the International Conference on Computing in Missions. It seems the “techies” of many organizations were finding evidence of pornography on the computers within their organizations. Questions arose about who to tell, and what to do about it. This article flows from that presentation. Our purpose is not to speak to this issue authoritatively, but to present the problem in hopes that it may stimulate further discussion and management in the larger missions community. For this reason we are not attempting to define pornography from a legal perspective, but to present our concerns about its impact in ministry.
Do we have a problem with pornography in missions? A recent MSNBC/Stanford survey said:
- At least 200,000 Internet users are hooked on porn sites, chat rooms or other sexual materials online.
- Women had only slightly lower rates of sexually compulsive Internet behavior. It is not just “a guy thing.”
- Seventy percent keep their habit a secret.
- Thirty percent of all unsolicited e-mail contains pornographic information according to an October 1999 study by Your Mail.com.
- Eighty-nine percent of sexual solicitations were made in either a chat room or in instant messages. Thirteen million youth use instant messaging, a Pew Study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001. There are many online sexual predators.
A recent Christianity Today survey showed that:
- Fifty-one percent of pastors say cyberporn is a possible temptation. Thirty-seven percent say it is a current struggle.
- “Pastor’s Family Bulletin” says that one in seven calls to Focus on the Family’s Pastoral Care Line is about Internet pornography.
- In a recent informal survey of primarily US-based mission agencies conducted by Hodge, two agencies stated that the issue of using the Internet to access pornography in missions today was insignificant, ten stated that it was somewhat significant and three stated it was very significant. There was equal diversity on how a technician should respond to a discovery of pornography or other inappropriate material.
At the last two International Conference on Computing in Missions (see www.ICCM.org) conferences an ongoing, yet unresolved, topic of great interest has been the role of the mission technology person in either confronting a possible offender or relaying the discovered infractions to some more appropriate person. It is clear that the information technology people in missions are aware of actual and possible misuses of the computers they work on, yet are undecided regarding what to do about it.
Finally, as Bob has worked with Bible colleges and Christian liberal arts colleges in the US, a common topic for each one of them is the surprisingly high rate of pornography addiction among the students, some of whom have aspirations, if not a calling, to the mission field as the first missionaries that grew up in the digital generation. Some have brought their addiction to college with them, having started it on the home computer.
WHAT MAKES ONLINE PORNOGRAPHY A SPECIAL PROBLEM?
We understand that addictions are enabled at least three ways. Addictions are not caused by, but are clearly enabled, when the “fuel” for the addiction is affordable, accessible and anonymous. The Internet provides the ultimate in affordability, accessibility and anonymity to enable sexual addictions.
There are an estimated 400,000 pornographic Web sites, mostly outside of the US. As of this writing, a Web search for “free porn” generated 1.65 million references. Online pornography is indeed easily accessible. Many sites contain a sizeable amount of free material to pull viewers into more explicit and participatory material, relying on the simplicity and ease of anonymous clicking, as in our example of missionary Sam. Indeed, many people, when confronted with their inappropriate activity, express bewilderment to identify just how or when their inappropriate use or addiction started: “I was just clicking and one click led to another.”
While the use of the Internet is generally anonymous to the people around us, it is becoming less so to others on the Internet or to those who work on our computers. They tell us not to respond to e-mail solicitations for pornographic material, even if it is to tell the sender to take the user’s name off their list. Responses, even of a negative nature, make the e-mail name more valuable for resale to others because the user has shown that he or she has actually opened and viewed the unsolicited material. Standard marketing techniques rely on multiple images to make buyers aware of the products, overcome barriers to buying the product and create a demand. Many of the references to “free porn” through a search engine are simply free samples for one of the very few profitable e-commerce industries—pornography.
For the sake of brevity, we have presented a response to this issue in terms of three arenas: prevention, detection and correction. We are writing primarily from an administrative perspective, so we intentionally are downplaying a detailed description of clinical or pastoral/spiritual solutions. We encourage the reader to contact us or visit the listed ministry Web sites for additional ideas (see page 57).
It is our belief that the issue of Internet pornography is a heart and head issue. We ultimately cannot rely on the government, laws or technology to solve these issues. They have their place and we need their assistance, but we must go far beyond those remedies.
Prevention. The first solution arena has to do with prevention. In the long run, it is much better to prevent something, or some behaviors, from occurring. Certainly, missionaries don’t show up as blank slates. They bring their histories, problems, victories and proclivities from their earlier life with them. The mission can choose to ignore this, and become “stuck” with these problems, or the mission can seek to prevent recurrence by education, briefing, analysis or other processes.
Analytic processes can include assessment processes in which candidates are asked about pornography. While direct questions may sometimes not be appropriate or legal, there are many ways to gather information. If a mission takes the stance that the application process is the place to identify weaknesses and reject applicants, this will probably preclude any openness and honesty in self-disclosure. If the mission sees each person as weak in some places, strong in others and, if “in weakness he is strong,” then they can focus on identifying weaknesses for future management. A prefield orientation process that encourages looking inward at problems with sexuality and helps the new missionary develop management strategies can be quite effective and useful in later missionary careers. Finally, if issues are identified, an accountability group can be developed around the missionary to help keep the potential problem out in the open. The accountability group needs to include an appropriate mission representative as well.
Detection. A second solution arena involves detection. Detection refers to the processes the organization goes through to identify transgressions. For instance, there seems to be a lot of discussion about who actually owns the computers missionaries use. Missions have erred here when they cloud the ownership picture. Usually, mission organizations don’t have the funds to give their field people technology. Technology becomes either part of the outgoing expense, or a special project. What this usually means is that missionaries who raise their own funds for computers take the attitude that such computers are their own property. The techie who identifies porn on the hard drive doesn’t have a clear understanding of his or her responsibility and authority about the appropriate steps to take.
Ownership issues need to be clarified for all. In the same way that the organization can look at the hard drives of the HQ computers, they can look at the hard drives on the field. Making this explicit may not keep someone off porn sites, but it may keep them off mission hardware. For some, that may be enough. In any case, it opens the door for dialog and alerts people within the mission that it is a discussable item.
Technology can assist in the detection of inappropriate use of the Internet. “Filter” software on the individual desktop computer or on the main computer that handles the Internet connection for an office can minimally track the number and source of “hits” or attempted hits to unauthorized Web sites. Many filters block particular Web sites that are determined by a blocking service to be outside of the organization’s criteria of acceptability. Some filters block particular words but do not block the actual site. Still others only allow access to a positive list of acceptable sites.
Technology alone is insufficient to stop online access to pornography however. Because of the fast pace of change on the Internet, it is difficult for those providing “black lists” of sites to catch up to the number of pornographic sites added or changed every day. Much pornography is graphic rather than written, and few filters can detect inappropriate images. There are ways to get around some filters, and the Internet contains information on how to fool the filter without much sophistication. An ongoing rule of thumb is that filters may block only eighty-five percent of the inappropriate information. They are good for the majority of users but will not stop those who are intent to feed their addiction. Like an “Employees Only” sign or a basic lock on a door, the best use of filters is for those who may casually search for or stumble across inappropriate information.
Correction. The third solution arena has to do with correction, that is, what one does after a problem is identified. How inappropriate usage is discovered sets the stage for the first steps of correction. Many missions are still at this first step. Some examples:
- Your in-house technician, while upgrading software and working through some deeper computer performance issues, discovers evidences of pornography on a missionary’s computer. What should the technician do?
1. Confront the missionary directly using Matthew 18 as the impetus and model? But, is the technician actually the first person you would want to confront this problem? Would you leave it to him or her to resolve the problem quietly? This could serve to perpetuate the problem by keeping it in the dark.
2. Pass the information on to the missionary’s director or field leader? Has this person been trained for this? Are they by nature a sensitive, pastoral type, or a perfunctory management type, to look at extremes?
3. Pass the information on to the technician’s supervisor?
- An outside hardware repair person discovers evidences of pornography on a commonly used desktop computer and mentions it to the secretary as he completes the repair. What should the secretary do with that information?
- Some person tells you that he has found evidences of pornography on your laptop computer, and you know it is not of your doing. What should your response be?
The first step from the point of discovery is critical. These situations contain complex issues of privacy, credibility, reputation, ongoing employment or membership, legal responsibility (in the case of child pornography) and restoration. Many employee manuals have boiler-plate comments about the discovery that include a variety of probationary and termination comments. Does yours?
Counseling steps in the correction arena are myriad and complex.
Determining whether to help or terminate requires the wisdom of Solomon. The secrecy and often accompanying manipulation necessary to keep the porn use secret, often make treatment difficult. The following questions and concepts may help administrators guide their actions, decisions and conversations with mental health advisors.
1. How was the pornography discovered? In a general sense, confession before being caught may be more advantageous for treatment outcomes than confession after being caught. Timing could be important here (The missionary confesses as the technician turns the computer on, versus the missionary who confesses about behaviors to the leader well before discovery would have occurred).
2. Is there history behind the current use? We are finding that pornography use can start up on the field, but it is usually connected to prior behaviors and history. Treatment for the missionary who only recently slipped may be quite different than the one who is revisiting past entrenched behaviors.
3. What legal issues have been brought up? Case law on child pornography on the Internet is being rewritten as we speak, due to the large number of court judgments. Also, what the missionary was looking at is important for treatment and employment decisions. What were the age and sex of the people in the pornography?
4. What is the state of the marriage, pre-discovery? This will have real ramifications with regards to treatment outcomes.
5. What resources is the mission willing to bring to bear on this problem? This isn’t a problem that can be treated quickly. It may require long- term treatment.
6. What is needed upon completion of treatment when the person is to be reassigned? We have consulted with missions to help them reassign people to places where they can be more easily monitored and held accountable. We have also worked in the middle of church-mission disputes where the church feels the missionary was rehabilitated, and the mission didn’t feel the reassignment was safe for the missionary or the community. There are no easy answers.
Another issue arises out of cross-cultural concerns. What is pornographic to us may not be viewed as pornographic by another missionary’s culture. This may not be a major issue for some but this needs to be discussed within the field context. Guiding principles need to be set up, understood and agreed upon. Underlying issues of purity and commitment, what the spouse believes and feels may need to take precedence over cross-cultural issues.
Where the issue of definitions comes up as a defense against acknowledgement of a problem, it will be better to focus on appropriate use toward the goals of the mission. Rather than falling prey to discussions of privacy and rights within a culture, it may be better to question the relevance of sexual material to assist in promoting the gospel, planting churches or offering aid and relief. We will do better to focus on what promotes the mission than on “do nots.”
When looked at in its totality, pornography and its influences appear overwhelming. Do mission organizations and missionaries have a problem with pornography? We honestly believe so, but if no one is talking about it, we may never know for sure. We are saddened by the difficulties this article may uncover as mission organizations look under the surface and on the hard drives. It is in the secrecy and “darkness” that this poison can be at its strongest. In the light of honesty, integrity, accountability and prayer, pornography’s influence can be defeated. We all need to hold on to that hope.
Robert Hodge is an executive coach/consultant developing nonprofit leaders and organizations. He is a board member of TEAM and the co-founder of the International Conference on Computing in Missions (ICCM).
Brent Lindquist, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and the president/CEO of Link Care Center, a counseling and consulting center for missionaries and pastors. He is a senior associate for Mental Health and Member Care for EFMA. He is married to Colleen and has two children, Sarah and Ben.
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