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.
Dr. 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,” Dr. 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 the police this 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 Mr. Long agonized over the possibility of “falling out of God’s grace.”
When Mr. Long, 21, was arrested on Tuesday on his way to Florida, the 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Bundy’s message was that an “addiction” to pornography fueled his crimes.
“What a tragedy!” Mr. Dobson wrote later, referring to Mr. 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, Ga., who was a guest speaker at several summer trips for young people in the early 2000s at the Baptist church later attended by Mr. 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, the lead pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., 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, Dr. 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 percent of white evangelicals say they feel depressed after using pornography, compared with 8.6 percent of white liberal Protestants and 19 percent of white Catholics, according to a survey Dr. 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.
Dr. 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,” Dr. 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, Mr. 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.”/quote]