By Kristie Cossel, Youth Director at The Church of St. Clement (El Paso, TX)
“I could never go to anyone about this. This is a ‘guy’ sin. I’m a girl, and I shouldn’t even be looking at this stuff. I’m disgusting, dirty, and gross and no one will ever look at me the same if I told them about it. I just need to pull it together and figure this out on my own.”
– 15-year-old Kristie
These were thoughts that ran through my head all the time whenever I would think about asking my youth leaders for help because of how lost I felt from watching pornography. I was fifteen years old, a girl, and “the rock” of my family (only in my head and not in actuality). I don’t think I had ever heard about women having an addiction or problem with watching porn as a teenager. I had only heard two things about pornography:
1. Guys struggle with pornography.
2. It was bad.
That’s all I knew. Yet I was secretly in shackles, with no idea of how to get out of them.
I first came into contact with porn as a high school freshman. There was an anonymous chat website that was pretty popular with the students at my school.
You could talk to strangers all day long, from all across the world. There was no way of knowing who they were and if they were telling the truth about who they were, unless you video chatted with them. The kids at my school would lie about their ages and essentially “catfish”* whoever they were talking to.
I remember one day having free time in biology, because it was a Friday. Some of my peers got onto this site and started to chat with random people. They were quickly immersed in an online world, giggling away and having fun. All of the sudden they started laughing even harder; interested in what was funny, I asked what was going on.
That question led to the first time I ever saw a penis. I was really confused as to why it was on the screen and also didn’t find that very funny. I dismissed the photo and went back to what I was doing, minding my own business. That photo however, stayed in the back of my mind, leading to a damaging habit that would shape my teenager years.
Later that weekend, I went into my closet with my computer after my parents had gone to bed, opened the chat site up, and started talking to people. I talked to strangers all night, asking questions and learning terms I had never heard before. Of course, I googled what I was learning and that led to me finding pornography.
This is what kickstarted several years of a destructive cycle in my life. Let me give you a quick look: I’d watch porn, try to handle it on my own, realize I couldn’t do it on my own, go to God, and things would get better. Then, life would happen, things would start getting harder to deal with, and then all of the sudden I was watching porn again. I felt stuck, alone, and was disgusted with who I was, not recognizing why pornography had become a coping mechanism for me.
When I first began watching porn, I wasn’t actively a part of a youth group. I was involved in church and went every single week, even considering myself a Christian. If you asked how my relationship with God was going, I’d tell you it was going incredible.
Now, let me make this clear: there was never a moment in which I didn’t know that what I was watching was horrific. I knew that it was bad. I knew that it was a sin. I knew that it couldn’t ever add to my life in a positive way. But what I also knew was that I had just been dumped outside of a K Mart by my first ever boyfriend, leaving me feeling unlovable and unwanted. What I knew, was that I believed the lies that the devil was whispering in my heart, that this perversion of love was as close as I could ever get to actual love. The lie said that I deserved to be struggling with this and that I was now forever tied down because if I ever told anyone, they would only confirm my worst fears of being unlovable and unwanted.
Talk about bondage and lies, am I right, people?!
When I was 16, I began to attend the youth group of which I currently now serve as the youth minister of. Attending youth group forever changed my life and would impact the direction of my life in ways I could never imagine. I walked into this youth group and was immediately welcomed and loved. This place and these leaders would end up being people that I would open up to and be honest about what I was going through. These leaders would love me, walk with me through healing, hold me accountable for telling my parents, and also constantly ask me about what apps I had on my phone and what websites I visited. I can never, ever express how incredibly important it was for my development and healing to have older people who loved the Lord investing in me and loving me in ways I thought I was unworthy of.
I remember telling my leader, Nicole, about how I had been watching pornography. I sat down, knowing that after I told her she would ask me to leave and never come back. She would tell me I was disgusting and condemn me for giving into a temptation and not being strong enough to handle it. Bracing myself for the rejection that I was sure would come, I spilled all the beans to her.
Y’all, this sweet woman looked me in the eyes and told me she loved me. She thanked me for being honest with her, told me I wasn’t alone, and said that God would forgive me if I asked him to. I was flabbergasted and confused. She spoke truth into my heart, walking me through talking to my mom about my pornography addiction, and followed up the next day to see if I had spoken to her.
I wish I could tell you that I never watched pornography ever again, but sadly that would be a lie. Here is the thing: there was never a moment that I was content or happy with watching porn. I never closed my computer and turned off my phone thinking, “Wow, what a refreshing time! That made me feel whole and happy inside!” I would close my computer or turn off my phone and be filled with regret and disappointment that I couldn’t control myself yet again. That I had turned back to what was wrong, again. Pornography had become a habit, something I did when I was tired or stressed. It had become a coping mechanism, and I didn’t understand what that meant or how to make it disappear from my train of thought.
When I was a teenager and couldn’t “control the urges,” I would end up in that cycle I mentioned earlier in this article, not understanding why I couldn’t stop myself from looking at porn. It was only when I began to understand the way the brain works and the chemicals that are released when you look at porn that I began to be able to change the way I lived my life to change my habits.
Carolyn Allen, author of Journey to Wholeness told me once, “Change your thoughts, change your life.” Our minds are the epicenter of what we do, how we process things and where our behaviors originate from. When I began to change the way I thought and the things I believed, I was able to change my behaviors. This was only possible because the Lord was giving me new things to think about and new truths to believe, which replaced the old lies that once engrained my brain, allowing them to rule my life. These new ways of thinking and the accountability partnership of my mentors have enabled me to move forward in my own personal journey to spiritual wholeness.
The first time I ever gave my testimony about struggling with pornography, I was so nervous. Nervous I would be judged by people, laughed at, or that everyone would be so grossed out by me. I stood up in front of a group of kids I didn’t know and shared my story, trembling the entire time. After I was done, we had ministry and prayer time. I stood in the back, wiping my sweaty hands on my jeans. A younger girl came and approached me, crying. She looked at me and told me how she had been watching pornography, kept it in the dark, and thought she was alone, that she was disgusting and trapped in that darkness.
Every single time I’ve shared my story, a young girl will come up to me and share a similar story. Men are not the only ones watching. We have assigned a gender to watching pornography which in turn alienates women, making them feel like the only woman to ever be enslaved to pornography, and then become slathered in shame.
Here are three things I know now:
- Porn = emotionally/mentally/spiritually damaging struggle for everyone who watches it,
- Porn is not a “guy” struggle, and
- Porn is an everyone struggle.
As a Church, we need to stop shying away from talking about sexuality. Too often we vaguely mention sex and porn during church or youth group and leave it at, “Sex is bad and so is porn, so don’t have sex until you get married and never look at pornography, guys. Got it?” We alienate our young people who are having serious problems and feel like they can’t talk about them! If our students are not learning about sexuality with us at church or from their parents, they will go to the internet. They will go to the internet, they will find porn, and they will get a distorted and false representation of what love is, what sex is, and have a bucket of shame continuously dumped on them.
We are living in a world where 8-year-olds have smart phones. Even with parental controls applied (if there are any at all), they have complete access to the scary place that is the internet. Pornography is not limited to magazines anymore. It’s on Twitter, Instagram, in movies, and on Netflix shows. Yes, it is incredibly uncomfortable to start the narrative about sex and porn. Yes, saying that sex should be saved for marriage and leaving it at that is easier and less messy from the outside. Yes, it’s so much nicer to think that our kids aren’t looking at porn or thinking about (or having) sex.
The scary truth is our kids already know about sex and porn, because we live in an overly sexualized culture.
Whenever we end the conversation about sexuality at “sex is to be saved for marriage” we unintentionally make sex into a taboo subject. It becomes a mystery, an unknown, and a curiosity. Talking candidly and openly about sexuality will arm our students with truth and answers rather than a mysterious thing that is wrong to talk about. If we do not step up and begin to talk about sexuality, our students will find their information elsewhere and that information will be corrupted, perverted, and false.
So here is my question to you: Will you push past the uncomfortableness? Will you sacrifice your own comfort in an effort to disciple and love your students like Jesus has loved you? I challenge you to dive in and do it, because, for me, that changed my entire world, and it led me to freedom.
*Catfish: lure (someone) into a relationship by means of a fictional online persona (Google Dictionary).
Kristie Cossel is the youth director at the Church of St. Clement in El Paso, TX. We think this excerpt from her biography beautifully displays who she is: “My heart’s desire is to see this generation of “youth” on fire for Jesus. I became involved in this youth group through the four-year youth ministry internship through St Clement. I was discipled, trained, and mentored by incredible men and women of the Lord into what it meant to run a youth group and be a godly (to the best of my ability) leader. Throughout this process the Lord pressed into my heart a love for the teenagers in this group, a desire to see them grow, be discipled, and to spread the Love of Christ. Isaiah 61:1-3 has been near and dear to my heart throughout the past several years; to see chains broken and captives liberated, for crowns of beauty to be placed on the heads of our youth instead of a sack of ashes. Our hope is to see our students on fire for the Lord, to have a desire to serve those around them, to be an example of God’s Love and proclaim the Gospel.”
Kristie is married to her sweet husband, Mark Cossel, and they have a cat (who is more like their son), King Louis, that they adore. You can find Kristie on Instagram at @kristinajoy to follow along with all her fun adventures!