Putting an X through XXX

Carl Thomas, a tattooed father of two and crusader against pornography, in his “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” T-shirt. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Carl Thomas, a tattooed father of two and crusader against pornography, in his “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” T-shirt. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 07, 2012

“You can’t miss me,” Carl Thomas says, and he’s right: No one else at the diner is wearing a “Jesus Loves Porn Stars” T-shirt from the “XXXChurch.”

“I appreciate outside-the-box ministries,” explains the Deptford resident, a born-again Christian who helps other men overcome what they experience as a soul-destroying dependence on pornography.

An array of bold tattoos, a shaved head, and a high-voltage grin give Thomas, 40, a dude rather than a do-gooder look. But the man, an insurance agent and a married father of two, is on a mission.

“Sex is a gift from God. It’s meant to be enjoyed,” he says, over breakfast at Seven Star (formerly Five Points) Diner in Deptford.

“But if you’re going to enjoy sex to its fullest, you should do so in a way that’s healthy. Porn is a cheap substitute for the real thing. The unconditional love of a spouse is much more fulfilling than the unconditional love of a computer monitor.”

With the support of XXXChurch, a national nonprofit that cheekily brands itself as the “No. 1 Christian Porn Site,” Thomas has established a weekly support group. It’s for men who struggle with porn “addiction,” defined as a secretive habit that leads to isolation, dishonesty, and shame.

As part of another XXXChurch initiative, he also hands out Bibles at porn conventions, including the annual Exxxotica Expo at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison, one of the $14 billion industry’s biggest trade shows.

“We’re not picketing, or telling porn people they’re going to hell,” Thomas says. “Our mission is all about ‘Jesus loves you.’

“It’s not about censorship. It’s more about loving and helping people. Because we believe that porn is not a healthy thing.”

It’s also an increasingly mainstream thing. “We live in a pornified society,” he says.

I agree. Consider the global publishing phenomenon of that sin-sational S&M novel Fifty Shades of Grey, soon to be a major motion picture. Or the crossover semi-celebrity of adult-film star James Deen — whose dashingness makes onetime adult-film icon Ron Jeremy look like, well, Ron Jeremy.

“Today there’s unfettered access to pornography like we’ve never seen before,” says Ryan Russell, a board member of Fireproof Ministries, the California group that founded XXXChurch a decade ago.

Online availability of every imaginable sort of erotica “really is a game-changer,” adds Russell, whose organization offers software to men who want to alert wives or “accountability partners” when they start fishing for X-rated material online. It costs $7 a month.

One of the men using it and attending Thomas’ recovery group is a human-services professional from Burlington County. Married for six years, the man, 30, asked me not to use his name.

“I went to my pastor and told him that porn was something I’ve been struggling with since I was 12 or 13, and that it was basically affecting my marriage, and my mental state,” he says. “He put me in touch with Carl.”

The pastor is Kyle Horner of Connect Church in Cherry Hill. “There are people who are struggling with this, and we’re trying to help,” Horner says. “We’re all about elevating people’s lives.”

Connect’s willingness to embrace the work reflects a growing awareness that porn can be a problem even for the godly.

“Years ago having a drug or alcohol ministry was cutting-edge, and now [most] churches have addiction programs.

“But porn isn’t waiting for us to react. It’s always moving ahead.”

He speaks from personal experience.

“I can tell you that a life with porn and a marriage is so inferior to a life without porn and a marriage,” Thomas says. “It’s definitely something I’ve had in my life, without going into details.”

Although only four men have attended the first meetings (information is available online at https://x3njrecovery.eventbrite.com/), Thomas is heartened by the progress so far.

The Burlington County man in Thomas’ group describes himself as “three weeks sober” after years of habitual porn consumption.

“It’s a small step for me,” he says. “But being honest with other people, and my wife, has been crucial.

“If you’re struggling with this, there’s no need to feel ashamed, or afraid. There are people who can help. They’re helping me. I feel more freedom than I ever have in my life.”

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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