Rachael Killackey, a 25-year-old wife and new mother, was raised in a devout Catholic household by parents who reared her with what she calls “a strong moral code and beautiful faith life.”
As a child, Killackey experienced a few unwanted incidents with men outside of her family, which “crossed my boundaries and gave me a confusing lens about sexuality.”
On the cusp of puberty, Killackey stumbled upon pornographic literature on Pinterest. “I was looking at innocent content and it just popped up in a tab as ‘related content.’ It turned out to be erotica. I was instantly hooked.”
Looking back, she thinks that viewing pornography gave her a sense of control over a part of her life that others had breached.
Eventually, Killackey developed an addiction that would plague her for a decade. While she was attending youth group meetings at her parish, applying to Catholic colleges, and “sincerely striving for a friendship with Jesus,” she felt both “duplicitous and confused.”
“Growing up, at home and in church activities, pornography was talked about as a guy’s problem,” she recalled. “The whole time I kept thinking, ‘Can women even be addicted to this stuff?’ ”
'I WANTED TO BE WANTED'
For 24-year-old Annie Heyen, middle school was more than the typically awkward, tumultuous start of adolescence.
As a pre-teen, Heyen was managing three different clinically diagnosed eating disorders. “There was this hyperfixation on my body,” she recalled, “because I wanted to keep up with my guy friends.” Just as she was turning the corner in recovery, puberty hit. Her development drew a different kind of attention from her male peers.
“I wanted to be wanted,” she said, “so I started looking up online how to be good at that.” The internet served her up pornography.
She wasn’t alone.
“My Catholic school friends and I would talk about porn like we talked about ‘Wizards of Waverly Place,’ ” she said. “Looking back, I think it’s crazy that girls’ youth ministry talks focus on emotional chastity and things like why we shouldn’t wear crop tops. Porn is definitely prevalent.”
Heyen began sending nude photos to classmates and uploading similar pictures to social media sites like Instagram, Snapchat, and OnlyFans, a subscriber-based site.
“I was in the depths of it,” she said. “Just hours and hours a day. It was just an empty sort of place for me.”
'THEY'RE STILL IN THE TRAUMA'
Four months into her marriage, Casey Allison discovered her husband’s pornography addiction. By then, she and her husband were serving as Protestant missionaries in Cambodia.
For the next 16 years, she searched for help. “I tried talking with peers, regular LPC’s (licensed professional counselors), and support groups,” she said. Despite knowing other women in the same circumstance, no one could help her understand what she was going through.
Allison described suffering what therapists now classify as “betrayal trauma,” or the condition that affects the partner of a pornography or sex-addicted spouse.
The condition manifests itself similarly to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — brain fog, sleeplessness, anger, avoidance, and withdrawal are all commonly experienced.
However, Allison said that the trouble with comparing betrayal trauma to PTSD is that partners who are still in their relationships “are not post-anything.”
“They’re still in the trauma,” she said. “The inability to make decisions, the emotional abuse, and manipulation are still ongoing. Trying to think your way out of that, trying to educate yourself is nearly impossible.”
'THEY'RE HESITANT TO GET HELP'
Killackey, Heyen, and Allison are among tens of thousands of women directly affected by pornography addiction, the scale of which has driven mental health professionals to classify it as a public health crisis.
Yet their stories rarely receive attention. The bulk of scholarship and literature on the subject focuses on males, who are the largest group of addicts, ranging from pre-teens to seniors.
According to Peter Kleponis, Ph.D., a Catholic licensed professional counselor specializing in pornography and sex-addiction therapy who practices outside of Philadelphia, nearly one-third of the 30,000 internet users viewing pornography every second are women.
“Women experience a high degree of shame around it, so they’re hesitant to get help,” he said. “We’ve come to expect that men are going to struggle with this, but we too easily label women all sorts of horrible things if they do.”
According to data gathered by Covenant Eyes, a program that provides filtering and accountability services for persons trying to recover from porn addictions, 16% of 31-49-year-old women and 4% of 50-68-year-old women report viewing pornography at least once a month. Yet when it comes to 18-30-year-olds, the number jumps to 76%, meaning Killackey and Heyen are part of a larger, worrisome trend.
“This is largely accepted among teens as something normal,” Kleponis said, “in part because it’s so accessible.” He added that today’s pornography is some of the most addictive ever produced. “The type of material out there is more addictive than crack cocaine,” he said. “There’s no gateway drug. It’s just devastating.”
Kleponis, who is the founder of Integrity Restored, a Catholic organization that supports individuals, couples, and families affected by pornography, said that both boys and girls are typically exposed at around 8 or 9 years old, either accidentally or out of curiosity.
“I cringe when I see parents give their 10-year-old a smartphone,” he said. “We have these safe environment programs in place in our churches and schools, but parents have no idea who their kids are interacting with online.”
Kleponis said that women typically become addicted to the romantic or relational aspect of pornography, some meeting up in person with people they have been anonymously communicating with online.
Researchers said that increased consumption of pornography by females is linked to higher levels of body dissatisfaction, increased self-objectification, and greater acceptance of sexist beliefs, including sex-based violence. Experts say it is also correlated with depression, loneliness, and lower relationship satisfaction.
The data is equally grim when it comes to women who discover their partners’ pornography use. The Institute for Family Studies reported that in the general population, nearly one-third of engaged and married women view pornography as a form of marital infidelity, while a “sizable portion of men and women” agree that it “objectifies and degrades.”
'MOST NEGLECTED POPULATION IN THE CHURCH'
When it comes to women and pornography, the consensus is that the Church’s understanding of the issue and pastoral efforts are wanting. Some American Catholics are trying to change that.
After he began to educate parents of high school students on the problem of pornography, Father Sean Kilcawley, director of the Office of Family Life for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the theological adviser for Integrity Restored, started getting regularly approached by wives who had discovered their husband’s addiction.
“They were trying to go through it themselves,” he said, noting that they wouldn’t tell their families or members of their women’s groups so as not to alienate their husbands. “This is the most neglected population in the Church when it comes to pornography. They suffer in silence.”
In his quest to alleviate their suffering, Kilcawley discovered Bloom for Women, an online resource founded by Kevin Skinner, LMFT, which educates women on betrayal trauma and provides resources to jumpstart their healing process. Kilcawley partnered with Skinner to produce a Catholic version of the resource, known as Bloom for Catholic Women.
“If your house is on fire, you don’t need to do the laundry. This is serious, and you deserve help. Your children deserve help.”
That website turned everything around for Allison and her family. Just as her desperation was at its max, Allison stumbled upon Kilcawley’s videos.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard that if sexual intimacy wasn’t unitive, it wasn’t healthy,” Allison said. Soon after, she converted to Catholicism and found the courage to get professional help for herself and her nine children. Her husband also found support to begin his own recovery.
While she said that Bloom is “an invaluable first step” in educating betrayed spouses on what they are going through, healing “takes a village” — including certified sex addiction therapists, friends, family members, parish support groups, and physicians.
Today, Allison works as a betrayal trauma specialist with the Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists, where she does one-on-one coaching with clients and runs support groups, two of which are Catholic.
When asked what advice she’d give to a woman who has discovered her husband’s porn addiction, she said, “If your house is on fire, you don’t need to do the laundry. This is serious, and you deserve help. Your children deserve help.”
'TALK ABOUT IT OPENLY'
Killackey and Heyen both attribute their recovery to God’s grace and particular conversion moments during their college years. “Once I realized Jesus went all in for me, I knew I had to do the same for him,” Heyen said.
They said that understanding the root causes of their addictions as well as their triggers has been essential in staying sober.
“Pornography addictions are intimacy disorders,” Kleponis noted. “Women in particular need those intimacy wounds healed to break free from the addiction.”
“The problem is that many people, especially in the Church, view this as a moral failure more than a disease,” he said. “We need to follow the example of what Alcoholics Anonymous did and educate people on what this actually is.”
One place Killackey and Heyen insist the Church can do better is in confession. “I’ve had mixed reactions from priests,” Killackey said. “I’ve had a priest ask me if I was cursed, because ‘women your age don’t get involved in this stuff,’ but I’ve also had priests speak to my heart and tell me how much I’m a beloved daughter of God.”
Telling their story to other young women on college campuses and in youth ministry work has also helped their healing process. After giving a series of talks on her addiction during college, Killackey had dozens of female peers approach her, usually covertly, to share their own stories. While still an undergraduate at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida, she founded Magdala ministries, a first-of-its-kind Catholic program for female addicts.
Magdala’s curriculum and support groups have reached 1,000 women in 25 countries and are expanding on college campuses across the country. Because the demand is so great, she left her job to commit to the work full time.
After hearing Killackey talk about Magdala on a podcast hosted by Matt Fradd, a well-known Catholic personality who addresses porn addictions, Heyen called Killackey, told her her story, and offered her help. In addition to working as a youth minister with Damascus Catholic Mission in Ohio, Heyen serves as Magdala’s administrative coordinator.
Marriage and motherhood have helped free Killackey from the guilt and shame she carried for so long. She said that her addiction “feels so small compared to the glory of what God has done for me.”
As for Heyen, she’s decided to turn her pain into purpose. “I became a registered dietician, and now I accompany young women who are trying to break free from porn,” she said. “So yeah, God can redeem even the broken stuff.”
But she insisted that the Church has a long way to go. “We have got to bring this topic into the light and talk about it openly,” she insisted. “Satan loves darkness and isolation. He can’t stand the light.”