Crystal Renaud's eight-year addiction to pornography began at the age of 10, when she inadvertently found a titillating magazine in her brother's bathroom. Later, masturbation, phone sex and cyber sex insidiously escalated out of the loneliness in her life and continued a cycle of social isolation and shame.
"Pornography became my closest friend. My only friend. Consistent, reliable," she said.
Renaud, now 26, had heard sermons at her Kansas City megachurch condemning pornography, but none had ever mentioned women. It wasn't until she met another Christian woman with the same addiction that she realized she was not alone and began a ministry to help others.
Now, Renaud has written about her journey in a new book, "Dirty Girls Come Clean," which she hopes will help others find the compassion and resources she didn't get until she was nearly 19.
When she arranged a dangerous encounter in a hotel room with a man, Renaud knew she had hit rock bottom. At the last minute, she backed out of the liaison and turned to God for inspiration.
In 2009, she launched a website, DirtyGirlMinistries, choosing the name to capture the attention of women searching for pornography online. In less than a week, she received more than 300 responses to her surveys and countless emails from women.
"When you have the church and their nearly silent stance on pornography even as it affects men, paired with women in the congregation being the ones who are addicted, you have a hot soup of silence, isolation and shame," said Renaud. "Who are they going to turn to when the world says it's okay, and the church is silent?"
She said the church eventually did address the issue in 2000 and today, Renaud counsels other women at the Westside Family Church in Lenexa, Kan.
"God created sex and he intended us to enjoy it," she said. "But pornography is not sex, nor how he intended sex to be."
Pornography is "affordable, accessible and anonymous," according to Renaud, and eventually can become a substitute for a relationship.
"Women are also visually stimulated and are attracted to pornography in many of the same ways as men are," she said. "But what makes women and women's use of pornography all the more destructive and potentially dangerous is our innate desire for emotional connection."
Many women who frequent pornographic websites will eventually escalate their addiction to in-person encounters because of their desire to be close to someone, according to Renaud.
She said some Christian surveys indicate that as many as 17 percent of all women may be addicted to pornography. But no one really knows the hard numbers because so little gender-specific research exists.
According to Robert Weiss, founding director of the The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, an estimated 10 percent of those seeking help for sexual addiction are women, but there are likely many more who struggle with sexual and relationship problems.
Even when their behavior is causing profound problems in their lives, they are less likely to identify it as sexual, preferring to say they are "relationship issues," he said.
Often these women have experienced childhood abuse or neglect that can lead to sex addiction and intimacy issues later in life. One study shows 78 percent of all female sex addicts were sexually abused themselves.
"Most sexually addicted women have not had parental role modeling for how to have emotional intimacy in nonsexual ways," said Weiss.
Research has shown that there often is a combination of rigidity and lack of emotional support in the sex addict's family of origin.