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.
Porn Addiction is Almost Never About Sex
"What's important to know about pornography and sexual addiction as a whole is that it's almost never about sex," said Renaud. "It's a core intimacy disorder. Core wounds that have gone unhealed and are being medicated in the wrong way. We see women all the time addicted to pornography simply because they are using it as a way to cope with pain in their lives."
Renaud had recently moved from Minnesota to Kansas when her addiction began in 1996. Her "checked out" father was frequently away on business trips and her strict mother had just gone back to work outside the home after recovering from a two-year bout with depression.
"It was because of my naive nature, this heightened curiosity, and the neglect of being home alone at such a young age, that I decided to explore my newfound discovery," she writes in her book.
Renaud would eat before beginning her after-school porn sessions, a habit that led to uncontrolled weight gain. She was ashamed of her addiction, but couldn't stay away, setting off a cycle of titillation, shame and self-soothing.
She lied, especially to herself, about daily sessions at home and in the library. Pornography was "everywhere" online, she said. "I was also especially fearful that if anyone found out, they'd make me stop."
Eventually, she began online relationships with men, then just weeks before her 19th birthday, Renaud said she no longer found masturbation satisfying and scheduled a "hook-up." But when the man knocked on the door of the cheap hotel, she got cold feet.
It was at that moment she said she heard God's voice: "I have something better for you?"
In what Renaud interpreted as God's intervening hand, she met a woman at a Christian music concert who, out of the blue, confessed to porn addiction. Astounded, Renaud blurted out, "me, too," -- the first time she had told anyone.
But when she went to Christian book stores to find help, Renaud could find no resources to help women overcome their porn addiction. She said she felt "defeated and frustrated" until she realized God wanted her to write a book.
After seeking education in Christian counseling, Renaud started a Victory Over Porn Addiction workshop at her church in 2008, and in order to research her book, she launched a website that included surveys.
What she learned was that women tend to keep their cyber activities secret, and women favor chat rooms. Women are also more apt to act out their behaviors in real life, having multiple partners, casual sex or affairs.
Though she takes the Christian stance that pornography and thoughts of sex outside marriage are wrong, Renaud said women's sexual feelings must be acknowledged and addressed.
Leaders in the sex addiction field, like Weiss, are also beginning to realize that women turn to pornography for different reasons than men. Weiss has set up gender-specific treatment programs, one at The Ranch, outside Nashville, Tenn., which caters to women in separate facilities from men.
Their primary therapeutic goal is to disrupt and eliminate problem patterns of sexual behavior. Weiss said that alcohol and drug addiction are associated with sex addiction, and women are less successful in recovery -- often repeating unhealthy relationships with men -- rather than focusing on treatment itself. Separating and treating women in small groups teaches them to trust their relationships with women.
As for Renaud she said she felt "the Lord was speaking into my heart" and wrote her own curriculum for women struggling with pornography addiction.
"I never expected for it to be published, but perhaps just used for the context of my own groups or perhaps as a resource in my church's counseling department," she said. "But God had other plans."
"Dirty Girls Come Clean" is her "personal letter to every woman who desires freedom from pornography addiction."
"One of the things I hear most often from women who hear my story for the first time is, 'I thought I was the only one,'" said Renaud. "Women need to know they are not alone and that there's hope."