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Men have always struggled with issues of sexual purity, but a young man entering college in the 21st century faces challenges undreamed of by his predecessors.
Only a few generations ago, sexual material was confined to under-the-counter publications, bawdy playing cards, and seedy bars in bad neighborhoods.
Now, you can't get through a football game or read a car magazine without seeing advertisements saturated with sexual imagery. Hard-core pornography was once limited to run-down theaters or coin-op booths, but now it flows through an unstoppable spigot of online content, right into a computer or even a cell phone. Values-friendly space, wholly free of sexually oriented material, is vanishing completely. The mere idea that people might want to be shielded, or shield their children, from risqué material is sometimes met with bemused contempt.
When an 18-year-old male moves away from home and into a college dorm for the first time, his entire world changes in an instant. He's in a new environment with no restrictions. Add a laptop, Internet connection, weekend parties, drinking and an environment where casual sexual encounters ("hooking up") are the new version of a good-night kiss, and his values are strained to the breaking point.
Across the country, young Catholic men are responding to that challenge by forming purity groups to offer prayer, support and fellowship. One such group was started by Derek Ho at the University of Maryland in 2007. As Ho explained, "College is a time away from your parents, to experiment and finally make your own decisions, but the college culture medicates loneliness or boredom with drinking and partying. Inevitably, this leads to immoral choices with sex-ua-l-ity. Even if one has fallen into this, they have no idea where to look because they are unable to find other young people struggling to overcome this lifestyle. Purity groups oppose a culture that accepts pornography, contraception and binge drinking."
Marcel LeJeune, assistant director of campus ministry at St. Mary Catholic Center at Texas A&M University, points out that these groups are not designed for actual sex or pornography addicts, who are directed to counseling and 12-step programs. They are, instead, accountability groups designed to help young men face the challenges of chastity.
"It brings the problem into the light," said LeJeune. "One of the biggest issues that we see with young men is that 80% to 90% of them are using pornography regularly. It's accepted by the culture, but not by their faith, and it leads to guilt, shame, self-image problems, and finally to rationalizations for sinful behavior. A lot of them beat it down and suppress it. Instead of dealing with it in a healthy way - through confession, prayer and frequent use of all the sacraments - they indulge in pornography and impure actions. They know that it's incompatible with what they've been taught, so they start to slip away from the Church. If they continue to do it, they feel they can't be part of the Church anymore."
The answer to this is found in purity groups, where men meet for support and help facing the difficult task of remaining chaste and dealing with those moments when they fall. Almost all of the groups are based on four fundamental elements: fasting, dialogue, prayer and community.
"Our goal is to build virtue, to help people live chastely and purely," said LeJeune. "To do that requires a gift from God, but we have to do our part, as well. The first step is to give them coping mechanisms: prayer, fasting, accountability. Then we have to deal with the problem. We have to retrain our minds."
Fasting trains the person to deny his body something it wants so that the desires of the body are controlled by the will - and not the other way around. In the University of Maryland group, for instance, each member of the group forgoes dinner every time any member of the group "falls." A fall is defined as viewing pornography, masturbating or engaging in sexual activity.
These falls are discussed as part of the second pillar of purity groups, which is dialogue. As with a traditional 12-step group, open dialogue with people facing the same challenges is a huge source of help and support. Many groups sign confidentiality promises so that nothing short of criminal acts will ever be discussed outside of the group. In this community of trust, men are able to discuss challenges to their chastity and ways to face them.
Forging a tight and trusting community of men with common values and struggles is another essential element in purity groups. Getting connected to the Catholic community on a new college campus should be the first order of business for incoming students. As Father Kyle Ingels, chaplain at the University of Maryland, observes, Catholic students need to find the chaplain and get involved: "Meet the staff, meet the Focus (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries, attend activities on campus. A lot of people live a moral life: They go to Mass; they practice their faith; but when they get to college, they might feel like they're the only ones. They're not. Meeting like-minded people can really help make that difficult transition easier."
The most important part of the process, however, is prayer. For many, this means learning to pray, since many young men haven't developed a habit of prayer, either alone or in groups. Some purity communities meet each week to pray the Rosary for the members of the group and for the healing of a broken culture, even meeting for special midnight Rosaries on alternating weeks. Sometimes the men just need to know that, no matter what they do, they can still turn to God and ask for help in prayer.
Shame and guilt can interfere with that and drive men away from the Church. "We have to build them up in so many areas. They go to Mass and pray," said LeJeune, "but on the side continue to practice these things they know are wrong. That self-damage is really not healthy. They live disconnected lives. They see themselves as unlovable. These guys need to know who they are and how loved they are by God, and that they could never do anything to keep God from loving them. You need to admit it's a sin, admit it's wrong, but know that you are loved and ask for God's mercy.
"After that, we need to retrain the brains so they can practice the virtues that are the ultimate goal. Some guys are going to do better than others, but all of them receive the hope that God can bring healing, purity and chastity."
Thomas L. McDonald writes from Medford, New Jersey.