Christian anti-porn crusaders: The next generation founder Craig Gross is among a crop of hip young believers sermonizing against the adult industry

Published February 8, 2011 1:28AM (EST)

Craig Gross, founder of
Craig Gross, founder of

While much of the country was knocking back Bud Lights and licking Doritos cheese off their (or others') fingers in preparation for the Super Bowl, hundreds of churches across the country were celebrating Porn Sunday. Surely your eyeballs came to a screeching halt upon seeing church and porn mentioned in the same sentence, and that's the basic strategy behind, the self-declared "#1 Christian porn site" -- to shock you to attention with its young, fashionable leaders who preach irreverently about the sex industry. This latest stunt saw the premiere of a 45-minute video starring five NFL players speaking out against pornography.

With his disheveled hair and penchant for plaid, Craig Gross looks like a PBR-swilling commitment-phobic hipster, but the ministry's 35-year-old founder is in fact married with two children. This seeming dissonance is increasingly common among young Christian activists who are breaking away from and even criticizing the traditional religious establishment. (Consider Annie Lobert, founder of Hookers for Jesus, whom I profiled late last year.) These young, hip religious types are not only sermonizing about sex but also immersing themselves in the very environments that they are preaching against. Gross and his team man a booth every year at the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, handing out T-shirts and Bibles that read, "Jesus Loves Porn Stars." He went on the road with the infamous adult film actor Ron Jeremy to do a series of debates on college campuses about the industry. Two and a half years ago he uprooted his family and moved from Michigan to Sin City.

I spoke to Gross shortly after he returned home from Dallas, where he rooted for the Green Bay Packers, about his beef with the traditional church, visiting brothels, the importance of sex education and being pals with a porn legend.

Tell me about Porn Sunday. Why peg it to the Super Bowl?

We felt doing it on Super Bowl Sunday gave us the best chance to reach the biggest audience. We also happen to have relationships with guys in the NFL. The problem is that churches don't want to talk about this issue. I was joking earlier this week, saying that if we were to talk about any subject other than pornography with the NFL players that we got (Jon Kitna, Josh McCown, Miles McPherson, Matt Hasselbeck and Eric Boles) we'd have thousands of churches participating. It's an issue that people want to run from.

What was the aim of the event, exactly?

Our goal ministry-wise is to raise awareness that [pornography addiction] is an issue in our society and to help stop people from going down this road and, for those who already have, to recover. When I got to [Dallas], a bunch of Steelers were at the strip club and that's expected, that's covered on TMZ, but here we've got some players that are actually saying, "Here's what I do on the road to have integrity, to remain accountable."

Why focus on pornography and the sex industry?

A lot of people want to give me other causes to promote, but when I created this website nine years ago it wasn't for any purpose other than to help people struggling with an issue that we saw no one talking about, and we really felt that the best way to address it would be online. I never thought, "I'm gonna quit my job and this is going to be the only thing I do," but I've stayed in this because I realized so many people are affected by this and hurt by this. Marriages are broken apart. This is a big issue.

You're part of the recent emergence of hip, young religious people -- like former prostitute Annie Lobert of Hookers for Jesus and ex-stripper Harmony Dust of Treasures Ministry -- who are irreverently talking about the sex industry. Why are we seeing this right now?

I think, in general, beyond the sex industry stuff there are a lot of nonprofits coming to the surface. The church is good at doing what is expected and not doing much else outside of the box. So when we created this website, the thought was, "We're gonna be in a space that nobody else has tried," and that's where we've had a lot of success. I don't see the church being as relevant on issues, and so there are a lot of younger people who are using the Internet, social media and other nontraditional methods, and we're having huge successes because we're doing things differently.

What has the reaction been like from the Christian establishment?

When we started we had more criticism than we do now. Churches are still our biggest critics, though. I think people don't like some of our methods or terminology or how we do things, but we've gotten more and more support from church leaders over the years. We're not gonna be everybody's best friend inside the church. Even though our events are getting huge exposure, [we don't get] a lot of accolades for what we're doing. No one wants to touch this topic.

Do you do any sort of sex education outreach, STD prevention?

We're actually rolling out a project next about everything from abstinence to safe sex. It's a comic book done by a guy I met in the sex industry, which is crazy, but we kind of figured out some things that we could agree on.

So you support comprehensive sex education?

Yeah, I think we've gotta talk about it. I think a lot of religious groups have a problem even when people give out condoms. I mean, I don't want people to have sex, but if they do, might as well be protected. I'm not gonna be that overly religious person who says, "Don't hand out condoms."

You moved to Las Vegas a couple of years ago -- how come?

We felt like we could develop more of an outreach to people inside the industry. We do the porn shows all over the world, but in Vegas we're targeting the sex industry specifically. We're doing a lot of stuff inside strip clubs and brothels.

You've really gone into the belly of the beast, surrounding yourself with porn stars, pornographers, strippers. Are you worried about temptation?

I think there's temptation everywhere. We're not dumb when we go about these things. Me personally, I don't go into strip clubs; we have a team of women who do that. I've been to brothels and I've been to porn shows, but there's nothing sexy at all about a brothel, in the back where these girls live. At a porn show, it's a convention, you're just talking to people. A strip club's a different story; I'm not gonna hang out there.

One of my biggest frustrations with the church is that so many people think, "Surely you can't go there. What good could you do at a strip club?" All the church is after, it seems, are results and attendance. It's, "When are people going to quit their lifestyle and come to Jesus?" I wish it was that simple, but it's not. What we've done is say, "Hey, we're gonna go to where people are at." That takes patience, it takes time, it takes trust.

So you're interested in targeting people on both sides of the industry, both the consumers and the sex workers.

The reason why we're interested in helping both is, I think, they're basically the same. The conflict runs between both sides. The [consumers] who are struggling are saying, "Hey, I don't want to do this, but I find myself doing it anyways." The people that are in the industry -- from Ron Jeremy down to some no-name porn star -- they don't want to do this, they'd rather do something else, but they're conflicted because this is what they know.

After your cross-country tour together, you consider Ron Jeremy a friend, right?

Yeah, we're good friends.

What have you learned from spending time with him?

I just kind of learned what I could do better in our relationship. Everyone I meet around Ron wants Ron for something -- an appearance, his name. They all just take. And I just see this guy, he's got nothing else to give you, and I never want to be that person in the relationship where you just take. We've continued to just show up in his world and ask nothing in return.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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