Visit a street fair in San Francisco’s Castro district and you’re likely to meet Joseph Sciambra, 45, wearing a “Jesus loves you” t-shirt and handing out copies of his book, Swallowed by Satan. It tells the story of how, as a boy growing up in a lax Catholic family in Napa, California, he became addicted to pornography. Sexually confused at age 18, Sciambra made his way to the Castro, a “gay mecca,” and immersed himself in the gay lifestyle for 11 years. He lived it to the extreme, even acting in gay porn. But rather than the happiness, acceptance, and fulfillment he sought, he found a life of misery.
With the help of Courage, the Catholic Church’s ministry to people with same-sex attraction, Sciambra embraced chastity and returned to the practice of the Catholic faith. Today, he makes a modest living running a Catholic bookstore in Napa, and devotes himself to a personal apostolate helping those in the gay lifestyle, “to offer them the hope that there is life after being gay,” he says. Sciambra also blogs regularly and shares his story in both the Catholic and secular media.
He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Some people argue that pornography does no harm to the viewer or to society. You believe instead that it was a factor that led you into a self-destructive gay lifestyle.
Joseph Sciambra: Porn is an addiction, and it is progressive. It is comparable to being addicted to drugs. When you begin taking drugs, you don’t start with heroin, but alcohol or marijuana. You become desensitized to what you are doing, and then move onto harder drugs. When you start with porn, you don’t start with S&M, bestiality, or homosexuality. You look at soft-core porn. In my generation, it was Playboy magazine.
Today, children can be introduced to sexually suggestive imagery by watching music videos featuring Britney Spears or Lady Gaga. They get hooked young, and begin to see pornography as beautiful. It re-wires the way they think about sexuality. It changes the way they become aroused. They develop a dependence on it.
With the Internet today, anyone can have access to extreme forms of porn, and they progress—or regress—right along. You become desensitized, and get to the point where nothing excites you. Anyone can get caught up in this lifestyle. I read sad stories in the newspapers, for example, of police chiefs, teachers, and politicians getting caught with child porn. They’re immune to the Playboy-style pornography and seek out more extreme material.
In my case, it was the 1970s, and my older brother had Playboy magazines. I started looking at them. My parents didn’t know about it. I was also exposed to it in other places. I have a vivid memory, for example, of going to the barbershop and seeing Playboy magazines all over. It was part of the male culture. Men put centerfold pin-ups in their garages; it wasn’t frowned upon.
When I became part of the homosexual culture, I found it was a society founded on porn. Porn in the gay world is what glued us together. We acted it out by moving to gay communities like the Castro district of San Francisco, “coming out,” mingling, and meeting other gay men. We go to bars to get picked up, and have sex in bathrooms, on bar stools, on dance floors, and in bath houses. In my day, Mission Dolores Park was a big place where people would go to have sex. I believe it still is. When I go to minister there, I see used condoms on the ground. … We meet and have sex on the “first date,” but it really wasn’t a date. We were very “porn-ized” as gay men. It celebrates who we are and draws us together.
Sadly, it’s becoming that way for “straight” culture. Kim Kardashian, for example, is one of the most famous women in the world. How did she get her start? She made a porn movie.
CWR: Some have told you that because you were “over the top” with your sexual behavior it led to unhappiness. On The Howard Stern Show, for example, Howard insisted that if you had instead had a sexual relationship with a single “Betty Crocker” man, you would have been happy and fulfilled. You disagreed.
Sciambra: In my 11 years in the gay lifestyle, and with my ministry to that community now, I have never met a happy gay couple. Their relationships are transitory, fleeting, and physically-based. And, even for people who are supposed to be involved in monogamous relationships, it is understood that these relationships will “open up.” This happens despite the fact that you may be emotionally connected and living together. Howard Stern is a worldly guy and talks a lot about sex, but he’s not in the gay world and doesn’t understand what the lifestyle is about and what goes on.
CWR: You said that the “gay” rainbow flag was meaningful to you when you arrived in San Francisco. Today, you call it a lie.
Sciambra: When I arrived in the Castro district, I met boys from all over the world. We felt alienated, abused, and isolated in our hometowns. But we gather in the Castro, or Greenwich Village in New York City, or West Hollywood, or Boystown in Chicago, and everyone is very accepting of one another. The rainbow flag is our symbol. We were every color, creed, and culture coming together. Sex was a big part of it. It made you feel wanted and desired. You never felt that way before. That’s how I got my start in San Francisco in 1988.
But the 1990s came along. Many of my friends died of AIDS, suicide, and drug overdoses. Once I had been in the lifestyle for 10 years, the glamour and promise were gone. I saw it for what it was: a life of disease, loneliness, and disappointment.
HIV rates are still extremely high in the gay community. We’re seeing a re-emergence of syphilis among gay men. HPV, which was once a woman’s STD, is now afflicting gay men. When I was in the gay lifestyle, I was constantly sick. I had chlamydia, gonorrhea, gay bowel syndrome, yeast infections—you name it. Miraculously, I never contracted HIV.
And beyond the physical symptoms, there are the emotional problems. Boys who involve themselves in the gay lifestyle are emotionally wounded; they’re searching for something. Many have been abused or neglected. They join the gay community with an earnest desire for love. That’s why I did. But they get used up pretty quick. There are older people waiting for young people to come because they want to have sex with them. The young people then become scarred, bitter, and hostile.
CWR: What led to your conversion?
Sciambra: I was literally shocked out of the life. I was involved with porn the day I was converted. I got sick, I was in the hospital and resigned with dying. But I realized that death would lead me to hell. I didn’t want to go to hell. I wanted out of the lifestyle.
CWR: What did your family think of your time in the Castro?
Sciambra: They didn’t know a lot, but they knew I was in trouble. They knew I was struggling. They had no idea how bad, though.
I went to a family function with a boyfriend, and my dad told me not to come back. But the miracle was that when I was sick in the hospital, I called my parents and they came to my bedside. I knew they loved me.
CWR: Tell me about the “deliverance” you had with the help of a priest.
Sciambra: It was a year or two after I left the lifestyle, and it was still a traumatic time. I was wounded, and I was having a hard time coming back to the Catholic Church. A priest could sense I was struggling. He asked to pray over me privately. Afterwards, I felt I was freed from multiple demonic influences.
CWR: How has Courage benefitted you?
Sciambra: When I was first involved with it, its founder, Father John Harvey [1918-2010], was still alive. There was a chapter in San Francisco. I was just coming back to the Church, and I didn’t know where I fit or if I belonged at all. I needed a good spiritual director and confessor. I was ashamed of my life, and I wanted to talk to a sympathetic, caring priest. I wanted a priest who would be truthful and true to what the Catholic Church taught. I had, unfortunately, run into some poorly formed priests who gave me bad advice. They thought “being gay” was OK.
But Father Harvey and the other Courage priests I met were wonderful, saintly, holy men who wanted to help me. They wanted to do it with charity, compassion, and truthfulness. Father Harvey made a point of visiting all the Courage chapters. He was such a holy man. I spoke to him a number of times, and I also wrote to him. He’d express God’s love for me. While I was certainly culpable for my lifestyle, it was mitigated by experiences that I had had in my childhood. When he explained it, it made sense to me. I had been wounded as a child, and I needed healing.
CWR: Many in Courage like to remain anonymous. Why have you chosen to be public about your experiences?
Sciambra: At first I did want to keep quiet about my life. But I felt God was calling me through the Holy Spirit to write about my experiences. I started a blog to write about spiritual matters. One day I wrote about porn. I had read about children being exposed to hard-core porn, and it horrified me. I told of my experiences. I received many emails from people who shared similar experiences. I saw that there was a great need, so I began writing more and more. In time, people encouraged me to write a book.
CWR: How has the book done?
Sciambra: Very well. People living in every continent except Antarctica have read it. Some tell me that it gives them hope that they can be healed.
CWR: I know some Christians frustrate you in their response to homosexuality. Can you explain?
Sciambra: There’s always that fringe preacher out there, who thinks all gays should be killed. The gay community actually loves people like that, because it gives them the opportunity to say, “See, this is what Christians think about us. They hate us.” When I go to the street fairs in the Castro, you see “God hates fags” people out there.
On the other hand, though, you don’t want to baby gay men and women, accepting their lifestyle. I also see the “pro-gay” Christian people who say, “Jesus loves everyone, just go ahead and live your lives.” They don’t offer gays anything. It’s a false compassion.
I think Father Harvey had it right. Offer compassion and love, but give them the truth. When I minister in the Castro, I talk to gays and listen. I tell them there is a way out of the lifestyle. They don’t need to feel trapped. But all the people around them are gay and they don’t know what to do.
CWR: What do you tell them?
Sciambra: I start by telling them to move out of the city, so they’re not involved in the environment on a daily basis. I also try to steer them to my website, which is my first ministry. I get hundreds of emails every day from people looking for help.
Many people offer me a friendly greeting. They like to see a Christian reaching out to them in a positive way. Sometimes I meet people I knew when I was in the gay lifestyle. In fact, I met a guy with whom I used to do porn. He was happy for me that I got out of the lifestyle.
CWR: How can we help those living the gay lifestyle?
Sciambra: Pray, fast, and make sacrifices for the conversion of people in the homosexual community. Be the light of truth to them. Be charitable. Love them. Let them know you want what is best for them. Many Christians are afraid to express such thoughts to family members or friends in the lifestyle. They think they’ll alienate them. But if done in the right way, it can be very helpful.
CWR: Are you happy today?
Sciambra: Yes. Being in the gay lifestyle was a search for happiness. It was restless, frantic, and unfulfilling. I believed I could find happiness there, and I couldn’t. Now that I have come back to Christ and his Church and embraced chastity, I’ve never been happier.