That was then, this is now

One year ago today I sent an email to my counsellor. It took me two hours to write it, and as soon as I hit ‘send’ I regretted it because I knew I’d just taken a step I could never take back. The email started like this:

“This is an email I don’t want to write and don’t want you to read. I’m writing it anyway, and asking you to read it.”

I went on to talk about several years of pornography use. I talked about why I decided to tell her about it, finally, after nearly three years of counselling. To be honest I didn’t actually provide much information. And that’s okay. It wasn’t about going into detail; it was about taking the step to tell someone. Part of the power of pornography lies in secrecy and shame, and those things still had a hold on me even though it had been many years since I’d deliberately accessed porn. I still felt the shame, and secrecy was still a heavy, ever-present burden.

Reading back over that email now, what I read most in it is fear. I was afraid that disclosing this terrible secret would make my counsellor view me differently. I wasn’t afraid she would hate me – I’m fairly certain she likes me as a human being anyway, but even if she doesn’t I know she’s professional enough to hide it – but I was very afraid this would change how she sees me and what she thinks about me. Of course the same was true for anyone else I told in those early days, but a year ago it was just my counsellor. And I had five days in between my email and my next session for those fears to get bigger and more overwhelming.

  • I was afraid she would think I’m disgusting and repulsive.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m stupid.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m a failure as a Christian.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m weak.
  • I was afraid she would think I’m pathetic.

They’re interesting, these fears. It seems to me that they’re mostly built around perception. I want to be seen as strong, intelligent, faithful and in control. I want to be seen as someone who doesn’t need to succumb to addictive behaviours – or if I do, I want them to be the ‘nice’ addictive behaviours like having a few too many glasses of classy, expensive wine. I want to be seen as a smart, savvy feminist in control of my choices. In short, I want to be seen as normal, because that’s what ‘normal’ looks like in the world I inhabit.

For the record, my fears were baseless. My counsellor replied to my email as soon as she read it, saying it doesn’t change what she thinks of me or how she views me or who I am as a person. And when I finally had a counselling session, five days later, the first words out of her mouth, even before ‘hello, how are you?’ were a very emphatic “This doesn’t change anything.” (Naturally I didn’t believe that at the time. I do now.)

I wonder if I would have had those fears had I been a man. I’m not saying that men don’t have insecurities, nor that they are all strong, together and in control. Of course not – human is human. But with porn addiction, I doubt that most men view it the way women do. For men it’s almost a rite of passage. Yes, many men acknowledge that porn is unhelpful and that compulsive porn use can be devastating, but it’s still not particularly shocking to discover that men use porn. And so when men are coming clean to counsellors or wives or friends about their struggles with porn use I suspect that their sense of shame is not so tied up with their identity as men. But for me, my shame and my fear were so tied up with my identity as a woman that I couldn’t see a difference between them. It came back to all the same old things – women don’t use porn, feminists would certainly never use porn, women don’t struggle with sexual addictions, women would never be involved in anything that exploits other women, women don’t get addicted to ugly, distasteful things like porn. Women are in control. Women are smart. Women are nice. Women are not like men, and so they don’t do the things that men do.

Those beliefs are awful. They don’t do any favours to women or to men. They’re sexist and limiting… but more than that, they are the kinds of beliefs that are keeping women trapped in a cage of fear, shame and secrecy, thinking that there’s no one in the world like them. We desperately need to change the way we think about this. Yes, porn use is often different for men and women. There are different motivators, different feelings and sometimes a different type of fallout afterwards, and we must acknowledge that. But that doesn’t mean we should reduce it to: “Men are animals. They use porn because they can’t help themselves. Women are nice. They are too nice to use porn.” That is nonsense, and it’s dangerous. We are all people. We all have hurts and struggles, and for some of us that leads to unwise and painful behaviours. Our willingness to share our vulnerabilities and seek help shouldn’t depend on whether we are male or female.

I’m one year on from that awful, painful, humiliating email and I’m finally able to read it without cringing. Now I read it with sadness, because I can see the underlying beliefs that motivated my fear and shame. I still hate my history of porn use. I still feel shame. If I’m honest, there are still many times when I think it proves what a horrible person I really am. But those times are not as frequent as they once were and they’re part of my overall healing journey, not just related to porn. I found comfort in porn because I was hurting. That doesn’t make me a failed woman; it makes me a frail and vulnerable human. Just like everyone else.

 

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Stranger than fiction

Another post written for Porn Recovery UK – check out their website here and my post here.

(**Trigger warning** – contains general descriptions of porn and may be triggering.)

Pornography can be difficult to define. Are ‘tasteful’ naked photos porn or are they art? Are sex scenes in movies porn? What about if you can’t see any actual genitalia – is it still pornographic? Censors and governments struggle with the definition but most people seem to agree that it’s largely visual. Photos, paintings, movies, live shows – users participate in porn by watching it. Although the dictionary defines pornography more broadly (“obscene literature, art, or photography, designed to excite sexual desire”) the average person tends to limit their definition of porn to the visual. And when we’re talking about the damage caused by porn we rarely think of any forms of porn other than visual. It’s difficult to imagine how harm can come from pornographic literature – it doesn’t even use real people, so no one is being harmed. It’s surely a better alternative to the kind of porn that exploits those who participate in it, right?

I spent nearly four years as a compulsive porn user and it was never just the visual that captured my attention. I watched plenty of online clips, sometimes daily, but I also spent many nights reading porn fiction stories, sometimes in addition to movies clips and sometimes in their own. I call it porn fiction because it’s not the same as what is commonly known as erotica. The porn fiction that’s online and consumed by thousands of porn users is cheap, crude, amateurish and poorly written. By no stretch of the imagination can it be called literature, and it’s certainly a far cry from the Mills-and Boon-on-steroids that makes up most of the erotica sold in bookstores. This isn’t simply dirty romance literature. Online porn fiction is, at its most innocuous, hard-core porn in written form. It’s graphic, detailed and often violent, and I believe it is as damaging as any porn you can watch on your computer.

Like anything else in porn, fiction covers a vast range of material. You have to know what you’re looking for… do you want male/female, male/male, bondage, discipline, male domination, female domination, mind control, forced submission, transgender, gay, lesbian, bi, interracial, humiliation, pain, rape, sadism, gynaecology… or a combination of several of these options? How about something you hadn’t even imagined yet? It’s all there, and more, in incredible detail.

Porn addiction, like any addiction, changes over time. Very few people start with hard-core porn, just as very few people start a drug addiction with large doses of cocaine. Users build up a tolerance, and even things that were firmly in the “I would never, ever want to watch that” category become acceptable over time as we become desensitised and our brain and body needs a bigger, more exciting hit in order to become aroused. This is very normal but most porn users don’t know that, and it can be very confusing to realise you’ve gone from fairly tame pictures to movie clips that once horrified you. How, you wonder, did I move from being disgusted to aroused? I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me I know that porn fiction is part of what helped to desensitise me to things that had previously sickened me.

A large part of the problem with porn fiction is that it creates scenarios you usually don’t find in porn movies. There is more dialogue, for one thing, which is noticeably absent from real movies. Movie viewers don’t want chit-chat, they want action. The dialogue in most movies takes the form of women being called dirty sluts and whores, but that’s about the limit of ‘conversation’. Porn fiction is different. The writers can take their time… but in most cases the dialogue takes the scene to a level that many porn users would not be comfortable watching. It’s one thing to have a brief shot of a woman looking apprehensive or demeaned; it’s quite another thing to be privy to her thoughts, to know exactly what she’s feeling about the situation. And if what she is feeling is fear or humiliation it takes a standard porn situation to a very different place.

Another difference in porn fiction is that it creates scenarios that either couldn’t be filmed or can’t even exist in real life. Mind control is a big sub-genre of porn fiction and it often involves protagonists (usually women) being forced, by some sort of mind control drug or device, into demeaning sexual acts in public places, or forced to have sex with men they hate or who terrify them. In real life we call that torture and rape but in porn fiction it’s just another mind control scenario. And again, these are not scenes most people would be comfortable watching, but reading it is somehow different.

So what’s the problem here? We’re still talking about fiction, where no one is being hurt. Even regular, non-porn fiction creates intense scenarios that would never happen in real life and we don’t worry about those. It’s just fun and escapism. This is true, but porn fiction is not read in the same way as other fiction. Porn fiction isn’t about escapism or entertainment. It exists to sexually arouse the user and lead to orgasm, in exactly the same way as porn movies or pictures. When porn fiction pushes the envelope – as most of it does – it means that users are becoming aroused by scenes they aren’t comfortable watching. Except of course they are watching these scenes. The imagination is extremely powerful and anyone who’s read porn fiction has visualised those scenes in full detail. When users are aroused by these mind-scenarios, triggered by the written word, they start to need visual stimulation to match the scenes in their head. For me, reading porn fiction helped bridge the gap between tamer porn and hard-core, violent porn. The more I read fiction, the more I needed movie clips that were closer to what I’d seen in my imagination when reading. After reading fiction I was willing to cross boundaries that previously I hadn’t wanted to cross. I’ve heard people say that porn fiction is a safe option for porn users because no one gets hurt and it’s not as bad as real porn. I don’t believe that. Porn fiction wasn’t a safe option for me; it was a door into the kind of porn that used to disgust and terrify me.

I haven’t used porn in over seven years but it’s still part of my life – not because I still watch it or think about it all the time, but because of my memories. I have scenes in my head that might never fully disappear and a lot of them are from porn fiction. I have vivid memories of scenes my mind created and they are as real to me as anything I saw. They haunt me just as much. In some ways they haunt me more, because I know I built those memories myself. I want to think I’m above it, but the truth is my mind is capable of creating detailed, technicolour, realistic porn scenes. I created them, I enjoyed them, I refined them when they got boring, I replayed them over and over in my mind. The fact that I hate them now doesn’t change that. And I know that reading porn fiction helped put those scenes there. It is not a safe, harmless alternative to ‘real’ porn. It may not use real people, but it’s real nonetheless, and it does real damage. I have the scars in my mind to prove that.

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First exposure

Here’s a piece I wrote for Porn Recovery UK (big thanks to Duncan for asking me to write it). My post is here.

Technically, I suppose, my first exposure to porn was when I was ten or eleven and I found some of my brother’s magazines whilst snooping in his room one afternoon. I remember being fascinated and horrified at the same time. These were photos of women who hid nothing, and their casual boldness scared me because it was so alien to everything I knew. I went back again and again to look at these magazines when there was no one at home. That was my first experience of porn but what I saw later was so different it made those magazines look like fashion mags.

When I was in my late 20s I spent a Saturday afternoon playing card games on my computer. The internet was only accessible via dial up so I wasn’t on there much, but this day I decided to search for more games. I clicked on a link that said ‘free card games’ and suddenly I was at a porn site. It was that simple. I didn’t go searching for porn; I had never even imagined seeing it. There was no secret craving for porn and I was completely shocked that I’d landed on this site. In truth it was fairly tame. It was photographs only, and at this point I didn’t even know you could watch porn films online; I thought you had to buy videos at a sleazy shop for that. The pictures were rougher than what I’d seen in my brother’s magazines and the women looked … more demeaned, I guess. They seemed more humiliated, more like victims. I understand now that their humiliation was what attracted me. It resonated with my own experiences of being shamed, put down and emotionally abused. I didn’t go to porn because I wanted to see naked women or, later, because I wanted to see women have sex. I wasn’t aroused by the women; I simply identified with their powerlessness, with the way they were treated as worthless objects. It made sense to me.

That afternoon I forgot about the card games. For the first time, I typed the word ‘porn’ into a search engine. I can remember shaking, and my heart was pounding from fear. I felt like I’d crossed a line, taken a step that I couldn’t have imagined ever taking. Obviously I’d seen pornographic images before, in the magazines, but actually typing ‘porn’ into my computer was something very different. I wasn’t looking at something I’d stumbled across accidentally; I was deliberately choosing porn. And making that choice for the first time wasn’t exciting or liberating or fun. It was simply terrifying.

Within weeks, I knew all the search terms that would quickly find me the images I wanted to see. Within months, I’d discovered movies. A little while after that I found porn fiction, where I could read about impossibly degrading acts that couldn’t happen in real life. I had an entirely new language of code words, abbreviations and acronyms. I knew the names of acts that I hadn’t even known existed a few months before. I was an expert at finding what I wanted to see. Finding my chosen content got faster, easier, more streamlined … but it never stopped being terrifying, and I never stopped hating myself for it.

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Speaking out

I’ve been pondering the idea of disclosure about porn addiction. When is it appropriate? When is it helpful? When is it necessary?

I read many blogs and forums that focus on porn addiction and other forms of sexual brokenness. Many of them claim that full disclosure, as soon as possible, is vital to healing. I can certainly see the benefits to this approach. The secrecy of porn is part of its attraction and part of its trap. If everyone knows about it then you can no longer believe the lie that “one time won’t hurt… no one will know” – because there’s a good chance someone WILL know. In fact there’s a very good chance someone will ask about it, and unless you’re really good at a blatant lie your face will give you away. Don’t kid yourself about this; you will give yourself away. Being open about porn gives you accountability that you may not appreciate at the time, but will be thankful for later.

Disclosing your struggle with porn also gives you freedom to ask for help and to be honest about how you’re going. It means those who care about you will probably be more sensitive to things that might be a trigger and hopefully they’ll think twice before suggesting an outing to an R-rated film, for example. There are many advantages to full disclosure, and yet it’s not something I have chosen. I still have too many reservations and concerns about disclosure and I’m not sure I’ll ever go fully public with my story. Here are some of my reasons:

1. Identity
I’ve written about this before, and it’s still a concern for me. I see a lot of blogs and websites where people label themselves as sex addicts or porn addicts. The biggest problem with this for me is that “addict” becomes the person’s sole identity, not a part. Identity and behaviour are not the same thing, and separating my behaviour from my identity has been an important part of my healing. I spent years believing that my porn use proved I was disgusting and perverted, and until I was able to put ‘me’ and ‘my choices and behaviour’ in separate boxes I couldn’t get past that belief. Making that mental separation was key and enabled me to move forward in healing, to understand why porn worked as pain relief, and to forgive myself. If I’d gone public straight away with my struggle I would be forever identified as a porn addict. There’s no taking it back once you’ve said it. And in those early days of healing, I would have believed it. Now I’m much further down the road and I know my identity is not “addict”. I am a hurt and broken person who made terrible and unwise choices from a place of pain, and those choices became an addiction. I will always have the scars of porn addiction and it will always have to be a factor in some everyday things but even so, porn use is something I did. It’s not who I am, and I don’t want it to be who I am publicly.

2. Safety
My counsellor was the first person I turned to for help when starting to deal with my porn addiction. Disclosing the truth to her, even without going into any real detail about it, was a huge risk. Despite the three years of trust I’d built in our counselling relationship I still had no idea how she would react. Thankfully her response was compassionate and reassuring, and that alone was the beginning of my healing. In fact her response was vital, because if I’d had any hint from her of revulsion or condemnation I would have refused to talk about it ever again and my healing would have stopped before it began. I needed to know that she understood and I needed my disclosure to be safe. If I tell everyone about my history with porn I can’t predict the outcome and it becomes very unsafe. I have no way of controlling what people think, what they will say and how they will treat me. And when I feel unsafe, my instinct is to turn to behaviours that make me feel better… like porn. I can’t put myself at risk like that. Honesty is important, but my healing must come first.

3. It’s not just my story
Although my porn use happened solo and no one else ever participated, it’s not just about me. There is trauma in my past that is directly related to other people, and the pain of the trauma is part of what led me to porn. When I talk with people about my porn history they almost always ask what led me there. Most people understand that porn addiction is not just about sexual gratification, and it usually goes far deeper and further back than the time spent on porn. This is true for me too. My story is not about four years of porn use; it is about decades of pain, grief and denial that led to a number of self destructive behaviours, of which porn was just one. I can’t talk about porn as though it happened in isolation because that’s not how it works. There is a story, and if I went public with my porn use, the rest of my story would come out too. But there are people intimately involved in the chapters of my story, and I do not have their permission to share their part in it.

There are times when I wish everyone knew about my history with porn. It feels like it would be easier, even a relief. But in truth, I think it would do me more harm than good. Limited disclosure is controversial, but it’s right for me. Staying silent, and disclosing only to those I trust, keeps me safe. It helps me protect my heart. It helps me heal.

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Book review: “Big Porn Inc”

Big Porn Inc by Melinda Tankard Reist and Abigail Bray (eds) claims to offer “a cutting edge exposé of the hidden realities of a multi-billion dollar global industry that promotes itself as a fashionable lifestyle choice. Unmasking the lies behind the selling of porn as ‘just a bit of fun’, Big Porn Inc reveals the shocking truths of an industry that trades in violence and degradation, and calls for radical resistance.”

Many essays that oppose pornography, as well as those that promote it, tend to have a narrow focus. Porn is bad for families, porn is good for relationships, porn exploits women, porn empowers women, porn is morally evil, porn is freedom. One of the major strengths of Big Porn Inc is that its focus is broader. It looks at four main themes (Pornography Cultures, Pornography Industries, Harming Children, and Pornography & the State), with the final section dedicated to ways to oppose the pornography industry. In each section there are thoughtful and well-referenced essays by academics, researchers, health professionals and people who have been personally affected by pornography.

It is clear from reading this book that the porn industry reaches much further than the laptops and loungerooms of individuals looking for a thrill. Porn affects us all, and has had a major (and, I would argue, seriously detrimental) effect on our culture. Porn culture is the new norm – our casual acceptance of the sexualisation of childhood, sexting, rape culture, prostitution, pole dancing for children, sexualised marketing and raunch culture all fall under the long reach of the porn industry’s arms. We simply cannot ignore the culture shift that has happened in the wake of the massive growth of the porn industry. Big Porn Inc goes far beyond anti-sex wowserism (the accusation hurled at anyone who dares to oppose porn). It seeks to show that pornography is harmful not just to those who appear in porn and those who watch it. It is indirectly – and often directly – harmful to children, to women, to teenagers, to families, to couples. This indirect harm is perhaps the most insidious of all, because it is easy to deny and easy to ignore. If a young man thinks it’s okay to ogle a woman and make lewd suggestions, can that be directly linked to porn use? In most cases no, but that young man is living in a society educated by porn – he has been desensitised to the influence of the porn industry and, like many people, thinks it’s ‘just a bit of fun’ to demean and objectify women. He has no idea that his behaviour mimics a porn script, where women are treated as fair game for sexual objectification and abuse. Big Porn Inc seeks to make the link that many of us would prefer to ignore.

This is a book that everyone needs to read. If you’ve never thought about the general harms of the porn industry, if you know a bit but would like to know more, if you know more than you’d like but don’t know what to do about it, if you don’t believe that porn is harmful… whoever you are, this book is for you.

Trigger warning: for those who have struggled with porn addiction or compulsive porn use, or those who have experienced abuse or trauma, this book may not be for you. It is graphic, it names particular porn websites and it may trigger unhelpful memories. Use caution and stay safe.

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Busting the myths – #1

Myth: Women don’t watch porn

Everyone knows that porn is a problem for men. Men watch it, men get addicted to it, marriages break up because men can’t stop watching it, men have unrealistic ideas about sex and about women’s bodies because they watch porn. Men watch porn on their own, men watch porn together, boys learn about porn because their fathers keep porn in the house.

These things are all true. The statistics prove it and anecdotal evidence supports it. Porn use is a problem for men, and it’s not just young men. However, the plethora of stories about men struggling with porn suggests that porn is exclusively a male problem. On the few occasions that women get a mention, it’s stories about women reluctantly watching porn because their partner wanted it and they thought it would make him pay more attention to her. There are many stories about women having plastic surgery in order to look more like the images seen in porn, because that’s what men appear to want. Although these stories are ostensibly about women, they are really about how women are affected by male porn use. Very occasionally you will come across a story about women choosing to watch porn but these articles are usually about how this new ‘female-friendly’ porn is empowering for women. These are the predominant voices when it comes to ‘facts’ about porn use and they lead the reader to conclude that women don’t even watch porn, let alone struggle with porn addiction and other related behaviours.

Fact: women do struggle with pornography addiction

A compilation of various surveys in 2005-2007 show that 17% of women struggle with pornography addiction. That percentage translates to 1 in every 6 women – and remember, these were self-assessed surveys. It’s possible the figure is higher when you consider the number of women who watch porn but don’t consider their porn use to be problematic or compulsive. One in every six women, yet we almost never hear about women and porn.

Here are some more stats:

Given the lack of focus on female porn use, these figures are astounding. Or perhaps what’s astounding is that there is such a lack of focus on female pornography use and addiction. Clearly, this is a huge problem for women – perhaps not as huge as for men, but still enormously significant. Almost certainly you know a women who is secretly watching porn, if not struggling with an addiction to it, and chances are she doesn’t know these stats either. She probably thinks there are no other women who share her struggle. So why aren’t we hearing about this? Why are people so completely astonished when they hear these figures? Why aren’t we talking about in in schools, churches, mothers’ groups and amongst our friends? Why aren’t there hundreds of support groups for women struggling with porn addiction? Why aren’t we talking to our daughters and sisters about this?

When I was watching porn I thought I was a freak. In my 3-4 years of porn use and then the subsequent seven years before I told anyone about it, I had absolutely no idea that other women struggle with porn addiction. I had never read a single story about women and porn, and to this day I’ve only ever met one other woman with a story similar to mine. This is exactly why women don’t seek help, and why the sense of shame women feel is so overpowering. Silence about women and porn is not really silence; in fact it speaks volumes. It shouts to women that if you are struggling with porn, you are different. Staying silent about porn isolates women and removes us from our community. It teaches us we are alone, that we are not like other women, and it shames us into believing we are not a real woman.

We must bust this myth and start talking about women and porn. Porn addition for women is real and it’s a huge problem, but the women who are struggling with porn don’t know that. They think they are alone, they think they are freaks, they think there is no help for them – and none of those things is true. As long as we stay silent, women will continue to believe these lies and they will stay trapped in their addiction.

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Who am I?

“Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn’t rush into it.” – David Quammen

I read a lot of blogs and websites about pornography use, addiction, recovery and other related subjects. One thing that really sticks out for me is the use of language. I see the word ‘addict’ a lot, with people referring to themselves as sex addicts, porn addicts and the like. Hand in hand with that are words like ‘clean’, ‘sober’ and ‘recovery’. People say things like, “I’ve been clean for 2 years, 3 months and 17 days,” or “I’ve reached 8 months sobriety”. What they mean is, they haven’t watched porn or engaged in other related behaviours for that amount of time. I’ve been reading these words and phrases for a while now and I have to say I’m not totally comfortable with them. Let me explain.

Firstly, the word ‘addict’. I’ve talked about addiction on this blog quite a lot so clearly I’m okay with that but I’m not okay with saying “I’m a porn addict”. Or even “I was a porn addict”. There is a whole lot of baggage that comes with that phrase, and not all of it is clear. If I call myself an addict, what am I really saying? Does that mean I have a genetic predisposition to addiction? Does it mean I have to spend my whole life conscious of that addiction, careful not to do anything that might set me off? Does it mean my environment, my childhood, even my free will, had no part to play in the choices I made about porn because I was always going to be an addict anyway? Was I born an addict and just had to wait for it to show itself? Does it define me?

The definition aspect is where it all falls apart for me. It’s true that my behaviour with porn was out of control and I felt like I couldn’t stop it. It certainly followed the typical cycle of addiction. But I followed that same addiction cycle with alcohol and shopping and, to a lesser degree, binge eating. So do I call myself an alcoholic? A shopoholic? A food addict? A porn addict? A combination of all four? And what about other things that define me? I’m also a Christian. A woman. A writer. I’m a daughter, a sister, a friend, a pet owner, a neighbour; I’m a person who struggles with anxiety and depression; I’m a counselling client; I’m a survivor of difficult circumstances. I’m someone with allergies. I have a big phobia that impacts a lot of things in my life. Which one of those things is me?

See the problem here? I’m not just one thing, and the minute I start defining myself by that way then I give the definition first place. My future decisions will be influenced by it. If I call myself a porn addict I am giving it more power and influence than it deserves. I was addicted to porn, no question about that, and it continues to affect many parts of my life and decisions like what I watch and read. Despite that, it’s only a part of me. It’s not, and will never be my entire identity.

The other thing that makes me a uncomfortable is a constant emphasis on ‘days sober’ or ‘days clean’. (I don’t like the terms sober or clean anyway, because despite my actions I don’t consider that I was either drunk or dirty. But I digress…) My issue with counting days is that it puts all the focus on abstinence, as though abstinence is the end goal in healing. Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s very important to avoid unhealthy behaviours. However, I stopped watching porn more than seven years ago. I don’t know the exact date, but I can definitely say I had at least seven years “clean”. And you know what? That means nothing. It could have been 15 years, or 20. It doesn’t matter, because my healing didn’t start until I began talking about porn with my counsellor and a few trusted friends. It was only then that I could view it side by side with events from my past, and understand that porn had been a coping mechanism, something to dull the pain I felt in my life. Abstinence is vital to healing, but it’s not the goal. I don’t want to spend all my time desperately counting the days since I last watched porn, and desperately trying not to watch it again. I want to spend my time healing from the hurts that pushed me towards porn and other unhealthy ways of coping with pain. I want to concentrate on learning healthier ways to cope. Healing involves so much more than just avoiding porn and for me, counting ‘days clean’ takes attention away from the work I need to do as I heal.

So with all of that, who am I? I am a woman who was in pain for many years. I’m a woman who, because of pain, was addicted to porn and made other bad choices too. I’m a woman who is still paying a price for those choices. I am so many things, good and bad. But above all, I am healing.

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Missing porn

“Just because you got the monkey off your back
doesn’t mean the circus has left town.”
– George Carlin

I miss porn.

I don’t know how to explain that statement, even to myself. I’m holding it alongside so many contradictory things. I mean, I hate porn. I hate that I watched it, certainly, but I also hate it for what it is: for the violence, the ugliness, the horrific treatment of women. I hate the way it destroys lives and tears families apart. I don’t even want to watch it anymore. I have images in my memory but I don’t replay them; I just want them to go away. I certainly don’t want any new images in my mind. I can still remember the hold porn had on me, the feeling of sheer desperation, believing I had nowhere to turn and no way out of behaviour that made me despise myself.

I hate all those things about porn but I still miss it. I miss its comfort. Even to me that sounds appalling. Comfort should be used to describe something warm and cosy – a fond memory of time with friends, a special toy from childhood, even a favourite dessert – but not porn. I know that porn was never comfortable, never nice, never even really enjoyable, but it was still a comfort to me. And I miss that.

There were other things, both before porn and at the same time. I self-medicated with alcohol off and on for years and I miss that too, in a different way. Over a period of just a few years I spent tens of thousands of dollars – all my savings and then some – in an effort to make myself feel better. And always, there’s food… binge eating continues to be my go-to comfort behaviour and I’m struggling to change that without getting caught in my other default behaviour of setting ridiculous and convoluted food rules for myself. So why do I miss porn more than the other things? Why was it different?

I think there are a few reasons. On the surface, porn has very few consequences. I could feel better instantly, in my own home and without having to spend a cent. I didn’t have to worry about damaging my liver or getting fat or not having any money in the bank. I could just go to my favourite websites and watch porn and it didn’t affect anything else. Of course I had the anxiety of making sure no one knew about it and I had to live with the shame and disgust afterwards, but none of that mattered at the time. When I watched porn I could block out every bad feeling in my life. Apart from the physical feelings I could be completely numb. Everything in my life that was hurting me just went away, instantly and completely, as though it had never existed. And I have nothing in my life now that will do that for me. When I’m hurting or feeling bad I have ways to work through it, but that’s the thing – it’s work. With porn I didn’t have to work through anything; I just made it all go away.

When I started depending on porn I was at my lowest point, far lower than when I’d been drinking or shopping or eating. Those things had all stopped working for me and I was feeling worse than I had ever felt before. Porn, despite all the awful things about it, kept me going. It was the only thing that kept me going, some days. Before porn I felt like I still had some coping abilities of my own, even though I was using alcohol and other things to help me. But when I hit the very bottom there was nothing left. I felt empty and helpless and it was porn that kept me going. Not me, not my own ability to hang on, just porn. I needed it. It didn’t matter that it made me feel shame and made me hate myself – I felt shame and self-loathing anyway, long before I found porn, so it didn’t make any difference. I know that it was an incredibly unhealthy coping mechanism but it did enable me to cope. It worked brilliantly and far better than anything else had.

I say that I have no fond memories of porn but that’s not true. I remember that it helped. I remember that it comforted me. Talking about porn and getting help has been great, but it means that I can’t go back. When porn was still a secret I could keep it as a safety net. There was this tiny thought hidden deep inside me that maybe, if things got really bad, then maybe it would be okay to go back to it. Just once or twice. No one would know and I could move on afterwards and pretend it never happened. But now… now I have people who care enough to ask me how I’m going, and I know I couldn’t lie to them. This is a good thing and I don’t regret coming clean about porn, not for a minute. But my safety net is gone and so I feel afraid about what will happen if I reach my lowest point again. Because all I will have is me – no porn, nothing else. And without porn, with just me…  I don’t know if I have it in me to survive that place.

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Grief

“The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.” – Sophocles

For me, there came a point where the self-hatred and shame diminished. A point where I was able to think about porn without despising myself for what I did, where I could accept that I made bad choices but recognise the place of pain from which those choices came.

That’s when the grief set in.

When I was pushing the truth away, not wanting to acknowledge that I’d ever chosen to watch porn, I had this little fantasy in my head. I knew I would have to face my past eventually, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was certain it would be pretty awful, actually. But I had this tiny hope that after the awfulness was over, it would all go away. I thought that by “dealing with porn” I’d be able to put it behind me and it would never bother me again. I thought I would be able to live my life as though I’d never heard of porn, never chosen to watch it, never been caught in its trap. I never articulated it but I know in the back of my mind I was just waiting for the moment where everything was okay again.

Of course it was nonsense, that fantasy. How could things be ‘okay again’ when they were never okay in the first place? I didn’t watch porn because I was happy; I watched it because I was in pain and I wanted to make the pain go away. And once I’d watched it, everything changed for me. It set my life on a path, and even though that path was temporary I can’t pretend I never travelled it.

So now I am feeling grief as I realise that porn is, irrevocably, one of the things that has shaped my life. I can’t change that, ever. I can’t go back and unsee the things I’ve seen. I can’t go back and erase unhealthy fantasies. I no longer feel the shame and self-hatred I once harboured, but I can’t live as though those feelings were never there. No matter what I do, I can never again be happily ignorant about porn.

Part of me rebels against that. I don’t want to be that woman, the woman who watched porn. I don’t want the knowledge it gave me. I don’t want to know what addiction feels like. Even as I take pride in how far I’ve come in my healing, I desperately wish I’d never had to make the journey at all.

And yet, here I am. I have made choices, and watching porn was one of those choices. Because of that, I have scars; and although I no longer feel the sharp pain of the wound, sometimes the scars still ache. I can’t change that, and so for now I have to live with the grief. I grieve the happy oblivion I thought I would have once I started talking about porn. I grieve because nothing can take away the images I have in my head. I grieve what might have been, if I’d never taken this particular path. And I can’t help grieving the death of my dream-self, who existed only in my mind, and who has no scars at all.

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Damaging silence

“Revealing the truth is like lighting a match: it can bring light, or it can set your world on fire.” – Unknown

By far the most terrifying thing I have ever done in my life is to tell my counsellor about my history with pornography. I’d been seeing her weekly for two and a half years before I built up enough courage to tell her, and even then I could only do it over email – after which I spent a horrible five days before my next session wishing I could take the email back.

I kept silent about porn for more than ten years. I started watching it in about 1999/2000 and stopped early in 2004. At that point I still hadn’t told a single soul about it, which meant I was trying to stop without any support at all. In hindsight that was a terrible idea, but I was so completely petrified of what people would think if they knew about it that telling anyone was out of the question for me. I couldn’t bring myself to be vulnerable because I had all these beliefs in my head that kept my mouth firmly shut. Beliefs like:

Women don’t watch porn.
Women older than 20 don’t watch porn.
Christian women don’t watch porn.
Women who are aroused by porn are depraved.
Unmarried Christian women shouldn’t have sexual urges.
Women who masturbate have no self control.
Women who watch porn are disgusting and perverted.
Feminists would never watch porn.
It’s normal for men to watch porn but not normal for women.

See the common thread here? It wasn’t just about me watching porn, it was about me as a woman watching porn. I had all these beliefs about what women should and shouldn’t be like and I’d never, ever heard of a woman struggling with compulsive pornography use. Then throw into the mix my beliefs about what a Christian is like, with the only porn testimonies I’d ever heard all coming from 19 year old Christian boys (but never girls, never women, never older men unless they were paedophiles) and I was left with the conviction that I was a freak. The two things that defined me were my Christian faith and my womanhood, but by watching porn I felt like I’d failed at both those things. That left me with nothing – nothing to define me, nothing to give me worth.

With all of that going on in my head it’s no wonder that I couldn’t bring myself to get help. In my imagination, revealing my porn addiction meant revealing my worthlessness in the most humiliating way possible. I didn’t even recognise it as an addiction; I thought it was just indicative of my perverted character.

My reluctance to share my secret is understandable. Given what I believed – and I believed all of that right up until I told my counsellor – I’m amazed that I ever managed to tell anyone at all. I don’t blame myself for staying silent, but I wish I had realised the damage I was doing by not confiding in someone.

Struggling alone, it took a long time to get free of porn. Every time I went back to it I felt like I was proving my beliefs – if I weren’t so worthless and vile then surely I would have been able to stop first time, right? But the far more damaging belief was that only someone worthless and vile would have gone near porn in the first place. The fact that I stopped watching porn proved nothing. My seven years of silence after stopping meant that I had seven years of telling myself that I was abnormal. Seven years of shame. Seven years of believing, every day, that the worst thing in the world would be for anyone to find out about my porn use, because then they’d find out who I really am. Seven years to firmly cement in my brain the lie that I am a freakish, worthless, non-woman, and that there is no one in the world as bad as me. I thought my silence was protecting me but all it was doing was hurting me.

If I could go back in time and tell my past self one thing, it would be this: “You are not alone.” If I had known that other women – lots of women – struggle with porn addiction, it would have changed everything.

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