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.