A little about the ‘M’ word

“Here in your mind you have complete privacy. Here there’s no difference between what is and what could be.” – Chuck Palahniuk

I wrote the other day a little bit about about arousal and how that sits side by side with shame and disgust. I think it’s worth also thinking more directly about masturbation and fantasy and whether there’s a place for that if you’re no longer watching porn (and, presumably, don’t want to go back to those behaviours). Bearing in mind, of course, that I’m no expert in these things and I don’t claim to speak for all women, nor for everyone who’s ever struggled with pornography addiction. I’m also not looking at it from a Christian perspective – that’s a whole other blog post. For now I’m just concerned with how these issues affect someone with a history of compulsive pornography use.

When I was in my first year of high school we had sex education lessons, and after the first lesson we all wrote down the questions we were too embarrassed to ask aloud. The following week our teacher came in and said, “I have a question here which I assume was meant to say, ‘What happens if you’re on the playing field and menstruation occurs?’… but what it actually says is, ‘What happens if you’re on the playing field and masturbation occurs?'” She started to laugh, then realised there was a room full of 12 year olds looking back at her blankly. We got the joke when she explained it, but I suspect none of us really understood the concept. Why on earth would you bother doing something like that?

It was a few years before hormones really kicked in and I finally understood why you would ‘do something like that’. There’s no doubt, however, that porn changed the equation forever. Once porn was a factor it shaped the way I thought about masturbation, why I did it, even how I did it. Because here’s the thing with masturbation: I reckon it’s only about 20% physical. The other 80% – the percentage that makes it enjoyable – is mental. It’s about imagination, fantasy, desire. It’s about escape. Once I’d started watching porn it was impossible to separate masturbation from porn. Sometimes I watched porn at the same time, but even without porn I was still thinking about it. I mentally re-enacted porn scenarios, sometimes putting my own twist on them. Masturbation stopped being about ‘release of sexual tension’ or anything remotely nice. It became inextricably linked in my head with ugly, violent porn scenarios, with self-loathing and with feelings of worthlessness.

More than that, it became a porn-substitute at times where it was impossible for me to watch porn, and even after I’d decided to stop my porn habit. I no longer had porn, but I still had masturbation… and just about any magazine or television show will tell you it’s not only okay, it’s necessary (particularly if one happens to be celibate). It was easy for me to pretend it wasn’t a substitute for porn; that it wasn’t even linked with porn. But that was just a lie I told myself. Masturbation, or the desire for it, was almost always linked with things that would have triggered an evening of porn viewing in the past. I was depressed. I was stressed. I was anxious. I was feeling worthless. I told myself it was different from porn, or it was okay because it wasn’t porn, but in reality those behaviours were just two sides of the same coin.

I don’t want to get into the morality of masturbation, or whether it’s something Christians should or shouldn’t do. I believe that masturbation by itself, as a merely physical activity, is neutral; neither good nor bad. The problem is, it’s never a merely physical activity, even under the best of circumstances, and if it’s been linked with porn it changes everything, because once you’ve seen porn you can’t unsee it. I have images in my head from porn clips I watched ten years ago. I’m sure anyone who has ever struggled with porn is the same. We might not think about the images most of the time, but it doesn’t take much to recall them. For those of us with a porn history, masturbation is no longer just about the physical. It’s either a substitute for porn or it’s something that calls to mind vivid porn scenarios that we’d rather forget. I don’t want to dance that close to the edge. There are already so many things in life that can trigger the desire to go back to porn; there’s simply no point in making things harder for myself. I know this isn’t a popular opinion, and it flies against ideas of female empowerment… but it’s my reality, and the reality for many who have struggled with pornography. And sometimes, reality means standing firm even when we’d rather fly away.

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How does it make you feel?

“Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” – Paul Tournier

Talking about pornography is one thing. Talking about arousal… that takes the discussion to an uncomfortably personal level where, if we’ve been caught up in pornography addiction, we usually don’t want to go. And fair enough – there’s a big difference between ‘watching pornography’ and ‘being sexually stimulated by pornography’ and frankly, while I don’t mind people knowing about my history with porn, I don’t want them to think too much about whether I found porn arousing or not.

Much pornography – in fact, I think it’s safe to say most pornography – tends to be degrading towards women. At the very least it’s ugly, but most of the time it goes beyond ugly to violent, either verbally or physically (and usually both). Degrading, ugly and violent – but at the same time, porn is sexually arousing. And this, I believe, is where it becomes very confusing, particularly for women.

When I’m talking with my counsellor about porn I have trouble finding the right words to describe how I felt about it. I say, “Well, the type of porn I liked to watch…” and then my words trail off because that’s not quite right. I was obsessed with porn but I didn’t really like it. So I say, “What I mean is, the type of porn that appealed to me…” but that’s not it either. Describing porn as ‘appealing’ sounds so wrong. Even when I couldn’t stop watching it, I was always disgusted by the violence and debasement in porn. I hated the way it treated women. I imagine it’s the same for many women who watch porn. It’s incredibly confronting to admit, even to ourselves, that this ugly, hateful thing could also be sexually stimulating.

I didn’t always find porn arousing. In the beginning the ugliness of it had an appeal that I didn’t quite understand, but that was it. Later on, as I watched more degrading and hard-core porn, it became arousing, but even then sometimes my disgust with myself and what I was watching (even though I kept watching it) overrode every other feeling. However, there’s no getting around the fact that there were many times when I was turned on by this horrible, violent, terrible thing. There were times I watched it because I wanted to be turned on. It’s difficult to accept that – difficult for me and difficult for any woman.

It’s far too easy to make the leap from “porn is disgusting” to “I was aroused by porn, therefore I must be disgusting”. I think that’s a common mistake we can make and it’s very much tied up with the fallacy that ‘real women’ don’t watch porn. And so arousal, masturbation, porn-inspired fantasy, a desire to watch more porn… that all becomes this awful, humiliating, shameful secret that we try to bury. The fact is, whatever else porn may be, it is sexually stimulating. It’s different for everyone, but to some degree our bodies and brains are wired to be aroused by it – and ALL of us are wired that way, not just 17 year old boys. I don’t like the fact that I found porn arousing; on the contrary, it’s the thing I hate the most about it. But I am learning to accept that mere arousal doesn’t reflect on my character and doesn’t mean that I think porn is okay. And it does not define me.

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Worthless shame

“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even begin to guess what it must be to live the life of a human being.” – Osamu Dazai

Shame drew me to porn. It seems like it should be the other way around, and it’s true that watching porn brought me a lot of shame, but the fact is I knew shame long before I ever knew porn.

I felt shame my whole life; it was all I knew. When I looked in the mirror I saw someone worthless and ridiculous, and I was so ashamed of the person I believed myself to be that the thought of being exposed – of anyone else seeing what I saw every day – was terrifying. Everything I did, every word, every step, every look, every movement, every choice in life… all of it was calculated to stop anyone discovering the worthless person underneath the facade.

I did a pretty good job of hiding this ‘other self’ from people, but I did myself untold damage in the process. Using all my energy to hide my worthlessness meant that this worthlessness, as I perceived it, was always on my radar. I had no chance to believe anything else about myself because I was reminding myself every day, “You are worth nothing. Make sure no one ever sees that, no matter what it costs.”

Who could keep living this way? Every day I felt a pain in my chest, like a lump of lead, that came from the awful realisation that deep down I was a stupid, worthless non-person. I could barely stand to think about what that meant – the slightest bit of self-examination would leave me breathless with a kind of horror at being me. And I was afraid, constantly, of people discovering the real me.

So of course I turned to porn – it was the perfect fit for the way I felt about myself. I’m not sure now how it started. I used to look at my brother’s Penthouse magazines when I was 10 or 11 and I can remember being fascinated and repulsed at the same time. I wonder if that helped set me on this path… I didn’t go back to any kind of porn again until I was 29 or 30, but I don’t think those early images ever really left my mind. When I finally found porn on the internet it was a lot different from those magazine pictures. This porn was rough and ugly and it treated women with violence, degradation and humiliation. And that resonated with me, almost instantly. From a young age I can remember being fascinated with stories of women being mistreated – abuse, rape, abduction, violence. It’s not that I wanted any of these things to happen to me or to anyone else, nor that I ever thought they were good things, but still I somehow identified with mistreatment. Worthlessness, degradation and violence went hand in hand – why would you treat something with care when it’s worth nothing?

Some women re-enact porn scenarios in real life. I can understand why, but I never wanted that. It was enough to re-enact them in my head, to put myself in a scenario of ugly mistreatment and abuse. I didn’t always do that, either – often it was enough just to see other women being degraded and treated as worthless. It made so much sense to me. Even without the mental re-enactment, those women were all me. Worthless, nameless, silenced objects, receiving the treatment that a thing, not a person, deserves.

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“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart.
We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves.” — Meister Eckhart

In the mornings I got up and went to work, a picture of elegance, professionalism and intelligence. On Sundays I got up, went to church and taught children in Sunday School.

In the evenings I watched porn.

When I think now about those two faces, my two lives, I wonder how I managed to maintain both for so long. I suppose it was really two parts of one life, but I felt like two different people and I had to work hard to keep them completely separate. As time went on it became harder to maintain the disconnection, as porn-thoughts and images would surface during the day at inconvenient times. People always think it’s nudity or dirty jokes or movie sex scenes that trigger such thoughts. I guess for some people that’s the case, and I wish it had been that for me too – at least then I would have been prepared for the unwelcome thoughts that invaded my brain. For me, though, it was hardly ever that kind of thing; it was always something innocent, but my mind traced a line that led back to porn.

I hated myself for those thoughts. I didn’t yet hate myself for watching porn; at that point I merely I hated myself for not being able to control my thoughts during the day, during the ‘non-porn’ hours. I saw it as a lack of self control, and it put me in danger. If porn intruded on my daytime life then there was a risk I might say or do something that would give me away. It was vitally important that no one ever knew about what I was doing in the evenings. They couldn’t see my other life.

Thinking about it now, I realise that I didn’t want to see that other life either. I watched porn, I made deliberate choices about what I watched, I knew what I was doing… but still I just couldn’t think about it too much. I know now that I needed the porn in order to dull the pain I felt living my life everyday, but the only way I could cope with the fact that I was watching porn – me, the ‘good girl’ – was to put that part of my life in a whole other compartment and pretend it wasn’t there. I’m sure that half my energy was spent just trying to maintain that disconnection, even while I was watching porn.

Of course it was never possible to disconnect completely. My two worlds overlapped so often, and every time it happened I felt a stab of terror. I was afraid of facing what I thought was the ‘real’ me – the disgusting, perverted, porn-watcher – but even more than that, to connect my two worlds was to risk exposure, and that was my single biggest fear. It’s a fear that kept me silent for seven years after I stopped watching porn – seven years of shame and self-loathing, but that was far preferable to exposure. Indeed, it seemed a very small price to pay to ensure my safety.

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Disgusting and perverted

“The only thing more disgusting and perverted than a man who watches pornography is a woman who watches it.”

I saw this comment recently on an online article about the harms of the porn industry. It was a good article that made some valid points, and the comments, as with all online content, were a mixed bag. And then that one. It hit me like a punch in the stomach.

“The only thing more disgusting and perverted than a man who watches pornography is a woman who watches it.”

The comment has now been removed from the article. It doesn’t matter, really, because it is indicative of a belief  so ingrained that the comment itself is almost unnecessary – the belief that porn is consumed solely by young, horny men who are not old enough or mature enough to control their hormones. This belief is often unwittingly reinforced by women who seek to oppose porn because of the general harms it causes to women. I constantly hear women say, “Well, I’m a feminist…” The implication is clear – if you are a feminist, you care about women and (rightly) oppose anything that promotes degradation of, and violence against women. And thus, you would never go near porn.

But here’s my problem. I am a woman. I am a feminist. I care about women. I despise violence of any kind, including violence against women. I hate the degradation and objectification of women. All of these things are true about me, and yet I still spent several years in a cycle of compulsive porn viewing. I’m not alone, either – 17% of women admit to a pornography addiction. That’s one in every six women admitting to a pornography addiction. It doesn’t include women who watch pornography occasionally but wouldn’t consider themselves addicted and it doesn’t include women who are addicted but can’t yet bring themselves to admit it, even in an anonymous survey. So chances are the real figures are probably higher, particularly given the fact that one in three pornography downloads are done by women.

Whilst we constantly hear the stats about men and porn use, and the harms of porn, we don’t hear much about women who watch it, except perhaps from those few women who want to defend pornography and its supposed harmlessness. There is a massive silence on the issue, and so women who are caught up in compulsive porn use are not getting the help they need because the only voices they are hearing are the ones that say ‘decent women don’t watch porn’.

I was trapped in porn addiction for about four years. I spent that time watching women being treated as objects, in scenes of violence and degradation. I couldn’t understand what drew me to it and I didn’t know how to stop. Like most people caught up in an addiction, I hated myself for it, but what made it worse was that I had never heard of another woman doing the things I was doing. I couldn’t believe that any woman would willingly watch porn, and everything I read and heard confirmed that. As a result, I felt like a freak, and a failed woman. I was not a real woman, regardless of what I believed about equality and dignity, because women don’t watch porn.

Even after I became free of the addiction, I did not become free of the shame, or the conviction that women who care about women don’t watch porn. That women who are mature and intelligent don’t watch porn. That women and men who are older than about 25 don’t watch porn. That porn exists only as a masturbatory aid for uncontrolled boys and young men. That porn is only about sex.

I am not condoning porn. I’ve seen a lot of it and I believe it’s damaging. I am also not suggesting we should stop talking about the harms it causes both to the people who watch it and the people – particularly women – who participate in it. What I am suggesting is that we need to recognise that women do watch pornography. Often their reasons for watching are complicated and are more to do with self-loathing and self-esteem issues than sex, but they still watch it. They watch it, and sometimes they hate themselves for it. By concentrating only on young men, and by assuming that ‘feminist’ means you would never go near porn, we are perpetuating a cycle of shame and silence.

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