Tag Archives: arousal

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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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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