“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.