Tag Archives: shame

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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“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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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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