Tag Archives: women & porn

First exposure

Here’s a piece I wrote for Porn Recovery UK (big thanks to Duncan for asking me to write it). My post is here.

Technically, I suppose, my first exposure to porn was when I was ten or eleven and I found some of my brother’s magazines whilst snooping in his room one afternoon. I remember being fascinated and horrified at the same time. These were photos of women who hid nothing, and their casual boldness scared me because it was so alien to everything I knew. I went back again and again to look at these magazines when there was no one at home. That was my first experience of porn but what I saw later was so different it made those magazines look like fashion mags.

When I was in my late 20s I spent a Saturday afternoon playing card games on my computer. The internet was only accessible via dial up so I wasn’t on there much, but this day I decided to search for more games. I clicked on a link that said ‘free card games’ and suddenly I was at a porn site. It was that simple. I didn’t go searching for porn; I had never even imagined seeing it. There was no secret craving for porn and I was completely shocked that I’d landed on this site. In truth it was fairly tame. It was photographs only, and at this point I didn’t even know you could watch porn films online; I thought you had to buy videos at a sleazy shop for that. The pictures were rougher than what I’d seen in my brother’s magazines and the women looked … more demeaned, I guess. They seemed more humiliated, more like victims. I understand now that their humiliation was what attracted me. It resonated with my own experiences of being shamed, put down and emotionally abused. I didn’t go to porn because I wanted to see naked women or, later, because I wanted to see women have sex. I wasn’t aroused by the women; I simply identified with their powerlessness, with the way they were treated as worthless objects. It made sense to me.

That afternoon I forgot about the card games. For the first time, I typed the word ‘porn’ into a search engine. I can remember shaking, and my heart was pounding from fear. I felt like I’d crossed a line, taken a step that I couldn’t have imagined ever taking. Obviously I’d seen pornographic images before, in the magazines, but actually typing ‘porn’ into my computer was something very different. I wasn’t looking at something I’d stumbled across accidentally; I was deliberately choosing porn. And making that choice for the first time wasn’t exciting or liberating or fun. It was simply terrifying.

Within weeks, I knew all the search terms that would quickly find me the images I wanted to see. Within months, I’d discovered movies. A little while after that I found porn fiction, where I could read about impossibly degrading acts that couldn’t happen in real life. I had an entirely new language of code words, abbreviations and acronyms. I knew the names of acts that I hadn’t even known existed a few months before. I was an expert at finding what I wanted to see. Finding my chosen content got faster, easier, more streamlined … but it never stopped being terrifying, and I never stopped hating myself for it.

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Busting the myths – #1

Myth: Women don’t watch porn

Everyone knows that porn is a problem for men. Men watch it, men get addicted to it, marriages break up because men can’t stop watching it, men have unrealistic ideas about sex and about women’s bodies because they watch porn. Men watch porn on their own, men watch porn together, boys learn about porn because their fathers keep porn in the house.

These things are all true. The statistics prove it and anecdotal evidence supports it. Porn use is a problem for men, and it’s not just young men. However, the plethora of stories about men struggling with porn suggests that porn is exclusively a male problem. On the few occasions that women get a mention, it’s stories about women reluctantly watching porn because their partner wanted it and they thought it would make him pay more attention to her. There are many stories about women having plastic surgery in order to look more like the images seen in porn, because that’s what men appear to want. Although these stories are ostensibly about women, they are really about how women are affected by male porn use. Very occasionally you will come across a story about women choosing to watch porn but these articles are usually about how this new ‘female-friendly’ porn is empowering for women. These are the predominant voices when it comes to ‘facts’ about porn use and they lead the reader to conclude that women don’t even watch porn, let alone struggle with porn addiction and other related behaviours.

Fact: women do struggle with pornography addiction

A compilation of various surveys in 2005-2007 show that 17% of women struggle with pornography addiction. That percentage translates to 1 in every 6 women – and remember, these were self-assessed surveys. It’s possible the figure is higher when you consider the number of women who watch porn but don’t consider their porn use to be problematic or compulsive. One in every six women, yet we almost never hear about women and porn.

Here are some more stats:

Given the lack of focus on female porn use, these figures are astounding. Or perhaps what’s astounding is that there is such a lack of focus on female pornography use and addiction. Clearly, this is a huge problem for women – perhaps not as huge as for men, but still enormously significant. Almost certainly you know a women who is secretly watching porn, if not struggling with an addiction to it, and chances are she doesn’t know these stats either. She probably thinks there are no other women who share her struggle. So why aren’t we hearing about this? Why are people so completely astonished when they hear these figures? Why aren’t we talking about in in schools, churches, mothers’ groups and amongst our friends? Why aren’t there hundreds of support groups for women struggling with porn addiction? Why aren’t we talking to our daughters and sisters about this?

When I was watching porn I thought I was a freak. In my 3-4 years of porn use and then the subsequent seven years before I told anyone about it, I had absolutely no idea that other women struggle with porn addiction. I had never read a single story about women and porn, and to this day I’ve only ever met one other woman with a story similar to mine. This is exactly why women don’t seek help, and why the sense of shame women feel is so overpowering. Silence about women and porn is not really silence; in fact it speaks volumes. It shouts to women that if you are struggling with porn, you are different. Staying silent about porn isolates women and removes us from our community. It teaches us we are alone, that we are not like other women, and it shames us into believing we are not a real woman.

We must bust this myth and start talking about women and porn. Porn addition for women is real and it’s a huge problem, but the women who are struggling with porn don’t know that. They think they are alone, they think they are freaks, they think there is no help for them – and none of those things is true. As long as we stay silent, women will continue to believe these lies and they will stay trapped in their addiction.

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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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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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