Women now make up 30% of all pornography users. For too long, society has presumed pornography to be an exclusively “man’s issue.”[i] The continued cultural silence for female pornography use has driven many women further into the shadows. Silence intensifies shame and therefore deepens your involvement in the very behavior you may wish to stop.
This year I completed research on over 3,600 men and women struggling with unwanted sexual behavior, be that viewing pornography, an affair, or buying sex. What my data showed was that our involvement with pornography and the very specific fantasies we search after are not random at all. By far, shame was the biggest predictor of pornography use for women and men. The tragedy though is that women in my sample experienced shame at nearly double the rate of men.
It is my conviction that God is neither surprised nor ashamed of our sexual behaviors. Instead, God understands them to be the very stage through which the work of redemption will be played out in our lives. Women may think their pornography use exposes their folly, but far more, it reveals portions of their life story that await healing and empowerment.
Porn Exposure Is Not Random
One of my clients–I will call her Lisa–was in 6th grade when she “discovered” pornography in the guest bathroom at her grandparent’s home. Lisa and her siblings would spend long weekends there whenever her parents needed time away. While she was there, her grandfather would designate chores for the grandchildren. Her brothers tended to have outdoor tasks, like mowing the grass or raking leaves. Lisa however, was assigned to clean the guest bathroom and vacuum the bedrooms. Under the guest bathroom sink, next to the glass cleaner, was her grandfather’s pornography stash.
Lisa was mesmerized by the photos. She remembers her face growing red with heat and her body rushing with sensation as she saw the genitals of the women in her grandfather’s collection. She felt simultaneously aroused and dirty. This was only amplified when her grandfather would occasionally knock on the door to “check” how she was doing.
Her participation with pornography continued each weekend until her grandmother caught her and scolded her for looking at “that trash.” Lisa’s childhood experiences of arousal, “being caught,” and shame would become her sexual cocktail–one that she would remix often later in life.
Ashamed, Lisa swore she would resist the temptation to look at the pornography. At her church youth group, she remembered voicing a series of “unspoken” prayer requests to stop her behavior. A month later she was back at her grandparent’s home and again, her arousal became too much to overcome. She woke up in the middle of the night and selected a magazine from the bottom of the pile to bring back to her bedroom.
Lisa’s pornography use escalated as an adult. In a moment of crisis, Lisa pursued a women’s porn recovery group. There, one group member said something that changed her life. “You don’t send your granddaughter to clean the bathroom mirrors and not expect her to find the porn you store next to the glass cleaner.” Lisa’s introduction to pornography was not accidental; it was a set-up.
Porn Is Introduced Relationally
Most of us remember the first time we saw pornography. First exposure often occurs between ages 9-14. When my clients tell me about their first involvement with porn, they usually tell a story as if there were no other actors on the stage. They say something along the lines of, “I knew I probably shouldn’t have, but I went ahead and did it anyways.” After a few questions though, the context of their introduction to porn becomes clear: relationships.
My research found that the exposure to pornography in a child’s life is anything but random. Overwhelmingly, children did not “discover” porn, they were introduced to it.
The introduction of pornography for most adults today was relational. It could have been a neighborhood friend that showed us images they downloaded from the web or finding a family member’s stash in their bedroom. Whether we find porn with no one else around or are introduced to it in the presence of others, we associate pornography not only with erotic content, but also with the one who originally collected it. Here is what I found:
Maybe you identify with Lisa’s story. Maybe not in the specifics, but in recognizing how your exposure to pornography was not a random discovery. Many of my female clients report finding their father, brother, or extended family member’s porn stash in a “hidden,” yet completely obvious location. A closet, nightstand, or under a mattress is not going to fool too many children! One woman was at a middle school sleepover where her peers introduced her to a celebrity sex tape, another client was in a chat room with an upperclassman from high school when he sent a pornographic file over, and another was in middle school when her boyfriend showed her a video and suggested they should try something similar.
Dr. Dan Allender in his book, Healing the Wounded Heart, writes, “As difficult as it is to face, the presence of pornography binds the heart of children not only to the pictures but also to the one who is clearly aroused by those images.”[ii] Lisa’s experience with pornography, like many of us, was so convoluted precisely because it was erotically bound not only to the natural arousal of pornography, but also to an intimate relationship–her grandfather.
Had Lisa randomly found the same porn on a solitary bike ride on a county trail, the association between pornography and shame would not be as acute. Instead, she knew her grandfather, her brothers, and her were all sharing the same pornographic material. How is an eleven-year-old, in a family committed to pornographic arousal and silence, supposed to metabolize the implications of all of this? The stunning relational bonds women build are precisely what makes them so vulnerable to being bound to erotic shame with those who introduce them to pornography.
Silence Is the Sound of Sexual Shame
Lisa’s family, like most in my research, were largely silent on the issues of sexuality. Parents of those who completed my survey tended to be silent or significantly inadequate in talking to their children about sex:
Silence is the death knell of female sexual shame. When parents abdicate their responsibility to have meaningful, educational conversations about the beauty of sex, they are setting up the likelihood of perverse sexual education from the sex industry and porn-entrenched adolescents.
Parents were silent and inadequate not only with words, but also with meaningful emotional presence. A key driver associated with the introduction of pornography was when a child wanted more emotional involvement from their parent. Consider the following:
- The risk tripled of being introduced to pornography by someone older for those who, to a very great extent, wanted more of their mother’s involvement.
- The risk quadrupled of being asked to sexually stimulate someone during or after pornography when women wanted, to a very great extent, more of their mother’s involvement in childhood.
- Women were 2x more likely to be introduced to pornography by someone older when they, to very great extent, wanted more involvement with their father.
- The risk of being introduced to pornography by someone older increased from 9% to 38% when they reported their father showed a very great deal more interest in a sibling.
The data suggests that adults and peers who introduced girls to pornography, at some level, are aware of the longing children have to be pursued and curious about one of the most beautiful dimensions of what it means to be human–their sexuality. Refraining from giving children access to informative and normative sex education is damaging. Where parents and faith communities will not educate, pornography will.
Related: 6 Ways to Raise a Sex Addict
Women who wanted more involvement from their parents were not only introduced to pornography at a greater rate, they were also more likely to be sexually abused. The quality of a woman’s childhood relationship with her father was most evident in a woman’s current use of pornography. Women were 56% less likely to struggle with significant pornography viewing as an adult when they had fathers who were emotionally and physically present (even those who bordered on emotional enmeshment).
Sexual Struggles Are Often Re-Enactments
When Lisa entered high school, a neighbor asked her to take care of a cat for a week while the family was on vacation. Inside the neighbor’s house, she felt the familiar rush of arousal and intrigue. As the cat ate, Lisa searched through the bathrooms and bedrooms to try to find porn, which she eventually found in the master bedroom closet. In college, the pattern continued. She was hired as a nanny for a family near her university. One night, Lisa got the children to sleep and began roaming through the house, trying to find pornography or sex toys. She was unable to find anything, but much to her surprise, she was fired the next day. The family had a “nanny cam” installed and thought she was trying to steal money or jewelry. She was ashamed, but relieved that her true intentions were not discovered.
It is important to underscore that when Lisa entered therapy, the connection between her pornography use and her past introduction to pornography by her grandfather was not apparent to her. What this likely means for you is that there are stories of your own subtle abuse that you have dismissed as irrelevant to your sexual struggle. I am not telling you that you must draw hard and fast conclusions among these stories. Instead, I am inviting you to be curious about any scenes that may have flashed in your mind. The unwanted sexual behavior you face may be a re-enactment of the original ways you were introduced to pornography. These scenes are instrumental in helping us understand where we come from and why we remain bound to similar dynamics in the present.
Redeeming Your Sexual Story
Lisa’s sexual story was unwanted: but she did choose it. Shame then attempted to convince her that she was unwanted too. In reality, Lisa’s porn use was set-up by a perverse grandfather and a profound silence on sex in her family.
Lisa’s path to recovery was not to condemn her arousal, but to liberate it. Her task was to discover what an honorable, beautiful sexual life might be. Notice how easy it would have been to diagnose Lisa as a sex addict or to cite a disordered relationship to lust. The much more honorable, gospel work is to invite her to the conversation of what she wanted her sexual story to become. God invites us to the renewal of our minds, not the reigning in of our desire.
Lisa got engaged during her second year of therapy and she committed to educating herself on the beauty of sex as she prepared for marriage. One particular session, she arrived in my office and elatedly said, “Did you know the clitoris is the only human organ God made that has no other purpose, except for sexual pleasure? That is amazing!” Lisa was surprised that God was not awkward or timid about sex, but wove pleasure intimately into the design of her body. The more Lisa learned, the more she found the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 to be true: God is for her body, not for the sexual immorality she was set-up to find.
C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, writes, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” Pornography is so alluring and so damaging not only because it spoils the goodness of sex. That is obvious. Pornography also spoils the bonds of relationship.
The ultimate defeat of shame is this: the spoiled stories that attempted to convince us to remain silent are now the very source of our pursuit of the overwhelming goodness of sexual, relational, and spiritual joy. God exchanges our unwanted ashes for beauty. Silence for discovery. Shame for pleasure.
[i] Nielsen / Net Ratings 2012 and Barna’s 2016 released in: The Porn Phenomenon: The Impact of Pornography in the Digital Age, which found that 33% of females ages 13-24 and 12% ages 25+ admitted to seeking out porn daily, weekly, or monthly.
[ii] Dan Allender. Healing the Wounded Heart: The Heartache of Sexual Abuse and the Hope of Transformation. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016).