Shame’s Massive Role in Porn Use

Many of us tend to think we feel shame in response to using pornography. What might surprise you however is that the reverse is also true.

The more we feel shame, the more we will be drawn to use pornography.

Why? Shame drives us to behaviors that reinforce the judgment we hold against ourselves. Whatever your judgment is, you will inevitably pursue behaviors that provide evidence to confirm that core belief.

Let me show you how.

Dough

In graduate school, I lived with a housemate who worked the closing shift at our local Starbucks. It was a diabolical gift. After work he would walk into our home with a bounty of free day-old pastries. Our kitchen counter would become a stadium of blueberry and pumpkin scones, old-fashioned and chocolate doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, molasses cookies, and the most alluring of all: the apple fritter. On evenings when I would get home late after a particularly difficult day, I’d hear the baked goods whisper to me, telling me to put them in the microwave for sixteen seconds and lavishly drizzle white chocolate sauce on top.

The next morning, I would wake and, unsurprisingly, despise myself. The whole day, a fried mass of sugar from the night before would hold me in contempt the following day. I’d see my belly folded over my jeans and blush at the prospect of others seeing my weight and, therefore, an appetite I had condemned. In my self-hatred, I’d hide in a coffee shop and study until it was late enough for my housemates to be in bed. After a day of shame and shame avoidance, I’d look to pastries not only for comfort but also to set up another day of judgment. It was during these days of intense judgment against myself that I would be most drawn to use pornography. When we feel terrible about who we are, we pursue behaviors that provide irrefutable evidence that we are unwanted.

Unfortunately for me, this carbohydrate ritual of consumption, shame, and self-hatred had been going on for more than a decade. If my carbohydrate episodes were a television show, there would be a flashback to my thirteen-year-old self, an obese eighth grader in the suburbs of Washington, DC, belly bulging over discount jeans, about to fail algebra, and whose bus stop nickname was Doughnut. I was, as my bus stop peers would say, “too fat to even play football.” At the bus stop, several middle schoolers would laugh as one peer poked my belly, making the noise of the Pillsbury Doughboy. In the evenings, I would echo and intensify their contempt, eating sweet dough and shaking my stomach like a doormat.

What was happening in graduate school was a repetition of the shame that I underwent in middle school. The way I used food simultaneously gave me escape from shame, but in the end, reinforced it.

The Face of Shame

As a counselor, I often have a front row seat to the debilitating nature of shame. When people talk to me about their use of pornography and the specifics of what they search for on the internet, they fight to keep shame from fully possessing them.

They avoid eye contact, fail to finish their sentences, and become extremely evasive of questions and vague in their answers. Sometimes they even stop talking altogether. Their faces become red, their eyes search in hypervigilance, and if the experience intensifies, their bodies hunch over, their heads droop, and they bury their faces in their hands.

Shame is primarily concerned with the eyes or the perceived gaze of someone seeing our unwanted behavior. Shame makes us want to hide. It tells us that something about us is beyond repair or intrinsically foul and we would be better off unseen. Our discomfort is unbearable. All we can do is run from how widespread our problems seem to be.

For those of us who have struggled with pornography, shame is an all-too-familiar companion. Given this, it might seem unnecessary to point out the relationship between shame and pornography. Surely, feeling unworthy after having done something sexually that violates our core values is a fairly straightforward affair: we’ve done something wrong and now we feel ashamed of it.

However, when we look more closely at the relationship between shame and pornography use, something surprising comes to light: our shame isn’t simply a natural consequence of viewing pornography; it’s also a key driver propelling us to it.

According to the data from my research, men were almost 300 times more likely to seek out pornography for every unit of shame they felt about such behavior. For women, the numbers were almost double, with those in my sample being 546 times as likely to do so. It must be said that shame, not pleasure, drives pornography use.

Related: Who Watches Porn? 3 Key Predictors of Porn Use

What Story Does Shame Tell About You?

At some point in our lives, we will have to engage the stories that shame tells about us. Do you believe you are not good enough? Too insecure? Too awkward? Too stupid? An intrusion? Whatever your core belief about yourself is, be on alert for how you will manufacture evidence to confirm that belief. Embedded within your shame are clues into the stories that convinced you that you were unwanted in the first place. Those stories, not the shame of pornography use, are the most crucial to address if you desire wholeness.

The next time you feel shame about your latest pornography consumption, I invite you to go deeper into what exactly you believe about yourself. Let me show you three brief examples of how a core belief shapes your experience of shame.

Let’s say your core belief is “I am unlovable.” Your shame will tell you that if someone got to know the real you, he or she would not love you.

If your core belief is “I am insignificant,” your shame might tell you that you look at porn as a consolation because no real romantic partner would ever be interested in someone like you.

Or if you believe, “I am screwed up,” because you were aroused by something you thought you shouldn’t have been aroused by, your shame will use your latest escalation in pornographic themes as evidence of how messed up you are. Pornography use is just the icing on the cake of shame.

Facing Shame

Now that we’ve established that shame drives pornography use, how do we begin to reduce its power? Believe it or not, the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week holds a clue for how we can disarm and, eventually, overcome our unwanted sexual behavior.

In my book Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our way to Healing, I discuss an interview with Andy Casagrande, the cameraman responsible for the harrowing and death-defying footage of aggressive and large great white sharks. Casagrande was asked what in the world he does when one of these behemoths is swimming right at him.

His surprising answer was that he has to do something completely unexpected: swim straight for the shark with his camera. Swimming toward the shark seems to trigger an instinctual defensive reaction in the sharks. According to Casagrande, “The reality is that if you don’t act like prey, they won’t treat you like prey.”

So what does swimming with terrifying sharks have to do with our shame? Simply this: we need to face it.

The experience of shame is the apex predator of our lives, and our impulse to evade our “great white” memories will only set us up for lifetimes of living as prey to shame’s accusations. Just as a shark swims away when challenged, the power of shame is disarmed when we confront it, not flee from it. To be sure, shame is a merciless beast, but every time we consciously choose not to behave as its prey, it becomes less powerful.

Related: What Your Sexual Fantasies (Might) Say About You

Looking at Our Suffering

In Numbers 21, the Israelites are homeless and wandering about in the wilderness. They have no choice in their lodging accommodations and depend on air-dropped rations from above. Naturally, a number of them begin grumbling and complaining about their situation. Soon enough they were openly speaking against Moses and God for having delivered them into such a mess.

In the next scene, the people of Israel’s situation becomes more dire as poisonous snakes begin killing people. In their horror and desperation, the Israelites recognize that their slanderous speech about God may have been the very thing that led to the nightmare they find themselves in. Having heard their pleas for deliverance, Moses petitions God on behalf of the people of Israel.

God’s answer to their prayers was both simple and almost comical: He had the people fashion a bronze snake, fix it to a pole, and have all of those poisoned by the venomous serpents look at it. The allegorical significance is pretty clear: the people of Israel must look at the very thing that is killing them. We will be healed to the extent to which we turn and face the stories that corner us with shame.

Disarming Shame

The core beliefs we hold about ourselves in our shame (those toxic beliefs that we’re not worthy of love or belonging) are not random. They are direct reflections of the stories we’ve encountered in life.

When I was first intentionally addressing my problems with pornography, I realized that my core belief was that my desires were defective and untrustworthy. After all, my desire was the very thing that led me to obesity and pornography. I concluded that the solution was somehow to lessen my desire in order to mitigate future damage.

But when I went back to the stories of my desire from childhood, I saw a six-year-old boy who used to get so excited about a barbecue that he’d have a bowel movement and bellow out songs about his love for hamburgers from the toilet. I saw a kid with a beautiful desire to learn about sex and pleasure against the backdrop of a family and religious community that was almost completely silent.

Healing was not about arresting desire but about setting it free. At times, our shame certainly exposes our failures, but it can also reveal the things that are the most beautiful about us.

One day of deliberately facing your shame with curiosity and kindness will lead you into greater transformation than will a decade of willpower and lust management techniques. If self-hatred is the key driver of unwanted pornography use, kindness is its kryptonite. Shame does not need to have the last word. It can actually be the very experience that invites you to dramatically reorient your life around kindness. When you change your unhealthy patterns of interacting with your shame, your behavior will change.

In the Gospel of John, the story of the Moses raising the bronze serpent is revisited. This time, it is Jesus who is placed on a wooden pole and we must look at him in order to be saved. When we face our heartache and face the one who bears the curse of shame on our behalf, we find the healing we’ve been longing our whole life to find. Shame is not a barrier, but a bridge to redemption.

For Reflection

  • What is your core shameful belief about yourself?
  • What stories are connected to this belief?
  • Recall a time where being ashamed of yourself drove you to viewing pornography.
  • What sexual behavior or fantasy do you find the most difficult to extend kindness to?

Resources for Your Journey

  1. Jay StringerJay’s new book, Unwanted: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way To Healing
  2. The Unwanted Sexual Behavior Self-Assessment. This cutting edge self-assessment is designed to show you how your life story shapes your sexual brokenness.
  3. Journey into the Heart of Man. This 18-episode recovery resource is a collaboration between Jay Stringer, The Heart of Man film, and Covenant Eyes. Through nearly 10 hours of video content, in-depth assignments, and the Unwanted Sexual Behavior self-assessment, this resource guides men and women to the journey to freedom from unwanted sexual behavior.
This post contains an affiliate link for Journey into the Heart of Man. Covenant Eyes receives a portion of the profits of purchases made as a result of the link above.