I confessed my struggle with pornography in late 2004. I had struggled for 5 years after being exposed at age 13. My “hobby” use quickly spiraled into what I would consider an addiction (though experts argue if that’s even a real thing. I say yes.)
By the time I was 17 and away at college, I was viewing pornography on a school computer with my roommate asleep less than 10 feet behind me, within view of our behemoth 2003 desktop. I was sleeping through my morning Chemistry class and sex chatting with men and women online, from my dorm room, at a Christian college. Eventually I sent nude photos of myself to a man.
I got caught there in college. My internet was being tracked. But when the dean confronted me with my internet history report and alleged porn problem that was “disgusting and one of the worst cases they had ever seen” she told me “We know this wasn’t you. Women just don’t have this problem.” That was Fall 2003.
A year later, I outed myself, and told someone I struggled with pornography and needed help. I found help, and it took me almost two years to feel like I was “free” from pornography. While I’ve been “free” for over a decade, I’ve never stopped battling it. Those ten years of freedom have included moments of temptation and many times of relapse. Still, I would call it freedom, and there’s much I have learned in the process.
Freedom from Pornography is Possible
There were days I thought, “There’s no way I can beat this.” In the morning, I would wake up and say, “Not today” but it’s like my feet had autopilot and just walked me to the computer desk. Hours would slip by online and I felt powerless to stop any of it. I tried changing passwords (doesn’t help when you know them!). I tried self-harm. I tried finding other hobbies. Nothing seemed to help.
You can’t begin to fathom a life without pornography, so you’re just desperate to survive in spite of it. But there’s a better option that “surviving in spite of pornography.” Freedom is possible. It’s hard, but it’s real.
That bit of truth would have been so helpful for me in my struggle, because the days I thought, “There’s no way out of this” were always the hardest. In fact, believing there was no way out is exactly what led me into the darkest parts of my story. We need the hope that there is a way out and that freedom is available to us. It is.
Healing Goes Beyond Freedom
But there’s more to this journey than simply finding freedom from pornography. Too many times we make it all about “stop watching porn” and just leave it at that. We forget to answer important questions like
- What does life look like without pornography?
- What kind of damage has pornography done and has it healed?
- Do I know how to build healthy friendships?
- How do I restore a positive view of sex?
- How has this affected my view of my body?
We can get so focused on not doing a particular behavior that we forget about the healing that needs to take place. What I’ve found though is as you heal those deeper wounds, if you will, the temptation and draw toward pornography essentially lessens.
Porn and Trauma are Connected
My friend, Lacy Bentley, author of Overcoming Love Addiction, once said during a presentation that she hasn’t worked with one woman addicted to porn who didn’t have some sort of sexual trauma that predated her porn experience.
I would add that this has likely changed with Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) as many of them consume pornography because it’s viewed as acceptable to do so. In fact, it’s encouraged. That being said, the exposure to pornography can itself be traumatic.
There’s a reason exposing children to pornography is classified as child abuse. When I give my parent presentations, I explain that little children are not drawn to the sexual aspects of pornography. Instead they are drawn like we are to footage of crashes. Exposure to sexual material is traumatizing for children.
However, it wasn’t until more recently that I realized it can be traumatic for many adults and young adults as well. It can be traumatic in the sense that you weren’t prepared for what you saw and that seeing it negatively affected how you thought or reacted to something.
We spend a lot of time talking about pornography as a bad choice, but not a lot discussing how we were led to make that bad choice. When there are lasting consequences, we have a bad tendency of just labeling those as sin and neglecting the reality of the effects of trauma.
Boundaries are OK
A common misconception is that post-porn me needs to look exactly like everyone who has never viewed it. That’s simply not the case. I have friends who are allowed to ask me awkward questions. I have controls enabled on my phone.
There are things in place in my life that help me stay on the track of freedom. Even as I prepare to be married in less than two weeks, there are boundaries my fiance and I have that other couples may not. And that’s ok. They aren’t a negative side effect of my choices. They are ways I choose freedom.
I would rather be free than fit in.
Falling isn’t a Relapse
I have been free from pornography for over a decade. That means the last time I compulsively viewed pornography was over ten years ago. But, I’ve said it many times before, pornography will be a weakness for the rest of my life. In a sense, it is my drug. My brain knows the hit it gets from porn and if I’m looking for a hit, that’s where my mind is going to go.
As the years have gone by that connection has lessened, but I think it’s always going to be there. Sure, it may grow over, and synapses may rewire, and memories and images may fade, but things are never fully erased from our minds. The track would always be there if I chose to jump back on it.
And in those ten years, there are times I have. I’m not dishonest about that. This isn’t a sex addict’s anonymous blog where I stand here and say, “My name is Jessica and it’s been ten years since I last saw porn.” It hasn’t. But never in those ten years, when a low point sucked me back into the porn vortex, did I ever feel “Oh no, I’m trapped again.” If anything, the response was,”Oh no you don’t!”and I fought even harder to make sure it didn’t happen again.
It saddens me when women feel like one bad choice can “cancel” out weeks, months, even years of freedom. If you fall, get up and fight. Free people can fight back. Don’t throw yourself back in prison, fight. Figure out what led you to make those choices. Find your triggers and deal with them.
Ladies, Your Sex Drive is a Good Thing
Perhaps that’s a “no duh” statement for you, but I come from a religious culture in which the sex drive of women isn’t exactly celebrated. In fact, it’s stifled. The moment we do anything remotely embracing our sexuality we get hurled into Proverbs 5 territory (the adulteress woman). Women aren’t supposed to want or enjoy sex, even though we were created by God with an organ specifically devoted to sexual pleasure.
So, I guess God didn’t get the memo?
A book I am currently reading is Knowing Her Intimately by Laura Brotherson, a certified sex therapist. In the first chapter, she addresses this idea that women have such negative views of their own sexuality. Many women struggle to embrace the fact they are sexual beings and struggle to see that as a good thing. Before healthy sex can happen, she says, that view needs to be transformed.
Women need to recognize that we also are made with the ability and drive to enjoy sex. Is it always on par with a man’s drive? No. Can it be? For some. Can it exceed a man’s drive? Yes. In fact, according to one author’s survey, 24% of marriages had a wife with a higher drive than her husband.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Side note: Even while writing this, I am realizing that so much about freedom is not only learning what is actually wrong and addressing that, but also, embracing that which is not wrong.
When we label things wrong that aren’t, we make ourselves feel even more trapped.
If I thought being a woman with a high sex drive was something broken that needed fixing, I’d never be “free.” Trauma in my past? That needs addressed. The fact that I desire sex? That does not.
Honesty Brings Freedom
There’s a Bible verse that talks about knowing the truth and the truth setting us free. This might not be the appropriate application of it, but it comes to mind when talking about honesty and how honesty eradicates shame.
So much of the feeling of being stuck in pornography is due to shame. Shame is what keeps women in silence. Shame is what makes us not reach out and ask for help. Shame is what keeps us from sharing our story with others.
Honesty combats shame because it opens doors for grace. I will never experience grace if I’m not first honest.
Years ago, when I shared my story, I didn’t understand the level of freedom that would bring in my life. I don’t have to hide. I can openly discuss my story. Not only does that help me experience freedom, it’s also used to help others find freedom.
In the past few months, as I’ve gotten to know my future husband, I’ve seen this truth replayed over and over. When I am honest with him, it doesn’t rip us apart, it draws us together. It makes us a team as opposed to me vs. him and a fear of him finding things out.
Fear of being known is a hallmark of shame and we deal with that by taking a risk and being honest.
Honesty is what started my journey of freedom, and every moment of growth—from dealing with trauma in my past, to understanding my own need for boundaries—has come because of honesty.
If you are looking for freedom, to step out on that journey of a life without pornography, I encourage you to start where I did—tell somebody. Find a trusted friend, mentor, counselor, parent, and share your story.
It might be the hardest thing you ever do. It was for me. But you can’t walk in freedom if you aren’t willing to open the door.
Visit Jessica Harris’s website, Beggar’s Daughter, for additional resources and articles.
02 May 2018
In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Jessica Harris shares her personal story of pornography addiction, a struggle that still too many think is only a man’s problem. Because pornography addiction is seen as primarily a male issue, the Church isn’t helping women who continue to struggle in silence and shame. Jessica shows how the Church can change this broken perspective. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)
When I first felt God calling me to share my story, my answer was no.
I had spent my entire high school career struggling with pornography addiction. In college, I was caught looking at porn after logging in on a school computer, but they concluded it couldn’t be me. “Women just don’t have this problem.”
My struggle escalated to the point where I sent nude photos to a stranger online. This was back in 2003 before sexting was in vogue. Seventeen years old, from my dorm room on a Christian college campus, I, a newly-converted Christian who had grown up in the church, became someone else’s pornography. To me, that was all my life was worth.
A year later, I finally told somebody about my struggle with porn. I confessed to the Student Life staff at the second Bible college I was attending. They began to work with me intensively, and after nearly two years of a long, hard fight, I found freedom.
In my mind, freedom meant I didn’t have to think about it anymore. The past was behind me. No one ever had to know this was part of my story.
When I realized God might want me to share it, I resisted. I tried to find anything else to do with my life. I told Him He could send me to China. He could call me to some jungle somewhere.
Anything but this.
But I felt a bit like Jonah getting tossed around in life’s boat. There wasn’t peace. Everything I tried to do wasn’t working. So, angrily, I created my website and shared my story of porn addiction and shame. I wondered if God hated me and that’s why He was making me do this. It felt like a permanent form of branding and punishment. Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
I was convinced I was alone—the only woman in the world who had managed to become addicted to porn.
Now, the one thing I never wanted anyone to know was the first thing anyone would know about me. I was going to be “that girl who watched porn.”
Then, the emails started coming in. A year after starting my site, a large Christian conference asked me to lead a workshop for women on the topic of lust. When women realized this workshop wasn’t going to be your typical “Proverbs 31, and True Beauty is on the Inside” workshop, they started planning to skip theirs and come to mine instead.
Every seat was filled. Women stood along the back. Women even sat on the floor at the front of the room. God moved mightily in that workshop. At the end, I watched the small groups as women shared their struggles with each other and prayed together. God was setting women free.
I walked out of the room and had what I call my Esther moment. It was as if God said to me, “You can have what you want. You can do whatever you would like. No one really knows you, so you could keep silent and move on with your plans, or you could be part of this.”
That day I decided I was all in, having no idea what that might mean. I knew women were struggling, lost, and hurting, and I knew how they could get help. How could I leave them? How could I just walk away and pretend they weren’t there?
I moved forward more publicly, telling my story, trying to write for various magazines, and reaching out to churches. The response was often, “We don’t need that kind of stuff for our women. Our women don’t struggle with that.” It quickly became clear that the biggest enemy I was going to face wasn’t pornography itself, but an old script and layer upon layer of shame.
There’s a script we have when it comes to things like sexual struggles and pornography. It goes something like this:
Men are visual, so men struggle with pornography. Women are emotional, so women struggle with Amish romance novels. Men are the eyes. Women are the heart. Men get Fight Club with resources and accountability groups. Women get tea parties with talk about dating and “protecting your heart.”
And that leaves thousands of visual women who struggle with pornography with nowhere to turn. They need Fight Club, but when they knock on the door, they’re met with disapproving glances or a belittling of their struggle.
When I stand on a stage and say, “My name is Jessica, and I was addicted to pornography,” I have to clarify exactly what I mean. People try to change my story to fit the script. They either water down what I mean by “addicted” or what I mean by “pornography.” They assume, at the very most, I was compulsively into soft-core pornography.
That’s not the case. I was never into soft-core pornography. Instead, I spent hours, every day, watching hard-core pornography: the same type of porn men are known for watching and worse. Mine is not a story of a young girl entrenched in romance novels. It’s a story of a young woman having her identity completely warped and lost to years of compulsive, daily, hard-core pornography use.
Sharing that story, whether from a stage, on my site, or through my book, Beggar’s Daughter, has never been easy. I still get emails questioning my experience or what might be wrong with me. After all, the email will say, “This is a man’s problem.”
The advantage is now, I know my story is not unique. In fact, it is far from it. The script we’re using is old and needs to change, because the script itself is causing shame. The script itself is leaving women feeling trapped and hopeless.
How do we change that script?
- Use the word “and” – When you address issues around sexuality, know that sexual struggles do not respect genders. Men and women can struggle with pornography. Men and women should be able to find hope, healing, and grace in your community.
- Train women to help— Equip women in your midst to be able to minister to women in this area. Women’s ministry isn’t all homemaking tips and studies on Proverbs 31. Equip and encourage your teams to tackle harder issues with truth and grace.
- Stop worrying about “causing” problems— Many ministry leaders are concerned that discussing these issues will introduce sin into their circles. In the years since I published my book, I’ve not once had someone say, “I wish you hadn’t written this. It made my problem worse.” When we talk about issues in the light of God’s redemptive grace, people find hope and freedom.
Discussing an issue, no matter how hard, in relation to the Gospel and grace will always bring light, not darkness. Mentioning that women struggle with pornography doesn’t take women captive; it sets them free. It opens up the door for them to come forward, confess, and find hope and healing.
As the body of Christ, that should be our mission. We should welcome His redemptive work in each other’s lives, regardless of what He is redeeming us from.
It might be an overused saying, but if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. If your church or ministry isn’t speaking out about these issues, then your silence is trapping women in shame. Don’t withhold grace from the women in your midst. We need to get rid of the script that destroys a woman’s identity and, instead, speak the truth and invite grace to redeem our identities and be a part of every woman’s story.