"The way you choose to respond to someone who looks at pornography will have a huge impact on your relationship with them, and their relationship with themselves."
I remember the first time I looked at pornography. I was 11 years old. It had just registered in my brain that the women in the lingerie section of the Sears catalog from the Sunday paper were sexy.
Referring to a Sears catalog as pornography might make you laugh or roll your eyes — and to be honest, I feel the same way now — but to 11-year-old me it definitely felt like pornography.
I remember sneaking the catalog up to my room and rifling through the pages. I was so paranoid I’d get caught that I was literally trembling with apprehension.
As I stared at the pages, I felt an intoxicating flood of contradicting emotions. There was curiosity, pleasure, embarrassment, guilt, and shame. Lots of shame.
I felt like I needed to hide my new discovery from the world. If anyone found out, what would they think of me?
The Dangers of Shame
As I grew up and went through the scouting and Young Men’s programs, I was taught to honor the priesthood. I was taught to love and respect women, to remain worthy to attend the temple, and to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind . . . all of those things.
I was taught that pornography was addictive, destructive, cancerous smut that would tear apart my marriage and destroy me from the inside out if I looked at it.
I am the oldest child in my family and was often asked to be a leader in church and at school. I was told my peers and my siblings were looking up to me and counting on me to set a good example, even when I didn’t think anyone was watching.
I felt a huge amount of pressure to not let anyone down. Not my parents. Not my siblings. Not my leaders or teachers or friends. Especially not God. I couldn’t make a mistake or experience anything resembling weakness or sin, or I would be letting everyone down.
Just writing that last paragraph makes me shake my head. That’s a lot of pressure and expectation for a 12-year-old kid to carry around with him!
As I grew up, I continued to wrestle with the struggles of life that you probably faced as well. Stress, depression, loneliness, rejection, and personal insecurities showed up all over the place . . . growing up is hard.
As I got into my late teens and early 20s, I found that looking at pornography could provide a temporary escape from my pains and problems. From time to time I’d use it to check out of life for a few minutes, to secretly and selfishly indulge a fantasy or curiosity.
Immediately, crushing shame would follow. If I knew this was wrong, why would I do it? If my parents found out, what would they think? Would my religious leaders be upset and invoke the judgments of God? Would the women in my life look at me in disgust and revulsion? Would anyone ever want to date me, let alone marry me? Would God ever forgive me for toying with one of the most severe of sins?
I didn’t know the answer to these questions, and I didn’t want to find out.
I was terrified that they all might be true.
I’d go for months or even years without looking at porn, then one day I’d slip up. I’d cave to the pressure or temptation. It seemed like every time I did this, the shame would double in magnitude.
This shame began to destroy my life. I heard stories of women who divorced their husbands the moment they found out he looked at pornography. I heard women say, “I will never date or marry someone who looks at pornography.” I even heard prophets say it was better to die than to sacrifice my virtue.
I’m confident I sabotaged more than one relationship because of the thought, “If she really knew who I was, she would never want to be with me.”
I distanced myself from friends, family, and the Church. I figured it would be better to lose these relationships than for them to see me as a fraud or a liar or as yet another horrible, dishonorable man who looks at pornography.
Marriage and Confiding in Others
At some point it became too much for me. I couldn’t deal with the shame anymore. I reached out to a few close friends. It turns out they’d had experienced similar challenges.
I felt an inkling of hope.
I began to establish an inner-circle of safe people I could talk to about my personal struggles with pornography and with life in general.
I went to therapy. I wrote about my experiences. I interviewed professionals about it on my podcast.
The more I talked about it, the less alone I felt. Even though most people were uncomfortable talking about pornography, I could tell when they did, they felt a little better. A little less afraid.
The shame started to lessen.
I got curious.
I began to do research and educate myself. I learned more about the nuances of pornography, the way our brain responds to it, and how our sexuality develops. I pulled information from a variety of sources with differing opinions including general conference talks, the website Fight the New Drug, books like His Porn, Her Pain by Marty Klein, and even attending day-long seminars with experts like David Ley, Emily Nagoski, and Tina Schermer Sellers.
Eventually, I met my wife. I was honest with her about my struggles with crushing shame. I told her that I experienced the most shame around my past experiences with pornography.
Somehow, despite all of my fears that she would reject me, she was compassionate and understanding. She responded with love and a promise to support me no matter what.