addiction

Women Become Dependent on Porn for Different Reasons Than Men Do

“I would skip breakfast and dinner and stay up all hours of the night watching porn, just to watch it."

Sofia Barrett-Ibarria

Rebecca was 13 when she got her first computer. Her dad had recently died and her mom was recovering from gastric bypass surgery. It was during that time that Rebecca first came across online porn. Eventually, watching it became part of her daily routine. “I would skip breakfast and dinner and stay up all hours of the night watching porn, just to watch it,” says Rebecca, who’s now 20 and declines to share her full name to protect herself from doxxing by anti-porn activists. "I would fall asleep with it on and wake up and watch more.”

The idea that an individual might be addicted to porn is controversial, and there’s little evidence to suggest it’s actually real. “We really shouldn’t be calling this addiction,” says Laurie Mintz, author of Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters, And How To Get It. According to Mintz, who belongs to the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, the word “addiction” isn’t an officially recognized or accepted term to describe problematic porn use.

Though she says it's definitely more common in men, some women do struggle with problematic porn use—and their experiences can be vastly different. Problematic use, she says, is defined as an activity an individual wishes they could stop but doesn’t feel they can, or an activity that interferes with work responsibilities, family commitments, and sexual relationships with other people.

Women’s experiences with compulsive or problematic porn use are often misunderstood or dismissed based on misconceptions of female sexuality and arousal, leading some women especially to feel that their sexuality or sexual interests aren’t “normal,” Mintz says. “Everybody has this assumption that men are more visually aroused than women, but women are actually more visually aroused by a wider range of stimuli than men are,” Mintz says, referencing a 2007 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that recorded women’s genital response to videotaped stimuli including homosexual sex and solitary masturbation.

Regarding the research, Mintz says, “men’s visual arousal is generally limited to their sexual orientation,” whereas the women surveyed experienced a genital response to a range of visuals. They may not always identify the arousal to visual stimuli they might consider to be unusual, unconventional, or too kinky, in fear of it seeming like something's wrong with them, she adds.

Compulsive porn use can function as an outlet for exploring sexual interests or unmet needs women don’t feel comfortable sharing with a partner or to avoid relationship conflicts. “When I first started to realize I had an issue with porn, I was using it as an escape route from stress and emotions that came up that I didn’t know how to deal with in a healthy way,” says Erica Garza, essayist and author of Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Sex and Porn Addiction. Garza says she used porn “to avoid intimacy, as an escape route and as a coping mechanism instead of dealing with issues as they came up.”

Though studies show that mutual porn viewing can encourage increased relationship satisfaction, “some people who become angry with their partners or sad about their relationship will start to masturbate more to avoid sex with their partner—or avoid pressuring their partner,” says Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist whose focus is human sexual behaviour, addiction, and the physiology of sexual response. “Sex film viewing usually comes up in couple's therapy as a disagreement about values. For example, some people believe viewing sex films is a form of infidelity. Other believe that sex film viewing is a rejection of the partner, such as due to lack of physical attraction.”

Socially ingrained sex shame—particularly social stigma and taboos surrounding female masturbation—plays a huge part for women who feel they’ve become addicted, even more so than it does for most men who are often expected or encouraged to masturbate.

“From the time I was 14, I masturbated about every other day to porn for about eight years or so,” says Kelly, now 25, who also cited fears of being doxxed online and prefers to keep her last name private. “I felt horribly guilty every time but didn’t know why—no religious upbringing," she says. "My problem got worse as I stopped feeling guilty and I started seeking more intense scenes for a bigger thrill.”


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Similarly, Garza says she started by watching normal, "vanilla" stuff but says that after a while, it stopped getting her off so she reached for more explicit or niche. "I had always thought that was because I was desensitized to whatever normal sex is, and I think there was a part of that that’s true," she says. "But at the same time I wonder how much of watching those explicit scenes was just a normal part of my sexuality too, and I was just ashamed of being attracted to those sorts of scenes.”

While porn itself isn’t the problem, Mintz says that, “through watching porn, people may try to role model things that aren’t even really accurate or pleasurable. People really walk away with skewed perceptions of what is normal.” Mintz says the effects of some porn’s distorted messages about real sex has been studied more thoroughly among men, but women who believe their taste in porn is abnormal or extreme often feel particularly ashamed.

Unfortunately, some women who do seek help from a therapist are judged and shamed, says Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist whose focus is human sexual behaviour, addiction, and the physiology of sexual response. Garza says porn was becoming an obstacle to her productivity, but changing the way she watched and used porn wasn’t easy to do, she says. Early on in her recovery, she cut it out completely. “I had to get a lot of support. I started going to 12-step meetings, I started doing talk therapy, yoga, and meditation just to try to figure out what was happening in my head and use my body in a different way.”

"I had lots of boundaries that I wanted to set up around my sexuality so that I wouldn’t go down that path again," Garza says, "but that started to feel inauthentic and not like myself. Like I was cutting off a part of my sexuality and that didn’t feel right either.”

It was after that realization that Garza started to work in a little more compassion for herself, trying to figure out why she reached for porn in the first place. “It stemmed from some feelings of rejection, insecurity, and loneliness I had when I was about 12,” she says. “I [had] scoliosis, and that’s really when I started to use porn and masturbation as coping mechanisms.” She then let these things back into her life in what she deemed was a healthier way. “I’m at the point now where I do watch porn from time to time, but I don’t feel like I need to watch it. I don’t crave it the way I used to.”

Kelly says she doesn’t watch porn as much lately, but she still struggles to reconcile what she believes are conflicting messages that mainstream hetero porn teaches us about women’s sexuality—and how that relates to her own sexual expression. “I do my best not to hate myself, and instead hate the world that told me ‘this stuff is all okay and if you don’t agree you’re just a prudish idiot.’”

For Garza, using porn as a tool for sexual exploration has helped her cope with much of the shame she once felt. “I’d say be more curious about what turns you on and allow yourself to explore that to see whether you like it or not and not to pass judgement on yourself, because that’s when I think the real problems start. The most destructive part of my addiction was shame—feeling bad about myself all the time and judging myself for the things that turn me on instead of just allowing myself to enjoy that.”

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