Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Women and Solitary Vices

I was asked the other day to comment upon women's use of internet p*rn and sexual sins committed alone, as one might delicately say in the confessional. The request left me thinking about the generation gap, and how the internet has transformed childhood. When I was a child, one had to protect one's child from the television. If something my parents thought their children shouldn't see began to happen on television, my parents sent us out of the room. ("Go brush your teeth!") So religiously did my parents do this, that when similar scenes, be they scary--I was sent out during "Jaws"--or sexual--I was sent out during "Brideshead Revisited", appear on British television, to this very day I quit the room. I must be like Pavlov's dog. Meanwhile, if something appears on British television that cannot be shown on Canadian television, I scream like a banshee until B.A. changes the channel.

I was strictly forbidden to read the stacks of paperback science fiction novels my mother brought home from the library, or anything in which one might discover p*rnographic or merely racy scenes. I disobeyed this injunction exactly once, I believe, and the spirited yet innocent aristocratic heroine was saved from her seducer at the last minute by her stern and vengeful brother or guardian or whatever he was anyway. (Although now that I think about it, I read a page or two of the copy of Princess Daisy being passed around Girl Guide camp.) So, it is a great irony that I have never, in fact, read a bodice-ripper, although eventually as an adult I did read the utterly forbidden Flashman series until I got bored with the sniggering hero.

As far as I recall, there was no internet in my life until 1990. My father was on the cutting edge of computers-and-linguistics or something like that, so we had a modem and a notepad with very long and elaborate code of instructions for calling up another computer and writing it an email. It took a long time, and the only pictures were of Space Invaders quality. Technically you could create pretty cross-stitched pictures out of Xs and send those, but it would take forever.

Thus, I had graduated from high school and possibly even had a BA and maybe even an MA before I ever heard of internet p*rn. And I didn't know women engaged in the solitary vice until my first week at university when I was welcomed with a big lamp post sticker announcing what percentage of women did. (What I remember best about Orientation Week was a series of photocopied pictures of men lip-locked to men and women lip-locked to women over the motto "Enjoying your Orientation?" I had never seen such photos before, and suddenly wondered if going to this university had been a terrible mistake.) I assumed the big sticker was lying because women are much purer then men, everybody knows that, etc., etc. I was nineteen, had only the most cursory grasp of the facts of life, and reality was what I wanted it to be.

To a Catholic teenager of my generation, p*rn was something that on the top shelf at the corner store, which only adults could buy, or on a video tape available for rent in the back of the video store, in that room behind the curtain, where only adults [skeezy adults] could go. In short, it was hard to get. If we wanted information about sex, the safest and most private course of action was to go to the library and find Princess Daisy when the librarian wasn't looking. Scratch that. Easiest of all was to read the racier parts of the Good News Bible during class. Potiphar's Wife, people.

This is all to say that I don't have the foggiest clue about internet p*rn and female solitary vice. In terms of dirty books and movies, my mother, backed up by Father Robert J. Fox's "Prayers for Young Catholics", totally nuked any temptation in that direction when I was wee, but I know perfectly well many women consume erotic novels like potato chips. I wonder if that messes with their love for their husbands or what. Although I am told internet p*rn messes horribly with men's expectations and ability to be sexually satisfied with natural practices, I cannot imagine any woman demanding that her husband be more like a pirate or whatever. Not a middle-aged women, anyway. Middle-aged women have seen too many news items about pirates. And I believe the solitary vice creates rather than expels loneliness, if that is what that is all about.

In my M.Div. training we were told of the importance of referrals. So if you want advice about overcoming a porn habit and/or the solitary vice, I recommend that you find a female chastity blogger who writes about this. I completely understand women not wanting to talk to priests (i.e. men) about such things, but maybe your confessor could recommend a good book or a good website. And maybe some of your fellow readers here will know of some.

I am told that women struggling with porn habits worry that people will judge them more harshly than men with porn habits, as if there is something completely unfeminine about getting a sexual rush from images. Such an idea is pretty ridiculous, for all human beings by nature (albeit fallen nature) enjoy pleasurable sensations. Generations of women have had sexual responses to racy novels and racy films. So I imagine it is not uniquely "masculine" to get a rush from racy pictures and films on the internet. However, I think it is true that people are rather more frightened of disordered forms of women's sexuality than by the non-violent disordered forms of men's sexuality. (Women have, after all, been complaining about the latter for over three thousand years, while concealing the former so as not to be horribly punished.) And thus I do think people will judge religious women more harshly.* So unless you want to be an early pioneer in changing people's perceptions of women-of-faith and porn, I suggest women-of-faith with a porn habit be very careful about choosing confidantes. However, I don't think you should be derailing your efforts to wean yourself from sinful habits with worries that you are unfeminine or that professional counselors will think you are unfeminine.

*One of the drags about being a woman of faith is that people do expect more from you than from other women. For example, other women can move in with their boyfriends, and their friends and colleagues say "Congratulations!" However, if you are caught sneaking out of your boyfriend's house at 6 A.M., the knives come out. Still, this can be good for you. One of the best slaps-in-the-face I got about my then-slipping standards was from a fallen away Catholic, living in sin, who looked at me as though I had just advocated slowly torturing kittens to death. I'm very grateful to her. But what many post-Christians do not get is that Christians who screw up are not hypocrites but sinners. We go to church not because we are good but because God is good. We go to confession not because we are good but because we are bad and want forgiveness. The biggest difference is that Christians acknowledge that we are sinners and try to do better, whereas post-Christians are increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas of sin and forgiveness of sin at all. Because they don't believe in forgiveness, they assert that their own sins aren't sins. Regrets they have a few, but too few to mention. In Scotland, there's an ad for cheap funerals in which a lively chap asserts that at his funeral he wants them to play "My Way." B.A. hates this poster. I agree there's something satanic about it.


Anon for this one said...

"Because they don't believe in forgiveness, they assert that their own sins aren't sins."

That was me, completely. God was very far away and everyone was going to heaven, which meant I could really do whatever I chose. But I never felt His love in all of that ... only acknowledging sin and asking for forgiveness brought an encounter with His love.

As a woman who, when away from the faith for some time, watched internet p*rn and was habitually unchaste in various ways, I just want to say: nothing sets free like forgiveness. I know that each experience is different, but I just want to say: God is awesome. He can break chains we didn't even know we were wearing.

I will be praying for anyone who reads this post and is struggling with m*sturbation and p*rn.

Also: for me, having had this experience, I have felt a great empathy and patience for those who also have had a history of this (and I mean this particularly in terms of those I have been in a relationship with). I would hope that husbands could have this same empathy towards their wives but it is no doubt good to be very wary around this topic prior to marriage. Which makes me think - Seraphic, have you read Tess of the D'Urbervilles?

Catherine said...

My parish has a very bombastic older priest who regularly preaches about the evils of p*rn, but I always feel that he falls short on the concept of "custody of the eyes". It's very simple to say "don't watch p*rn", but the images that we see on a daily basis are getting more and more graphic. Any day in Manhattan, I'll see lingerie ads or signs for "gentlemen's clubs", and these images are getting worse and worse. I am shocked at the things that are allowed on TV now - and not just HBO, which was always a little sketchy. The more we see these things, the less abhorrent they become. I know good, practicing Catholics who go to the Latin Mass, and see nothing wrong with watching filth on TV - and talking about shows that I know are basically p*rnographic.

Now that I have a herd of nephews, I've become much more aware of "custody of the eyes" and the boys are used to hearing, "Look at the sidewalk and don't look up." In between Solitaire games on my phone, a scantily-clad woman tells me about another game I can play (yet another reason for children to not have their own phones). I think even for those without an inclination to these sins, it's become nearly impossible not to be affected in some way. I can't imagine how hard it's going to be for the next generation to even avoid these images.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seraphic said...

1. Keep it clean, ladies. Men read this blog.

2. Don't express shock when others have not had your experience of sexual sin. Hearing others mock, doubt and giggle is how innocent young people start to wonder if there is something terribly, terrible wrong with them.

3. The arbitor of what is and is not a sin is neither you nor I but the teaching office of the Christian Church.

4. Alas, being away from home I must now slap on Mr Censoring Device. However, if any readers do know of good books or blog for women who wish to escape the grip of solitary vices, leave a comment anyway and I will post it when I get home.

Tiny Therese said...

As far as resources go there are the books Clean of Heart by Rosemarie Scott and Delivered: True Stories of Men and Women Who Turned from Porn to Purity. Support groups are also available.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous again.
I apologize. I didn't mean to be shocking or disrespectful.
Though I hardly think the exploration of a child is sinful. Which was my point.
Often there is no negative outside influence... A child might seek pleasure or comfort not knowing it's sexual at all.
I only expressed surprise that you or anyone made it to college not even knowing that was a thing.
For example, I didn't know it was sin until high school religion class, in a Catholic school. So it was a holy, consecrated person who enlightened us! In a co-ed setting.

Julia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Seraphic said...

Anonymous, what for you was just a frank and funny (and anonymous) recollection of what you got up to as a child could be construed by someone else as textual child p"rn, inadvertently published by me. And, being colourful and descriptive, you comment seemed capable of creating images that I did not want in other readers' heads. That's why I binned your comment.

As for the "how could you not know", I am probably 20 years older than you (and not American) and when I was a teenager, teachers and priests in my diocese (and very possibly the country) were still very careful not to risk scandalizing the young with detailed talk about sexual matters. (No-one, for example, ever explicitly described men's genitalia on television until the impeachment of American president Bill Clinton.)

Thus, although my mortified Grade 10 health class dutifully memorized the male and female reproductive systems, and we girls all looked forward to the famous "Slippery Slope" lecture of Grade Thirteen religion class, that was about it.

Well, we were made to read the warnings on the back of an ad for the Pill, which probably put some of us off the Pill, we were taught NFP (the 1989 version), and a lady from the Right to Life came in to speak to us about why ab*rtion is wrong. However, I do not remember any adult ever speaking to any of us about solitary vice or women using porn or anything like that.

Seraphic said...

Anon for this one, thank you for your testimony, as they say at retreats in Krakow!

I have never read "Tess of the D'Ubervilles", but my policy is that there is no need to get into heavy detailed discussions of past sexual sins (committed with men) with boyfriends, fiances or husbands. In general, they don't want to hear it. What is just a memory to you is brain-porn to them and men tend not to like the image of the woman they love in bed with another man.

In general, "I used to have a porn addiction" or "I did some stuff with girls in college which I regret" is probably not going to bother them as much as The Other Men, because (in general) men have this weird competitive thing going on with All Other Men.

Even BA, the kindest and most amiable chap around, read my ex-husband's published work to see what kind of nonsense he might be writing and triumphantly proclaimed it nonsense, etc., etc.

Oh dear. Men are hilarious. They must be protected from feminine tendencies to blurt it all out. An in intimate relationship does not have to mean the man knows every last one of your darkest secrets, although it does have to mean that you should be able tell him whatever as soon as you get a message from a blackmailer.

Sarah said...

I struggle a lot with purity in general, and more, from what I can tell from talking to other Catholic women, than most of my female, religious peers.

Still, it didn't help when I went to confession and the priest reminded me, "It isn't common for this to be as much of a struggle for women."

It did, in fact, make me feel like I must be unfeminine if I struggle in such an area. It also doesn't help that all *practical* guides for purity are directed toward men.

I mean, yes, we women are *constantly* exhorted to be pure and told to what extent our virtue dictates our worth, but it's all very general, ("Just be chaste and Mary-like, ladies!" and a lot of it is *still* centered around how we, by being pure, can help *men* to be pure. It drives me insane the way female sexuality is treated as unimportant and our temptations negligible and as if our experience with "p*rn" only goes so far as maybe some racy romance novels where the couple shuts the door before anything very graphic is described. It's why I get so bothered by the fact that women are told we must be guarding men's souls against temptation, and they are never told to guard ours.

I think Christian culture is afraid to talk about female sexuality. It's somehow much more embarrassing and taboo than men's.

I was going to keep my comment anonymous, but the whole point is that I don't think women should feel unduly ashamed for these things. Just like men, we struggle; just like men, we can go to confession. Sometimes over and over.

Anon this time said...

Blackmail? I hope that's a joke I don't understand.

Laika said...

Sarah, I've been thinking the exact same thing.
Seraphic, I understand what you mean about not making sexual innocents feel as if there is something wrong with them, but it can really hurt if people go too far the other way and act as if people (in particular women) who are sexually tempted are corrupted and dangerous.
I read Anonymous' comment before it was deleted, and I had the exact same experience - I became quite, well, physically aware long before I had any idea what sex was.
In a way, it is dangerous to spread what you believed when you were younger: that women are "more pure." It is A LIE. An unintentional lie, doubtless, but a dangerous one that can lull girls into a false sense of security. They WILL be strongly tempted one day, and it is far better to be prepared! Knowing ones own weaknesses helps when avoiding occasions of sin, for a start.

Anonymous for this said...

I'm a girl, I struggle with this, too. It's not just a male problem. I've often wondered what I'm going to tell my future husband because I'm going to have to. Also, I can't stand men watching p*rn. I feel like such a hypocrite...

TRS said...

I agree Sarah!
Some women have strong sex drives, which should be considered perfectly normal. But to be dismissed as though our temptations aren't real burdens is irresponsible and insulting. Perhaps it comes from generations of women before us, acting like they weren't supposed to be interested in sex!

When I have dated, I got frustrated with men who expected me to be the one to draw the line and initiate a cool off! Hey, I need you to help me here. I can't always be the Chastity police! Why is that MY job?
Show me that you support our mutual chastity by being the cop sometimes too.

Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick said...


I agree completely! Chastity talks for women are all about helping men avoid temptation- not avoiding it for ourselves.

I think there's a lot of reasons for this, cultural, biological, psychological. One reason, I think, is that I don't think it's as much of a problem for women- until they are in their 20's. So when women were mostly married in their 20's, it wasn't as much of an issue. I don't know, it seems like that's my experience.

From talking to friends, I DON'T think it's all that uncommon, especially if you're single into your mid to late twenties.

Seraphic said...

So much to say. Well, first, the most important thing for women who find themselves addicted to anything is to find help. Counselors will know better than anyone else that there are women who are addicted to p*rn, just as counselors know there are men who are victims of domestic abuse. When it is your job to help people, you usually have all the facts.

Second, the world has gone to hell in a hand-basket, so it is perfectly possible that it is more difficult for women to be chaste now than it was before 1963. When all society disapproves of single women having sex, thinking about sex, or knowing about sex, you're less likely to have it, think it or know about it. But if all society can never stop yapping about sex and how you need it to be happy and normal (etc, etc), women are going to be more tempted and more prone to giving into temptation. On the plus side, we are less likely to fall into prostitution because we have other options these days.

Third, I don't think worrying about having to tell unpleasant stuff to future husbands is particularly helpful. You might end up marrying a repentant ex-porn star, and then you will have worried for nothing.

I have just asked B.A. what if I had been addicted to internet porn, and he said he would have wanted to work with me towards my recovery, so it would not have been a deal-breaker. He was just so gobsmacked by love. However, I said what if I were incurably polyamorous, and he said that WOULD have been a deal-breaker. Whereas young Catholic men do seem to be afraid of female sexuality in all its less stereotypical forms, honestly, what really bugs men is the spectre of OTHER MEN.

Fourth, I don't know why a priest would say that sexual sin was unusual for women, unless he hadn't been a priest for very long, or had been a priest in a monastery or boys' school. Maybe particular sexual sins ARE unusual for women (anonymous same-sex bath house encounters?), but it's not pastoral genius to put it that way. Not really the point, is it?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous for this one.

I'll echo what others have said, being sheltered and denied any information doesn't save girls from figuring this stuff out on their own. What *would* have been useful to know sooner is that there were things I shouldn't be doing, and that there was a reason I shouldn't read this or that book. Still struggling with how to address this with my own kids, but I feel my parents' approach (sheltering to the point of excluding almost all friends, and giving me zero information) was partly to blame. By the time I found out it was morally wrong, I had a bad habit that was hard to cure! Another thing I would like to give my kids is a full, interesting life that doesn't leave a lot of time for things like that. It seems loneliness and boredom are big culprits.

Of course there are always people who say solitary vices aren't harmful, simply a harmless "release valve" for your passions. But s*xual desire doesn't work that way -- the more you indulge it, the stronger it grows, whereas the more you deny it, the stronger YOU grow. So a habit that seems just a solitary harmless thing may indeed make it harder for you to stay chaste .... especially when men feel like they can put ALL the burden for chastity on us.

And the second reason it's harmful is that you are training your responses in a way that won't be helpful once you're married. That's not something that's impossible to overcome, but it's a trouble I could live without.

I am married now, and I've never mentioned my past struggles to my husband. In fact, when I told him some girls do have a problem with this, he was startled and said he didn't think that was *possible*! Really?! But I don't feel bad about not mentioning it, because if statistics are right, he's in the same boat past-wise, and I don't feel the need to know about it. So long as neither of us has *current* or ongoing addictions or s*xual problems, I don't think it needs to be mentioned. I'd bring it up for some good reason though; it's not so much that I'm afraid of him knowing as that it's an embarrassing conversation with no real purpose.

I wish I knew of a good female blogger or author who spoke about this! Sadly I haven't found any, not any that are willing to say "these things are sins" instead of "women don't have REAL problems with this, and it's not bad to do them once in awhile." It almost makes me want to start my own blog .... but I see, when I consider it, why no one does: it's hard to share this stuff! Very embarrassing and you don't want people to know you struggle(d) with this.

However, I'd say all the things that help with men help with women too: slap on an internet filter, be careful what you read (for along time I read nothing but children's fiction and classics, and after that only things recommended to me by someone trustworthy -- s*x is in everything these days, and I didn't have the willpower to just flip on by), stay busy with fulfilling things, get exercise, take a cold shower if you have to. Fill your mind with the good, the true, and the beautiful, and there won't be room for much else.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your frankness in posting, all. There are more women struggling with this than you think.
There is a website written by a former female addict that I just recently discovered: go to Jessica Harris is a very witty and intelligent blogger with a lot of practical advice.
God bless all of you!