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My Year Without Porn: Some Surprising Lessons

Since I quit watching porn a year ago, I've become more present in the moment, more loving, and a better friend to the women in my life.

This article originally appeared on Change From Within.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

I remember when I first discovered internet porn—I was 17 years old. Fascinated by this world of unleashed sexual expression and fantasy, I couldn't get enough of it. As I grew up and began exploring my own sexuality, I discovered just how different watching pixels on a screen was compared to the intimacy of making love with another human being. I thought I'd outgrow my porn habit over time. But I never did.

According to a recent study, more than 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-old men visit porn sites in a typical month.

I didn't know it then, but porn had become an addiction. And, like most addictions, I was ashamed to talk about it or even admit it was a problem.

"Everybody watches porn," I remember hearing. It seemed so pervasive and culturally accepted that having an actual conversation about it was a total non-starter. So I kept it to myself.

I thought I had my habit under control. I thought I could quit porn whenever I felt like it. I even tried to quit a few times and then rationalized my eventual return to the addiction.

I didn't realize how much watching porn had manipulated my mind, warping my sexuality, numbing my feelings, and affecting my relationships with women. And I was not alone.

According to a recent study, more than 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-old men visit porn sites in a typical month. And it's not just guys watching sex online. It is estimated that 1 in 3 porn users today are women. Now, I want to be clear that porn use extends across all gender expressions, but for the purpose of this post I am sharing my experience with porn from the perspective of a heterosexual white man with more or less traditionally masculine ways of acting and speaking.

Let me also state clearly that I don't think all porn is bad. I've seen some great videos of couples engaging in intimate and respectful sexual encounters—of course, these are usually found only on feminist porn sites or in the category on mainstream porn sites called "female friendly" (It's interesting to note what the category name "female friendly" implies about all the other categories). But I'm not here to judge anyone else for what they choose to watch. I'm simply sharing the impacts that porn has had on my life and what has changed for me since I've stopped using it.

To me, what is worrying about porn is not how many people use it, but how many people have found themselves addicted to it.

Impacts of porn

One of the best of the many studies conducted on the impacts of porn on men and women in society is a report by psychotherapist Gary R. Brooks. It documents many effects of porn, including three that strongly resonated with my experience:

It got to a point where I felt physically ill watching the videos, and yet I kept watching.

1. Violence against women.
This includes an obsession with looking at women rather than interacting with them (voyeurism), an attitude in which women are viewed as objects of men's sexual desire, and the trivialization of rape and widespread acceptance of rape culture—fueled by fake depictions of women in porn videos often pretending to desire violent and abusive sexual acts. (Numerous studies have documented links between porn viewership and increased instances of sexism and violence toward women. Here is one source.)

2. Numbness and disembodiment.
This can include erectile dysfunction, inability to orgasm when not watching porn, detachment from your physical body, emotional unavailability and numbness, lack of focus and patience, poor memory, and general lack of interest in reality. Furthermore, these outcomes in men have been linked to boredom with their sexual partners, higher levels of sexual promiscuity, adultery, divorce, sexism, rape, abuse, and suicide.

3. Fear of intimacy.
Watching porn contributes to many men's inability to relate to women in an honest and intimate way despite a longing to feel loved and connected. This is because pornography exalts our sexual needs over our need for sensuality and intimacy; some men develop a preoccupation with sexual fantasy that can powerfully impede their capacity for emotionally intimate relationships.

Why I quit watching

I always felt like a hypocrite watching porn. Here I was, a man who is striving to be an ally to women, perpetuating the very culture of violence and misogyny that I was ostensibly trying to fight. The reality was that most of the videos I found online had titles that included words like "bitch" or "slut" and showcased controlling behaviors that were rooted in a culture of subjugation and objectification, where women are nothing more than sexual bodies to be exploited and dominated by men.

My year without porn has helped me reconnect to my body and begin to develop healthy emotional expression.

When I am deeply honest, I have to admit I was both intrigued and disgusted by these images. By that time, my mind had been trained to find aggressive, misogynistic, and even non-consensual sex arousing. I found that this response was just one of many symptoms of a larger system of patriarchal oppression affecting my life. It is difficult for me to admit, but it got to a point where I felt physically ill watching the videos, and yet I kept watching. That's when I realized I was dealing with an addiction.

What I've discovered is that there is a whole spectrum of addiction, from a feeling of compulsion on one end to an intense dependency on the other. My porn addiction seems to have been pretty mild, since I did not experience any serious withdrawal effects. For some people with more serious addictions, professional support may be needed.

Last February, after a decade of use, I decided to quit watching porn for one year, both for the challenge of seeing if I could and for the chance to see how life might be different.

Today marks my one-year anniversary of life without porn. It hasn't been easy, particularly as a single guy, but what I've learned about myself through this experience has transformed my life forever.

Life after porn

Here are some of the things I've gained during my year without porn:

1. Integrity and love.
Since dropping porn, I have restored a sense of personal integrity that had been missing from my life. Regaining this integrity has allowed me to move through a lot of my shame and find myself in a new space of deepening love for myself and others. I've also noticed that I am often able to stay more present with women now, rather than projecting fantasies onto them. This was hard to do when my mind was cluttered with images from porn videos. This newfound presence has also allowed me to begin to dismantle some of the subconscious sexism within me, helping me work toward becoming a better ally to the women in my life.

2. Embodiment and emotional expression.
My year without porn has helped me reconnect to my body and begin to develop healthy emotional expression. I've begun to expand my sense of self by learning how to move out of my head and into my heart. After many long years void of emotional expression, I've reconnected to my tears. This release of suppressed emotional tension has unlocked a lot of joy in my life. All of this has helped me begin to shift my sexuality from physical detachment to true intimacy, presence, and embodiment.

3. Creativity and passion.
Over the past year, I've started feeling more comfortable in my own skin. I've become much more willing to let go of control, to improvise, and to accept people's differences. I trust myself more than I ever have and, as a result, my sense of self-confidence has soared. I wake up every morning grateful to be alive, clear about my life's purpose, and passionate about the work I am doing in the world. My life today has a depth of authenticity and power that I never felt before.

Stepping up

Last week, many folks in my community and around the world engaged in conversations about ending the sexual violence and abuse that directly affect over a billion women across the globe today. Of course, women and girls are not the only ones hurt by sexual violence. I've heard stories from a lot of guys who are also affected by cycles of violence and abuse that got passed on through generations. It is important, however, for me to recognize that far more women than men are victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse, and that men account for a vast majority of all perpetrators.

It's time we begin transforming our pain into love by opening our hearts and reconnecting with our bodies.

As the Franciscan priest and compassion advocate Richard Rohr has written, "pain that is not transformed is transmitted." And this pain is often transmitted in the form of violence. So how do we, as men, break this cycle? It's clear to me that we will never transform our pain within a culture of silence. It is only by bringing our shadows to the light that we can diffuse the power they hold over us.

Over the past several years, I have heard a lot about inequality, sexism, and violence against women. I believe it is vital for porn to be a part of that conversation, particularly amongst men.

If we are serious about ending violence against women, then we must be willing to have open and honest conversations about how porn is affecting our lives.

I am committed to a world of love, respect, and safety for all people. I'm sick of all the shame, numbness, and secrecy surrounding porn and addiction. I’m saddened to hear about all the guilt people feel (from churches, parents, teachers, etc.) simply for wanting to express their sexuality in healthy and authentic ways. And I'm outraged by all of the violence, degradation, and exploitation of women. Enough is enough!

The only way we can transform the culture of violence is to make it transparent by speaking the truth about the ways that we consciously and subconsciously contribute to it. A culture of love and healing can only be built on a foundation of radical honesty and integrity, built from the ground up in our own lives.

Will you stand with me? It's time we start talking about the things we've been afraid to talk about, knowing we're not alone. It's time we begin transforming our pain into love by opening our hearts and reconnecting with our bodies. It's time we, as men, step into a more mature masculinity: one that recognizes the sacredness of the human body, one that creates intimacy and cultivates authentic connection and healing, one that is unafraid to love and be loved.

Additional Resources:

1. The Great Porn Experiment: Gary Wilson at TEDxGlasgow

2. Why I Stopped Watching Porn: Ran Gavrieli at TEDxJaffa 2013

3. Violence Against Women: It's a Men's Issue: Jackson Katz at TEDxFiDiWomen

4. Make Love Not Porn: http://talkabout.makelovenotporn.tv

5. Sexual Recovery: Pornography Addiction

6. The Good Men Project: http://goodmenproject.com

7. ManKind Project: http://mankindproject.org


Dan Mahle is a group facilitator, program coordinator, and occasional blogger on the topic of men and masculinity. His work reaches into many different arenas, from youth leadership and intergenerational collaboration to environmental justice advocacy and men's work. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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