When women are betrayed by a partner who secretly uses pornography, the immense agony and devastation they feel is often minimized by others who say things like, “it’s just porn.”
At BTR, we assert that pornography is an abuse issue. Sarah McDugal, abuse expert, joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to help empower women with knowledge and validation about pornography as an abuse issue. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.
How Is Pornography an Abuse Issue?
Pornography is accepted, encouraged, and normalized in our society while its effects are minimized, justified and even wholly denied.
The insidious heart of the pornographic industry and its material is clear. Here are three reasons that pornography is an abuse issue:
- Pornography leads to sex trafficking.
- Pornography leads to spousal abuse.
- Pornography leads to self-abuse.
Porn Viewer’s Pleasure Comes From Another’s Abuse
People say that [sex work] is a legitimate choice of career. However, those who insist on this are not operating out of a trauma-informed perspective on the type of psychological grooming, emotional and verbal manipulation, or even abuse and insulting that is part of getting someone into the porn industry and then keeping someone in the porn industry.
Sarah McDugal, abuse expert
When men elect to use pornography, they are exploiting abused women – many of whom are underage. Violence against women is a common theme in pornographic material: men are literally having a sexual response to underage girls being brutalized and raped on film. Supporting this industry keeps women and girls enslaved in a dangerous industry that treats them like animals rather than human beings. How could that possibly not be abusive?
What About “Ethical Porn”?
Many porn users will rally against the truth that pornography is abusive by touting that “ethical porn” is about a woman’s choice to do what she wants with her body, and that it is made in a safe way.
However, this fallacy is both dangerous and offensive. “Ethical porn” is the ultimate oxymoron. Sarah explains why:
[My county liaison] has said that the statistics are that if you’ve watched 30 minutes of pornography, you’re guaranteed to have seen someone who was outright there against their will. Even if you think you’re watching ‘free-trade’ or ‘ethical porn.’ That is a whopping proportion of slavery to just general output of a product.
Sarah McDugal, abuse expert
There is simply no healthy way to view pornography, even so-called “free-trade” or “ethical” porn.
Viewing Pornography Leads To Spouse Abuse
When men in committed relationships use pornography, they are, by default, abusing their partner.
This is because:
- They are engaging in a secret sexual life – manipulation, lies, and withholding the truth are forms of emotional abuse.
- If they have not fully disclosed their entire sexual history, including pornography use, and are having sex with their partner, they are committing sexual coercion.
- Pornography users often pressure partners into engaging in dangerous, dehumanizing, and painful sexual acts. This is sexual abuse.
- Pornography users often exhibit psychologically abusive behaviors, including gaslighting, blame-shifting, and abusive defensiveness.
If you are married, pornography usage is directly tied to loss of intimacy, reduced empathy, and overall addictive behaviors.
Sarah McDugal, abuse expert
Pornography Is Sexual Abuse Of Self
It is not only sexually abusing your partner by depriving them of your intimacy and empathy, it is also sexually abusing yourself. You’re taking what was meant to be a shared experienced where you learn to give in love and turning it inwards and on yourself, isolating yourself from receiving from another person.
Sarah McDugal, author, speaker and abuse recovery coach
When men use pornography, they are literally abusing themselves: sexually, emotionally, and spiritually. Choosing to use pornography is not healthy, helpful, or ethical. Engaging in this behavior is harmful to oneself.
Pornography Teaches How To Abuse Others
Sarah says there is a lot of data that says porn really does teach abuse.
I call it the #consumergroomer for real-life sexual abuse, because the more you watch, the harder you have to see and the harder it has to get in order to get the same high.
Sarah McDugal, abuse expert
As men continue to use pornography, they are literally being trained to abuse women and underage girls by the material they view and the sexual response that they receive.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse
At BTR, we understand the depth of horror and pain that women experience when they are betrayed by a porn-using partner. There are no words for the level of trauma and agony that victims endure in the after-math of discovery.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group offers victims a safe place to process trauma, share hard feelings, ask questions, and form connections with other victims. Join today and receive the validation, support, and community that you deserve.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
I have Sarah McDugal on today’s episode. She is incredible, and I am so grateful that she took the time to come on the podcast today.
She is an author, an international speaker, and abuse recovery coach for women in the faith community who are healing from abusive relationships. Her passion is to lead women out of the wilderness and into a wild abundant life with Jesus.
Sarah: Thank you, Anne. It is delightful. I’ve loved just chatting with you and getting to know you a little bit. I’m really excited about today. We’re going to have fun. As much fun as you can have on this kind of topic.
Anne: Yeah, no kidding.
Sarah McDugal On The BTR Podcast
Sarah: I tell this to my new girls all the time. They say that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and gives you a really dark and twisted sense of humor.” So when I say that we’re going to have fun talking about this stuff, that’s probably my dark and twisted sense of humor coming out.
Anne: I say to people, “What doesn’t kill you puts you in a coma and then after you come out of the coma then you’ll be stronger,” but you’ve got the coma phase for a while.
I’m going to give you Sarah’s link so that you can find her online at sarahmcdugal.com, on Facebook at Sarah McDugal Author, on YouTube at Sarah McDugal, and on Instagram @SarahMcdugal. Follow her on social media, she is amazing. I’m so grateful to have her here.
Let’s start out. You and I agree that pornography is a form of sexual abuse. Can you tell me about how you came to that conclusion and why you think it is sexual abuse?
Sarah: Let’s just start with the easy questions, why don’t we. I think that there are multiple reasons why pornography is considered a form of sexual abuse, at least in my perspective. Certainly, when I work with taking abuse victims through the power and control wheels there is both viewing pornography and forcing or requiring someone else to view pornography included under sexual abuse.
In the discussion about pornography being a form abuse, I see three specific reasons why, and I’m going to start from the outside and work in.
Pornography And Sex Trafficking
First of all, pornography and the porn industry are directly tied to sex trafficking. I know there is a lot of debate, especially among those who are really protective of the porn industry or of their attachment to the porn industry. There’s a lot of debate about the fact that porn stars are paid and that porn stars are actors.
People say that it’s a legitimate choice of career. However, those who insist on this, generally, are not operating out of a trauma-informed perspective on the type of psychological grooming, the emotional manipulation, the verbal manipulation, or even abuse and insulting that is part of getting someone into the porn industry and then keeping someone in the porn industry.
Also, there’s a lot of just general naivety among mass consumers of how things really are in the porn star world. There are so many porn stars who are dead, who have contracted diseases, who are mentally and emotionally broken down because of the general atmosphere of pornography work.
“Porn Is Inextricably Tied To Sexual Abuse”
In addition, I’ve worked for a number of years with my local county who leads my state in pushing back against the human slave trade—human trafficking industries—with law enforcement. The liaison in my local county for human trafficking and anti-porn industry, who also goes and does training for others in D.C., and what he has said is that the statistics are that if you’ve watched 30 minutes of pornography you’re guaranteed to have seen someone who was outright there against their will.
The prevalence, even if you think you’re watching “free-trade”, “cruelty-free porn”, or “ethical porn”—those are oxymorons that do not belong in the same mouthful—but, if you’ve watched 30 minutes of porn, any consecutive 30 minutes, you’re guaranteed to have seen someone who is there against their will. That is a whopping proportion of slavery to just general output of a product.
That is the number one reason that I believe porn is inextricably tied to sexual abuse. Because, if you are viewing porn, you are benefitting in your own sexual pleasure from someone else who is being abused and there is no healthy approach to that. PERIOD.
Pornography Leads To Spousal Abuse
Outside working in. Two, that is the effect that porn has on how you treat the person you are with. First, far out, is the people in the porn scene. Second, how it has you change in the way you treat people you’re with.
If you are married, pornography usage is directly tied to loss of intimacy, reduced empathy, and overall addictive behaviors. I have some stats that we can go through a little bit later on in the show, and they are resources so I’m not just spouting things off the top of my head. It’s all about the science and the stats that back things up.
Anne: Yes. The cool thing about Betrayal Trauma Recovery is that all of my listeners are like, “Preach it sister!” They’re like, “Wait, you can tell us the stats. That’s fine, but we know because we’ve lived it.” So, you’re in a safe space.
Sarah: I love that. I wish I knew every single one of you guys out there who are listening, but still, if you want to repeat any of this stuff, you’re going to have some hater in your life who’s going to be like, “Well, where did you get that?” And you’ll say, “Well, there was this one woman on this podcast I listened to.” Then they’ll be like, “Well, where did she get that?” I want to give you the background for things.
“It Does Not Make You More Compassionate”
The effect on the brain and the emotions and the capacity for empathy of the pornography consumer is a net negative. It does not make you more compassionate, more filled with empathy, more capable of connecting to your spouse’s or your partner’s physical, emotional, mental, psychological needs.
The use of pornography takes the sexual act that was designed and created by God to be shared between two people, who are committed in love to each other—and I personally believe that that is designed to be shared by two people who are committed in marriage and love to each other—but it takes that sexual act and it turns it into a self-focused, self-gratifying act where there is no need of paying attention to the other person’s feelings, pleasure—there’s no give. It is all take, and you are taking from yourself to yourself.
Pornography Leads To Self-Abuse
That leads me to the third reason that I believe that porn is a form of sexual abuse, and that is because it destroys what is meant to be shared and turns it into something that you experience alone.
In all honesty, I believe that porn is not only participating in and benefiting from the sexual abuse of the person on the screen, it is not only sexually abusing your partner by depriving them of your intimacy and your empathy, but it is also sexually abusing yourself because you are taking what was meant to be a shared experienced where you learned to give in love and you’re turning it inwards and on yourself and isolating yourself also from receiving from another person.
The Nature Of Escalating Addiction
On top of that, there is just really great data out there that porn is, I call it the #consumergroomer for in real-life sexual abuse, because the more you watch the harder you have to see and the harder it has to get in order to get the same high. That’s the nature of addiction, we can talk more about that, and you get through harder and harder core stuff because that’s the nature of an escalating addiction. There’s just no good thing about it.
Anne: No, it’s abusive in and of itself and then it’s grooming people to be abusive.
We had an episode a while back, if you hadn’t heard it, where my Mom and I pontificated about the fact that pornography is committing adultery. A lot of people wrote in and were like, “Oh, your mom,” so I’m going to have her back on to get on her soapbox again about some more fun things.
Viewing Pornography Is Committing Adultery
For you, Sarah, why is viewing pornography the same as committing adultery?
Sarah: That’s a great question because a lot of people are like, “Well, hey, we just watch it together. I mean, I’m not cheating on my spouse or my partner because it’s something we do together.”
Whether or not you do it together or you do it alone, as far as watching porn or participating in consuming pornography—this is where I’m definitely going to betray my faith roots because I look at it from a faith perspective and from a perspective of appreciating the institution of marriage.
I get that there will be those out there who disagree with me on this, but if you believe that marriage is meant to include sexual faithfulness. If you also believe that Jesus Christ actually meant what He said when he said that if you look at a woman to lust after her then you have committed adultery in your heart, then viewing pornography is an activity that is solely intended for the purpose of lust with your eyes after another person.
Pornography Is An Abuse Issue
That counts whether your lusting after another woman, whether your lusting after another man, whether your lusting after heterosexual or homosexual pornography. For whatever reason you are using the information, the sexual voyeurism of those performing sexual acts on a screen under any context, you’re using that for your own sexual pleasure and arousal. Which means you are stealing the sexual faithfulness that is designed by God to be given only to your spouse.
You’re taking that away and you are using it, benefiting from it, pleasuring from it, in a way that can be nothing but adultery because if we are intended to share sexuality only with the person we are married to, then pornography is a breaking of that covenant because you are gaining sexual pleasure from the viewing of someone else, even if you’re not part of the action.
Anne: I think that Christ saying it is enough for me. The logic is good, and, at the same time, I’m thinking why would any Christian think that it’s not? For those of you who aren’t Christian we can follow that up with these are the reasons why it is, it clearly is, but at the same time it’s Christ just says it just like that. If you look at anyone to lust after them, you are committing adultery. I keep saying this, but it’s not rocket science people.
Pornography Is Abusive To “Your Future Unnamed Spouse”
Sarah: Here’s the thing, there are caveats that people get themselves out with.
“I’m not married right now so I’m not committing adultery.” Well, then fine, that’s fornication, but it’s no different. If you’re not married right now, you’re cheating on your future spouse. You’re developing a mindset.
Anne: It harms you. The commandments are there to protect us and to help us and to benefit us. So, it’s going to harm you.
Sarah: Now, my favorite translation of the bible is the New Living Translation. Different people have their different favorite ones, but 1 Corinthians 6:18 is a really good one with this. It says “Run from sexual sin. No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does.” Why? It’s not talking about STD’s. It says: “For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body.”
Even if you really don’t care about your future unnamed spouse, even if you really don’t care about your present spouse, if you care about your own body, your own mentality, your own ability to think clearly, to have empathy, to connect with other people, to not be isolated in addiction, flee sexual sin.
We see science now following up with so many statistics and studies that support that, but God said it centuries and centuries ago.
Pornography Is Addictive, But It’s A Choice
Anne: Let’s talk about this addiction thing because I’m kind of getting to the point where I don’t want to call it addiction anymore. Is it addictive? Yes, I think it is, but I’m kind of getting to the point where I just want to call it abuse.
They habitually abuse porn. They’re habitually lying and manipulating and those are abusive. They’re engaging in abusive behaviors, chronically, and that’s kind of where I’m going.
Now, I do think that it’s addictive, but it just feels truer to me to call it abuse. Where are you on this progression? How are you feeling about the word addiction these days?
Sarah: I think that addiction is a sin of choice, a disease of choice. There are those who—I keep introducing my ideas with that caveat, there are those who won’t agree with me, that’s probably getting old if your listening now—so here’s my blanket caveat… There are those who will disagree with everything I say for the rest of the show.
I’m so used to speaking to groups of people who shouldn’t actually disagree, like crowds of pastors and church leaders and spiritual executives or administrators, and with them, I have to use that caveat all the time.
Porn Use Is Abuse, Not A Disease
Anne: I know. Well, this is why you’re probably doing better in that realm then I am because I show up at these groups and I don’t give that caveat. I stare them down and I say, “This is wrong and if you disagree with me you’re full of crap.” I think that’s why people are like, “Oh, she’s…” because I don’t give any caveats.
Sarah: Is it an addiction? I agree with you that pornography is highly addictive. If you go to secular therapy, you’re going to hear, “Well, addiction is a disease.” Well, that’s fine. Sure. It creates diseased responses in the body and the brain. I agree. Is it a disease you have no control over? NO.
There is actually a book out, I believe it’s called Addiction is a Disease of Choice—feel free to look it up—it’s got a lot of interesting stuff in it, but the whole idea that “I’m just like a cancer patient. I have no control over this because I have this addiction,” is absolutely false. Patently false.
Particularly from the perspective of the Gospel because we’re talking about, on one hand, especially among Christians who struggle with what we’d call a pornography addiction or sexual addiction, we’re talking about how we go to Church and Jesus can deliver you from anything.
“I Believe That We Choose”
Well, unless you watch porn, and in that case, you’re like hopelessly in bondage to it for the rest of your life and you’re going to struggle with this for the rest of your life. I don’t believe that. I believe that we choose and that we are in charge of our thoughts and our choices.
Can negative choices become like chains of bondage around us? Absolutely! Can the strength of Christ for positive choices, repeated over and over again, change and break those bonds? Yes! No one, in my perception, is narcissistic beyond repair and no one is addicted to porn beyond redemption.
Here’s the sad reality. Those who are highly narcissistic and those who are given over to pornography and sexual addiction are very unlikely to make the choices to change, but they are still capable of choosing.
So we say, “Oh, they’re just very strong-willed.” No, they’re not. They are weak-willed because they cannot conquer themselves.
Porn Is An Abuse Problem, So Claiming A “Sudden Change Of Heart” Is Ridiculous
Anne: I say it’s possible. It’s not probable. In Christian circles when the man claims that Jesus has saved him, so he’s over it. He said a prayer and Christ changed him and he’s done with it, which is what my ex said and then he lied for 7 years after that.
I think that in order to have faith and utilize Christ’s Atonement to be able to change, you have to actually take steps toward that. You can’t just say that you were changed and actually be changed. That’s not how it works because, in order to actually benefit from the Spirit, you have to be obedient to the Commandments.
Sarah: I actually do a whole program on how to take charge of your thoughts and learn to change the way you think in order to change how you feel. The New Testament talks about taking every thought captive and let the mind of Christ be in you, and I don’t think that those are just random phrases being strung together in scripture.
I think they are actually things that we are supposed to be able to do. Those are practical tools. Being able to take charge of our thoughts and to change how we think is effective in addictive habits and addictive choices and that kind of thing as well.
Cancer And Addiction Are Not The Same Thing
We are not helpless in the face of addiction. If you have a spouse who’s telling you that if you leave them because they’re addicted to porn and they refuse to change, that you’re as bad as a spouse who is abandoning their husband because he got cancer, you are dealing with an unrepentant person who is choosing sin over redemption.
That is actually something I was told at one point in my life when I was trying to hang on to some sense of accountability. I was told that if I insisted on accountability I was as bad as someone who abandoned a cancer patient—a spouse because they got cancer—because the other person in this scenario had completely swallowed hook, line, and sinker, pop psychology’s idea that you are captive to this disease.
Well, you know what, if Jesus comes to save then we are not captive to any form of thinking beyond redemption. Jesus is here and with us because He wants to bring us freedom from that, and I really truly believe that.
Now, is porn more addictive than cocaine? Yes. Out of all the forms of online entertainment like gambling and gaming, surfing and everything, porn has the strongest tendency to be addictive. Seeking adult entertainment is the most common reason for compulsive internet use, and if you want stats for that, that’s from fightthenewdrug.com.
Porn Is An Abuse Issue, So It’s Unlikely Your Husband Is Going To Change
Does porn create a physiological response in the brain? That dopamine hit that’s just like a foreign chemical or an external substance? Yes, and here’s where porn is more powerful than external substances because it’s all in your head. You don’t actually need to go get an external substance to get that hit. You just have to go there in your mind.
Does that mean that it can be harder to break porn than it can be to quit cigarettes or alcohol? Yes, but it also means that all the power is in your mind. If you’re allowing God to transform the way you think and to fill you up with good Holy thoughts and perspectives, then redemption from porn is not impossible.
You know, I say that because I do believe there is hope for those who are addicted to porn. On the other hand, is it likely? No.
Going back to all of our women who are listening and whose spouses are porn addicts, is it really probable that your husband is going to realize this and decide that he’s going to be the 1 in 10 abusive spouses who are going to really start trying to do the hard work of change?
“The Actions Are The Most Important Thing”
That 10% who just try. That doesn’t mean that a full 10% actually succeed in changing, that’s just the 10% who are willing to try. That’s not very likely.
Anne: No. Here at BTR, we want to hold a space for that, for them being able to change. Instead of the classic “serve, forgive, love” that we get at Church while we’re “waiting for change” and seeing if they’re capable of change, safety is the most important thing.
If you are inclined to say I believe that my husband can do this. I believe in the power of Christ or I believe that he can make healthy choices, or wherever you are at on that, that is fine. That is great and go for it.
That’s what I did. I waited in a safe place with no contact and observed, from a distance, his behavior and it just kept getting worse. Now, I hope that that doesn’t happen for you. For some women, they might see, “Oh wow, he’s making positive changes,” and they can see that. The actions are the most important thing.
I was talking the other day about one of our Church leaders who says that studying the Gospel changes behavior quicker than studying behavior changes behavior. I was thinking about that in the context of therapy or other places where an addict might go and talk about all the “reasons why.”
Abuse Is A Choice Every Single Time
Like, “I do it because I was abused as a kid” or “because my mom didn’t appreciate me” or “because my church leader shamed me” or whatever, and instead of them talking about the behavior, if we focus on the principles of health: honesty, accountability, fidelity, and just do that, even if your thought process isn’t quite there yet—and I agree that Christ can change our thoughts too—but I’m thinking that will change your behavior quicker then talking about why you do the bad thing that you do.
Focusing on and giving yourself a shovel to dig a trench and sit in that trench and say, “Well, the reason I do all these bad things is I have good reasons.
The other thing I tell people is that I know abuse victims who are not abusive. I know people who have had bad moms, they don’t watch porn. So, all of these reasons why you are telling me that you choose unhealthy things and you choose to be abusive to other people are not reasons at all.
Sarah: Have you read Lundy Bancroft?
Anne: Yeah, he’s like our bible around here. Yes.
“Why Does He Do That?” Helps Women Identify Abuse
Sarah: Lundy is amazing. He has this one section in the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, where he talks about exactly that.
These abusive guys will start talking about, “Oh, well I treat her like this because my mom was so bad with me,” or whatever, and his (Lundy’s) classic response is:
Lundy: “Well, so you remember how it felt when your parent or grandparent or whoever treated you that way and how breaking down that was?”
Abuser: “Oh yeah, it was awful, that’s why I’m so mean.”
Lundy: “So, wait a second, you remember how it felt. So, out of everyone, you should know exactly how she feels when you abuse her because you remember how that felt. That should mean you should do everything possible to never ever treat someone that way.”
“They Don’t Use That Excuse Anymore”
Then all of a sudden, they don’t use that excuse anymore.
Anne: Well that, or they say, “Well, this is different because she’s so bad,” or “She deserves it,” or, “she’s not anything like me, she’s a demon.”
Sarah: Right, but they pivot at that point. It’s never that exact excuse ever again because they just realized that they got busted and that doesn’t work for them anymore.
Two things that come to mind when we’re talking about holding out hope for change. I will say that in the work that I do and have done over the last several years in the observation, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for change most of the time, but I do think that it is important to remember that no person is beyond the redemption of Jesus Christ. No person, unless they choose to be, is beyond the potential of salvation.
Can Abusive Men Change?
When we talk about your mind and your thoughts, I’m reminded of Philippians 4:8 and that is this whole idea that instead of just trying to get rid of all the bad stuff, which is exactly what you were saying I’m just kind of rephrasing it from a different perspective, it’s to fill up your mind with what is good.
Philippians 4:8 is “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
The more that you get down in the weeds dwelling on all the negative stuff, even if you’re focused on trying to get rid of the negative stuff, that focus is still keeping you focused on the negative stuff. The more you fill up and crowd out all the negative stuff with good holy honorable things the more capacity you have for that positive change.
Here are some scary, scary statistics. There’s a guy named Mike Tucker who does a program called Mad About Marriage, and he’s a national or maybe even international speaker on marriage, and he says, “If you want to know that an abusive person has changed, what they need to go through is a minimum of three times per week in therapy for 3-5 years without relapse before you can be sure that change has actually stuck.”
Set Boundaries To Protect Yourself From Abuse
Waiting from a safe distance for years and they need to be confirmed participating humbly and surrendered to the process without arrogance or excuses or blame-shifting multiple times a week for years. If you have a spouse who’s willing to actually do that, that’s an extraordinary experience.
Anne: Yeah, and whether or not they do or don’t, the cool thing is you can observe from that safe distance to know if you’re safe. That’s the thing that everyone needs to know, and everyone needs to understand about the situation so that we can get women to safety as soon as possible so they don’t have to be actively abused anymore or ever again.
Now, does divorce solve that? No. You still are abused through their lies and manipulation and other things, but at least the amount of contact you can reduce it drastically, and that’s the goal.
Sarah will be back again next week to talk about how the term co-addict or co-dependency is being weaponized against victims and more about abuse so please stay tuned. We’ll have her back next week.
Thank you so much for coming on today Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
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