One of the most common complaints about our work is that we focus too much on pornography as a problem; and miss another, deeper and more serious problem—one that, some people believe, drives the documented negative outcomes that are often associated with consuming pornography, such as depression and decreased self-esteem.

What is this problem that some believe is not receiving enough attention?

Shame. Or stigma. Or extreme levels of guilt—particularly the notion of social shaming or rejection that leads to self-loathing and depression.

A common argument is that porn is harmless and it’s simply the social rejection of porn that leads people to feel guilty and to perceive that porn is having a negative impact on consumer’s lives. In short, the argument is: stop shaming people who consume porn and they’ll stop hating themselves and the so-called negative effects of porn will go away.

For starters, there is no question that this shaming–whether directed toward oneself or toward another person–can only make a situation worse. It’s hard to see how this kind of emotional burden can do anything but make a challenging experience…more challenging. Dr. Brene Brown, a leading researcher on shame, growth, and change, has said, “I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.” [1]

We couldn’t agree more.

But, this is where the discussion too often ends: “Shame is bad! It’s probably the real reason that some people report experiencing painful things such as compulsion, anxiety, and emptiness connected to their consumption of pornography.”

Some people insist that the problem would really take care of itself, if we could simply get rid of the shame and stigma people feel about their struggle with pornography.

Is that true? Well, the answer is a bit more complex than that, so let’s dive in.

Shame vs. Guilt

It is critical to make the very important distinction between shame and guilt. Dr. Brown explains this pretty well:

“Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful–it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” [2]

So, guilt involves feeling discomfort about what we are doing and feeling the need to make changes in our lives. Shame involves rejecting ourselves and believing we are unlovable. Guilt is about our behaviors. Shame is about who we are as a person. Guilt is adaptive and healthy. Shame is destructive and harmful. Guilt helps us grow and become the people we want to be. Shame pulls us down and stunts our growth. See the differences?

Research on the Differences Between Shame and Guilt

Research studies on pornography consumption have also sought to distinguish between shame and guilt. Dr. June Tangney, a leading researcher on the differences between shame and guilt, has found that both shame and guilt are emotions involved in negative self-evaluation. The difference between the two is that, during a shame experience, the entire self is seen negatively, whereas during a guilt experience the specific behavior which brought on those feelings receives the negative evaluation. Guilt says “this behavior is bad” while shame says “I am a bad person.”

Dr. June Tangney and other researchers have done extensive research on the differences between shame and guilt and have found that people describing a shame experience were more likely to be concerned with how others viewed them while those describing a guilt experience were more likely to be concerned with how their behaviors affect others.

Shame, Guilt, and Pornography

How do shame and guilt specifically affect pornography consumers? A recent study looked at just that and found some interesting things. The researchers found that feeling shame about yourself is associated with higher compulsive consumption of pornography; as well as higher levels of depression and emotional distress related to unwanted levels of porn consumption. This study also found that people feeling shame about themselves, related to their porn consumption, were less motivated to change their behaviors and made fewer efforts to actually change.

However, they found the exact opposite when it came to feelings of guilt related to their porn consumption behavior (versus shame about themselves). The researchers found that feelings of guilt related to porn consumption behaviors were associated with less compulsive consumption, higher levels of motivation for change, and more efforts to make positive changes. [3]  This helps us see that unhealthy shame likely plays a role in people getting started and continuing in unwanted patterns of porn consumption. While guilt, on the other hand, helps increase motivation to change and the efforts people make to change.

Although this study was the first to document these differences between shame and guilt in research specifically on compulsive porn consumption, similar findings appear in previous studies on individuals affected by compulsive and addictive behaviors more generally. [4]

Does the Harm of Porn All Come From Shame?

So, does shame create all of the harms we see studies finding related to pornography use? The best studies show us that while shame can intensify the negative effects of porn, it doesn’t create or explain all of those effects. For example, in the same study we just discussed, the researchers found that shame accounted for only 33% of the predictive variance in compulsive porn use levels. [5]  In another study, researchers at UCLA, found that shame was not a significant predictor of compulsive pornography use on its own. Rather, anxiety and depression was a significant mediator. But, even when shame and depression were included together, this study found that they could only predict 37% of the variance in compulsive porn use levels. These studies suggest that there is much more going on with harmful porn consumption patterns than just shame. [6]

Shame clearly makes things worse, but it doesn’t explain all that is going on for people who struggle with porn.

Conclusion

Don’t mistake what we’re saying, here—while we want to create a shame-free society, we don’t necessarily want to have a guilt-free society. Some behaviors are deserving of guilt. Guilt helps us grow and recognize unhealthy behaviors. Guilt is about awareness and helps us see our better selves and strive to become better people who take care of each other in better ways.

When it comes to porn, it makes sense that people naturally feel guilty about dehumanizing and objectifying others. Helping people see the ways that porn can harm their lives and their relationships isn’t about shaming them. Rather, it’s inviting them to examine if porn lines up with how they want to live and their relationship goals.

But when it comes to porn, people are sometimes not careful about this distinction between guilt and shame, and their messages toward porn consumers do slip in the direction of shaming. And no matter how well-intended these types of shaming messages are, they are not helpful or healthy. Everyone deserves love, everyone deserves connection, and everyone can make positive changes in their lives.

Citations
[1] Brown, B. (2013, January 14). Shame v. guilt. Retrieved from  https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
[2] Brown, B. (2013, January 14). Shame v. guilt. Retrieved from  https://brenebrown.com/blog/2013/01/14/shame-v-guilt/
[3] Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A., (2011). The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Hypersexual Behavior, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 18, 12-29. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10720162.2011.551182
[4] See Dearing, R. L., Stuewig, J., & Tangney J. P. (2005). On the Importance of Distinguishing Shame From Guilt: Relations to Problematic Alcohol and Drug Use. Addictive Behaviors, 30, 1392-1404). http://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2005.02.002
[5] Gilliland, R., South, M., Carpenter, B. N., & Hardy, S. A., (2011). The Roles of Shame and Guilt in Hypersexual Behavior, Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 18, 12-29. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10720162.2011.551182
[6] Reid, R. C., Stein, J. A., & Carpenter, B. N. (2011). Understanding the Roles of Shame and Neuroticism in a Patient Sample of Hypersexual Men. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 199 (4), 263-267. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182125b96

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