How Can I Forgive Myself for Watching Porn?

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Reader’s Question

In the past, on and off, I would look at rather violent and deviant pornography. This progressed into looking at illegal pornography. It is hard for me to even admit the things I saw but I assume you can figure it out. Needless to say it was the worst of the worst. I would do this maybe once every month and a half to two months. I would never save these images or movies, never pay for them and I NEVER had any of these fantasies in the real world. What I did was disgusting, immoral, illegal and wrong. The only person who knows I did this is me. I never hurt anyone (directly) and this is the only thing that keeps me from totally breaking down.

It’s been about a year since I did any of this. My life has changed so much in that time. My computer is two feet from my bed and I hardly look at any porn, let alone anything illegal. For most of the year I’ve just looked at what I did as a past mistake and moved on. Recently I met a wonderful woman who I am in love with. For some reason the realization of how horrible a person I was occupies my thoughts every second. This has been going on for the last week or so. This woman loves me and I ask myself how she can love a monster like me. Obviously she doesn’t know I used to do this.

I really don’t want to tell anyone — not a therapist, not he. I just want to get it out of my mind. Since I am the only one who knows that I did it, once I forget it, it is gone. I guess my questions are this: how can I forgive myself for the things I saw? Do I deserve to be forgiven? As terrible as what I did is, I suffered a lot from the guilt and shame of doing it. Now I feel like I will always look at myself as a worthless monster. I just want to see myself as I did two weeks ago before I remembered the horrible things I did. How I can forget these horrible mistakes I made and move past them so I can be happy?

Psychologist’s Reply

The reasons why people (both men and women) view pornography are complex and, given the stigma around it, still fairly unknown. As you might imagine, doing research on pornography is quite challenging. We do know a few things about it though. For one thing, viewing pornography is both historical and cross-cultural. In other words, people of all backgrounds have been viewing porn for a very long time. The only thing that is relatively new about it is the accessibility. With porn just a mouse click away, people are viewing it in increasingly large numbers.

Another thing we know is that pornography, even the violent and deviant kind, does not make people evil or turn them into monsters. Oftentimes it is a substitute for ‘real’ sex but it can also be a fantasy world, a place where you can imagine experiencing things that you might not want to do in real life. Believe it or not, lots of men and women report having sexual fantasies that include aggression and even some coercion. This is acceptable to dream about because, in the world of fantasy, you always are in control while in the real world, you often are not. Consequently, imagining violent and aggressive sex does not mean that the people who have these fantasies want them to come true. All it means is that sometimes they enjoy thinking about it.

Yet another fact about pornography is that people use it for various reasons. Some like the sexual excitement and gratification while others may use it for distraction from everyday life. Sometimes people don’t use porn because it feels good but because it makes them feel better. In other words, it could be stress relief or a way to escape from the challenges of daily living. From what you wrote, I’m guessing this could be true for you because you stated that after your life changed dramatically, you stopped looking at porn. Or the reverse could be true, that after you stopped looking at porn and feeling badly about yourself, your life changed for the better. In either case, the viewing of pornography impacted your life circumstances.

People frequently make poor decisions and do things that are not good for them or for the rest of society. Does that mean they are horrible people who do not deserve forgiveness? No, it does not. It means that they are human. Consequently, I think it’s important that you work on forgiving yourself. Accept that you did some things you wish you hadn’t, understand that you did them in order to feel better, and then release the feelings of anger you have towards yourself. If that’s not enough, you can do some things to atone, like donating to a group dedicated to helping victims of pornography or becoming an anti-porn activist. You could even volunteer to participate in a research project on pornography. If that still doesn’t work, perhaps you should try counseling. I know you just want to forget what you did but often we cannot do that. If forgetting is not a viable solution, then a good therapist will help you deal with what you did and move forward.

Whatever you do, make certain that you don’t permit past mistakes to negatively impact your current relationship. Everyone deserves to be in a loving relationship with a wonderful partner and it sounds like that is what you have. Don’t let what was fantasy mess with your reality.

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