I am proud to be writing this article in partnership with Taylor May, a survivor of emotional and spiritual abuse. She has boldly shared her own story about what it was like to be married to someone who had a Pornographic Style of Relating, (PSR) and what it felt like to be used by him with her Church’s consent.
*Trigger warning for those who have suffered this type of betrayal trauma.
I’ve written about the pornographic style of relating here (PSR), but today we will hear from the perspective of a woman who has lived on the other side of this dynamic. Many people have been talking about this with the release of this new book and some of its disturbing implications. How can we talk about what these women are experiencing, and what can we learn from them? Taylor May has offered her story and her experience below. My hope is that this can begin to clear up the muddy waters of what it means to live a Christlike marriage in a deeply pornified world.
I didn’t realize how a pornographic style of relating was so deeply embedded into my first marriage until I was firmly planted into my second marriage. That’s when I began to see the impact my first husband’s issue with lust had on my new, much healthier relationship. Let me tell you my story, and how I and countless other women feel when our significant others lust for other women, on-screen or off.
Those of us who grew up in the evangelical Church have been told that we are responsible for men’s lust issues. This lie has been perpetrated by the church for far too long. Many men are leading our church conversations with 90% of pastors being men, and considering that nearly 50% of those pastors self-report having used pornography, it would make sense that they would try to gaslight women by minimizing the destructive nature of porn use. One way they do this is by framing it as a women’s issue or a sex issue, rather than the objectification of women/sin issue–one that stems from the person doing the objectifying.
For me, this conditioning started long before I ever even understood sex and relationships. Since I was very young, my father wouldn’t let me be friends with boys for fear of something sexual happening. I was only a child! This said way more about him than it did about me or my friends. Sex was on his mind, not mine or any other children in my friend group. I was told over and over again that body parts and hormones were dangerous and sex before marriage would ruin me–but that it would be all boys wanted; all they thought about. If they liked me, there must be ulterior motives. They couldn’t possibly like me for me alone. To this day, my mother is suspicious of every male friend I have. If they are friendly, she will immediately jump to conclusions and will issue verbal and “mom look” warnings.
Can you see the damaging messages (both verbal and non-verbal) that were passed onto my impressionable, sexually developing self? I am bad, my body is dangerous, sex is scary, and men are dangerous. These are messages I have spent decades unlearning.
Fast forward to my 16th year on this planet, when I met my first husband, Robert. He was very attracted to me physically and seemed to like the rest of me as well. We made out a lot, as most teen couples do. But then he wanted me to give him orgasms. He told me it was nearly impossible for him to stop once we started kissing. This fit with another previous lie/narrative about male sexuality that I had been taught: “A man cannot control himself, and it is my responsibility to govern our sexuality”. I didn’t like our new sexual relationship. Something felt off. I felt used, like a means to an end. Sadly, not much would change in the next 25 years of our marriage.
He would touch the “right” parts, usually in the same way, the same order, and I would orgasm. He would often act bored, not aroused, and usually had to start his arousal process over because pleasing me was such a turn-off. If I was sick, uninterested, or incapacitated, he would ask for a handjob. All he needed was a couple of body parts, and he was happy. (You can see his pornographic mindset and pornographic style of relating. I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back, my body was right. I felt it, I just didn’t know how to put language to what my body was telling me was true.)
I felt like I was his only outlet, and as his wife, it was my duty to keep him satisfied so he wouldn’t stray. Such toxic thinking I had been spoon-fed for years and years. I now name the truth that if he had chosen to cheat on me, that would be solely his responsibility.
I had no obligation to fit into his pornified view of sexuality, I was not his personal porn star. If he chose the loneliness of his fantasy life rather than genuine intimacy and connection with me, that was his loss. I grieve, because I love him and miss parts of him, but I release him and love myself the way God calls me to.
I recently heard the term “vaginal masturbation”, which is a perfect description of what he was doing with my body. I felt used. I checked out during sex to survive. My body worked and responded minimally, but I had to conjure up fantasies in my head to escape my reality. (Do you see how now I am participating in unhealthy sexuality? Rather than living in truth and telling the truth, I began to get sick as well.) I would sometimes turn my head to the side to let the tears roll down my face during intercourse. I was nothing more than his ejaculation receptacle. I couldn’t imagine ever craving sex with my husband.
Another lie I was told was that, as the wife, I alone was responsible for the health or lack thereof in our marriage. The church has made this point loud and clear. Over and over again, women are told that without a consistent sex life (which is our responsibility to cultivate), our marriage will crumble. But, if we just have more sex, our marriage problems will disappear. Put on lipstick, do your hair, show a little cleavage. But only when you’re alone, of course, or you’ll cause other men to stumble. Do you hear the absolute madness? These are contradictions that would drive any woman insane.
In other words: “Be like the porn I have consumed for the last two decades. Dress like a porn star in the bedroom and a Hollywood actress when in public. This will help me stay committed and keep my eyes from wandering elsewhere.”
But what about my needs? What about the importance of my pleasure; my sexual wants and desires? Why did I have to kill them so I could remain married? I am not saying my desires should have been above his. What I am saying is that both partners should both bring their full selves to their sexuality. Giving and receiving pleasure is part of God’s gift of sexuality.
Living that way was exhausting, and I will never participate in that kind of dynamic again. I can only say this now because of where I have been. At the time, I rarely turned Robert down if he asked for sex. But I didn’t initiate and wasn’t usually enthusiastic about our sexual encounters (now looking back, it makes sense why).
I still get a sick feeling in my gut when I remember the night we were discussing this very thing. He said he was so sexually frustrated that he couldn’t concentrate at work. He had been grouchy at the kids and me because he wasn’t getting any. He felt sick and depressed. Sure, he knew we were having issues outside the bedroom, but that didn’t matter. He could work on those issues if only his nether region got some relief. His deep red face and bulging veins only got worse as his yelling got louder. He declared that he was probably going to have a stroke, and it would be my fault. He was going to die and leave the kids without their daddy, all because I was not having sex often enough, or with the appropriate amount of porn-like vigor.
Since I didn’t like grouchy, violent Robert and was tired of the angry scowl, laziness, disengagement from all of us, and the way he treated me in front of our innocent children, I gave in. I disrespected myself and gave in to his adolescent manipulation. I apologized. I groveled. I confessed my “sins” and had more sex with him, until finally, I had had enough. (This type of bartering happens often, yet never leads to goodness, but instead breeds more resentment of our partner and ourselves. Yet so many women I know have felt this way; like they didn’t have a choice.)
Now enter stage left, our pastor. He knew all about the emotional abuse that was happening in my household, yet he encouraged me in front of my husband to fix the SEX ISSUE. He told us that if I didn’t fix the sex problem, Robert’s questionable Facebook friends would turn into much more than that. (Do you see how quickly the entire problem was missed and shifted to something that wasn’t even remotely true? It had nothing to do with the mutuality of sex and had everything to do with Robert’s toxic view of women, his false sense of entitlement to my body, and his pornified mindset.)
As we walked out of the church that evening, smug Robert and the foolish pastor talked about golf while I ran to my car hyperventilating in total, utter despair. That was my last visit to that church. Sadly, my experience is not an isolated event, but commonplace among women who have been gaslighted by men in leadership positions around these issues of pornography and abuse for generations.
Most evenings, my husband would come home from work, take a shower, eat dinner (that I prepared), and camp out in his recliner with his phone or laptop. Often, he’d put his headphones on to drown out the noise of his family. On weekends, he would often take 3-hour naps and get upset with me if I suggested maybe we do some work in the yard or clean the garage together. Apparently, since he provided financially outside the home, I was supposed to provide everything else.
He wanted me to stay home, homeschool the kids, and find a work-from-home full-time job on top of it all. I attempted to use sex to change him into a self-motivated man who would be present with his family. I was so wrong, as nothing I could do could make him become the man I knew he could be.
Despite my responsibility in enabling his immature and selfish behavior, I also feel angry and duped by those who taught me how to be this type of submissive/voiceless wife. The people I trusted to lead and guide me to be more Christlike instead led me to be more porn-like–to betray my good body and my gut at every turn. My true place in the marriage relationship was to be more Christlike, to use my power and my voice to speak the truth, and radically love my husband well, with firm boundaries around my own body.
All the marriage books I was reading told me of my husband’s dire need for regular sexual release, and that doing so would turn him into my knight in shining armor. So I did my part, but the only benefits I received were surface level. I fed my cavernous need for authentic, genuine love with girlfriends and food, yet never felt more alone than when I was in my own home. Since all the books and teachings told me to be submissive, make the first move toward reconciliation, be the first – or only – one to do the right thing, I kept on keeping on, and lost myself in the process.
When my coping mechanism of acting happy finally caught up with me, a hidden autoimmune disease took over my body, creating blood clots in my lungs–the kind that kills people instantly. By the grace of God, I did not become a statistic. But my disease did expose my husband. He was “wonderful” at first, but as my sickness became a burden and I could no longer serve him because I needed care and support for myself, I was once again a bad wife.
As I reflect back on my marriage with a man who lived with a PSR, I realize he treated pretty women differently. He complimented me often on my looks (only my face, breasts, and hair if it was long enough for him), especially if my shirt was tight, and especially if we hadn’t had sex in a while. If he fixed an appliance or mowed the lawn, he would expect sex. He repeatedly told me that I was supposed to give him sex according to the Bible, and my “refusal” was sinful. (I refused because he was emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially abusive, but that didn’t matter).
By the end of our marriage, after he had told me divorce was our only option, and that he still had time to find a Godly wife, he said he would stay with me if I had sex with him twice a week, no matter how I felt about him. Basically, he wanted to rape me every Tuesday and Thursday.
At that moment I finally chose to love and honor myself. I declined his offer.
That was 3 years ago. Today, I am married to Jay, and he’s quite different. He doesn’t have a perfect past but follows a perfect Jesus who graciously delivered him from porn use after years of hard and deep soul work. The way he relates to me sexually and otherwise makes me feel like a beautiful, real, cherished woman, flaws and all.
And yet, years of living with Robert left their mark. It became evident early on in our marriage that my strong, healthy, masculine, sexual husband did not necessarily need to have sex with me 7 nights a week. I was horrified. I became a tad bit dramatic. How could he not want to have sex with me? Was it because of my weight? I mean, I hadn’t gained any, but did he decide it was just too much? Or was it maybe the cellulite and saggy skin (from a 100-pound weight loss, thank you)? Probably because my body was showing its age and effects from pregnancy and breastfeeding. Or maybe I wasn’t attractive enough during the day. I should have rethought those sweats and no-makeup days. Was it my splotchy face that he saw close up during sex? Worse yet … Was he thinking of those ridiculously fake women he used to watch in the dark? Even worse again … Did he wish I was more like one of his past partners? (Do you hear how hard I am still working? Do you see my PTSD at work? This is the large lasting impact of betrayal trauma. These thoughts and feelings are normal after what I have suffered. Will I be kind to my traumatized parts? Will I continue to pursue my own healing and not let the trauma that Robert caused steal from me any more than it already has?)
The answer to why he didn’t want to have sex with me 24/7 was that he was simply sexually satisfied. He could be turned on quickly if I wanted him to be, and sometimes, he was just tired. Gasp. Is a man too tired for sex? Yes, that is completely normal. Sex is just a slice of the pie, not the entire pie. It’s a beautiful part of marriage but cannot be the centerpiece of a marriage.
Finally, after assuring and reassuring me too many times, he made me realize that maybe just maybe I had been paying too much attention to the evangelical over-sexualization of … well, everything. The Great Sex Rescue by Sheila Gregoire discusses this at length. When we give men and women the message that all men think about is sex, it causes damage.
The thing is, until now, I didn’t realize how wrong that message was or how destructive it could be. Even 18 months into a beautiful, healthy marriage, on occasion all the lies that I still sometimes believe come rushing into my brain, noisily occupying way too much space. One pops into my head, and the rest jump in for a free-for-all. The accuser, the father of lies, tells me I wasn’t enough for Robert, and now maybe I am still not enough for Jay. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am committed to helping create as many resources for women hurt by porn as there were for men who struggle.
As for the Church, I am often torn between my love for the body of Christ and my disdain for the messed-up institution it’s become. There’s never been a time I didn’t belong to a church, despite the fact that my story is full of betrayal by pastors and church leaders. So much so, in fact, that my current pastor has picked up on my unspoken ambivalence toward him. I don’t sugarcoat what so many church people have taught me out of their misogyny or just plain ignorance. I believe they’ll answer for that. I fight on, eyes wide open, looking for trusted leaders, and becoming one myself.
If you find yourself repulsed by the Church, I urge you to keep your eyes on Jesus himself, who hates the abuse even more than we do.