Utne Reader’s new article about Dirty Girls Ministries is getting a fair amount of notice. DGM is an organization dedicated to“helping women struggling with pornography and sexual addiction, which sounds laudable until you start looking deeper.
Like many sex educators and sexologists, I have a lot of problems with the ways in which “sex addiction” is framed. For example, the issue is usually discussed in the context of how many partners someone has or how often they have sex, rather than looking at the deeper motivations behind their behaviors. It’s also used to attack people whose sexual desires or practices fall outside the “norm”. (As if the “norm” has any meaning besides the strictly statistical.) It’s often based on pseudoscience about brain chemistry, as well as sex-negativity, shame, and a lack of critical thinking. And while anti-porn perspectives don’t have to be anti-sex, they often are.
“It’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.” Vincent Felitti MD (quoted in In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts)
When I read the Utne Reader article, I was struck by how much shame is woven into the very fabric of Dirty Girls Ministries and its operations. Even the name resounds with the notion that masturbation makes women dirty, as does the title of the founder’s book Dirty Girls Come Clean. And it’s amazing how often this kind of rhetoric sneaks in. For example, the article says that
because of their below-the-belt explorations, [the online support group members] report feeling tainted, undesirable, and perverted.
Now, I might suggest that the reason they feel this way could be because of the deep stigma, secrecy, and shame that are attached to solo sex and female sexuality rather than the fact that they’re masturbating. William Stayton, a professor of human sexuality and Baptist minister offers a similar perspective:
“To feel that they’re addicted only means that they enjoy doing it and they don’t want to…Real sexual addiction is when someone has no control over it. Things that get blamed for addiction are often just things that people don’t like.”
Unfortunately, the message that heterosexual, monogamous marriage validates sex often leads to further problems:
Many girls in Renaud’s ministry think that once they get married, they will be free to express their sexuality and enjoy orgasms with a man. This causes some to take the fast track to the altar, only to find that after they’ve married, they still feel the same taboo urges. One forum commenter married at 19 in the hope that pious matrimonial intercourse would rid her of her sinful thoughts—only to find that during sex with her husband, she would have the same fantasies. “I cannot cleanse my mind of these images,” she says. “I try so hard to focus on my husband only, but my thoughts are so warped.”
There’s really very little that gets in the way of sex more than judging yourself while you’re doing it. One version of is is specatoring, or focusing on yourself from a third-person perspective and evaluating yourself instead of enjoying the experience. And while this quote seems different at first, there’s a real parallel between judging your body or sexual technique and judging your thoughts and fantasies. In both cases, the critical thoughts get in the way.
But then, this is how shame works. It makes us critical of ourselves. It makes us think we’re bad or dirty or sinful. It tells us that we have to try harder if we want to be accepted. And ironically, this kind of obsession often makes it worse because it brings our problem front-and-center. When we can learn to accept our difficult thoughts and develop mindfulness practices that encourage self-compassion, it’s often easier to let go of the painful patterns. The more we fight our Shadows, the stronger they become; when we embrace them and learn to listen to them, our Shadows often calm down.
It’s a problem that so many people and organizations that have the stated goal of helping people free themselves from the cycles they’re stuck in reinforce some of the ways of thinking that make those patterns stronger. It’s even more unfortunate that so many of them use language that reinforces the idea that sex is dirty, rather than helping people see that it’s the relationship to sex that might be a problem, rather than the sex itself. And it’s a tragedy that Dirty Girls Ministries is built on the sexual shame that has plagued us for so long. Regardless of their intentions, they’re feeding the problem instead of cutting it off.
If you find that your relationship to sex or to masturbation or to porn is problematic, I 100% encourage you to explore that. (This book is a good place to start, as is this and this one.) And I suggest that you do it from a place of self-compassion and without attaching blame to sex or masturbation. You might find that it’s a much smoother way to go when you don’t shame yourself.