Feminist Therapy: Quitting porn, avoiding transference, and dealing with gynecologist trauma

Our feminist therapist, Hillary McBride, answers your questions every month.

I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I’m 21 years old, only been in one very brief relationship, and I have a very high sex drive. I feel unbearably desperate for a boyfriend, and relentlessly look up sex advice, forums, opinion pieces, and any other kind of writing about sex I can find. At my worst times, I go to porn sites, with the intention of just seeing what kinds of things are trending, but I always end up getting turned on by it, even though it’s disgusting and horrible. I think I’m starting to associate sex with violence, which is the exact opposite of everything I want.

I find myself fantasizing about sexual positions I once thought were degrading. Worse, I find myself thinking about graphic images of men sexually assaulting women while masturbating. I hate it. I don’t know if it’s socialization, or something wrong with me. Thinking about a man sweetly making love to me, which is what I really want, doesn’t fit well with my self-pleasuring — it’s detrimental to it. How can I break my addiction to looking at sexual content online and learn to align my emotional desires with my physical ones? How can I stop being so turned on by violent sexuality? How do I separate violence from sex? Or should I accept that this is who I am and not try to change it? It’s so deeply against all of my values…

–  S

Dear S,

I can sense the inner conflict in your writing — feeling pulled towards something you are simultaneously repulsed by. I’m sorry that you are struggling in this way, and I wish I had an easy answer for you.

When I read your question, I think immediately of a metaphor of the mind popularized by author Jonathan Haidt. The metaphor is of a person riding on the back of an elephant, in which our conscious mind is the rider, and our unconscious mind is the elephant. He explains that the elephant is much more powerful than the rider, and needs to be trained in order to for us to have more control over our behaviors and impulses. Together, our culture, watching pornography, and your implicit sexual desires all train the elephant, but in a way that your rider does not agree with. Your rider is a radical feminist wants to desire certain things that are in line with her politics and ethics. But the influences around you and the behaviors you engage in are training the elephant to do the exact opposite of what the rider wants.

You do not need to beat yourself up, but you do need to start making certain changes. Watching pornography, especially when it is compulsive, can be a very effective yet unsustainable tool for managing difficult emotions, like boredom, distress, fear, sadness, or the longing for excitement. First, it’s important to begin to examine what is driving your pornography use — the emotions you experience and what you think before you use pornography. Next, begin to learn to sit with those emotions.

It can be helpful to begin a mindfulness meditation practice. Continuing with the elephant and the rider metaphor, research on mindfulness has shown that it is one of the best ways to help “train the elephant.” (In order to help you practice mindfulness, you might want to start using an app on your smartphone like Headspace or Calm.) When you find yourself fantasizing about something you objectively think is degrading, stop, and change what you’re thinking about. This can feel painful at first, but doing mindfulness meditation can make this much easier, as it trains the areas of your brain responsible for impulse control, including redirecting your thoughts, sustained attention, and emotional regulation. If you find doing this on your own is too difficult, and that you are still engaging in the behaviour or fantasies you would like to avoid compulsively, try getting some extra support. Try, for example, getting a therapist, installing settings on your computer that make it difficult to watch porn, joining a support group, or picking up some new hobbies with friends who you can share honestly with. As for your interest in the trends you look up on porn sites, you might try reading academic articles about trends in pornography, if that does not feel arousing to you. Or, you might also just have to give up on an academic interest in pornography for now, because (right now) it is too easy for you to get sucked into watching it. Like for a person who struggles with substance abuse, even talking about it can be very difficult, and it can be necessary to avoid social circles, forms of media, or academic content in which the thing you struggle with is in any way glorified or supported.

Eventually you will begin to sensitize yourself and re-train your mind, but this can take some time. In the meantime, make sure to begin to practice being compassionate with yourself. Sometimes the elephant has a will of its own, but that does not mean you are defeated. But, to live a life which reflects your political values, you will likely need to make some serious behavioral changes, and you can support yourself to make those changes with a kind inner dialogue, instead of a self-abusive one.

Good luck.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

I am currently in a relationship with a wonderful man who I consider the love of my life. He is kind, patient, understanding, smart, and pro-feminist. He makes me laugh and I am deeply attracted to him. I never expected this to happen to me, especially as my previous romantic relationship was abusive (mostly emotional and psychological), and I was cheated on multiple times. Since the beginning of our relationship nearly a year ago, I have experienced chronic anxiety centered around a fear that my boyfriend will eventually leave me. I will often have anxiety, panic, and nightmares about it.

I have a very difficult relationship with my mother, who I don’t speak to very often, and my biological father abandoned us both when my mother was still pregnant. Nonetheless, I am finding it increasingly difficult to understand why I am constantly feeling like this. I worry I will ruin our relationship with my insecurities. Sometimes when I become frustrated with the situation, I take it out on him. I don’t want him to feel bad, but just don’t know how I can get past all these anxieties, stop worrying about the future, and love him freely without fear.

– K

Dear K,

I’m so glad that you are happy in the relationship you are in, and I’m pleased to hear that he supports and identifies with your political beliefs. When someone is really kind, consistent, and hasn’t given us any reason to suspect they may leave, but we feel anxious or  insecure nonetheless, we can start to guess that something called transference may be happening. Transference is said to be happening when we are transferring or redirecting our feelings about a previous relationship onto the present relationship. And, just from what you have said about how men have treated you in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised by this. You have been left, rejected, or abandoned by many important men in your life, and sometimes when this happens, our brain fills in the gaps and assumes this will happen again. How many times can we burn ourselves on the hot plate without becoming afraid to touch it again?

Another way of explaining this is through understanding attachment theory. In attachment theory, we look at how patterns of past relationships (especially important ones, romantic ones, and those we had in development) create a neurological “map” that shapes how we do relationships and what our role in relationships is. This can include patterns that are laid down about how we feel about ourselves when we are close to others, whether or not we can trust people, let people in, or believe we will be loved or left. Sometimes when our attachment “map” has included a lot of painful relationships, being in the present relationship – even if it’s safe and secure — feels like it will end the way our other relationships have, because that is what the map says will happen. This is a great time to start becoming aware of what is happening, and of your fears about this relationship, then ask yourself some of the following questions, when you feel afraid:

  • Is what is happening now bad or scary? Or is it just that it’s new, and I have been through bad and scary things in the past?
  • How is this person different than the people who have hurt me in the past?
  • How can I learn to comfort myself and work on self-soothing when I am scared and anxious?
  • How can I allow this new person to help me heal my old pain? How can I learn to do this without taking it out on him, and instead share my fear and vulnerabilities in a way that brings him close to me?

I think that it could also be a good idea to do some therapy with someone who specializes in early attachment injuries — relationship experiences that gave you a map that makes it hard to love and be loved as an adult. You might also want to learn some ways of coping with anxiety and distress. This can include anything from workbooks, exercise, taking certain supplements, having a friend to call when you feel like the old pain is coming up, journaling, or joining a group for support.

Importantly, the fear that you are feeling is not surfacing because you are broken or defective. Rather it’s a leftover mechanism that has likely kept you safe in the past — learning to afraid in situations where you’re likely to be hurt is very adaptive. But, when you’re not going be hurt, this leftover fear can keep you from really being present and engaged in the life you have. I’m impressed by your awareness and have hope for you.

~~~

Dear Feminist Therapist,

Yesterday I had an appointment with a gynecologist for the first time. Before the exam, he described menstruation as a “mistake of nature” because, according to him, it is an inconvenient thing to experience. It felt like such an insulting comment. I have always felt like my period was a natural part of being a woman.

I hesitated a bit before getting on the table. He noticed that and, from behind, lifted up my dress, fully exposing my buttocks, and told me to go sit. I put my legs in the stirrups but was unable to spread my knees. I was shaking and clenching my fists. He told me to get over my shame and spread my legs. When he inserted the tube, he put his hand on the inside of my thigh, quite close to my vulva. I froze, afraid to tell him to take his hand away.

I left, shaking and upset. A friend said he probably just tried to make me feel more comfortable. Do gynecologists do that? Put their hand on the inside of a woman’s thigh? That’s never okay, is it? I’m still upset — it keeps running through my head. Am I overreacting? I don’t know what to do. I have to go back in three weeks for another exam but I really don’t want him to perform it.

– M

Dear M,

I’m horrified for you. That sounds like an incredibly violating experience. Just by the symptoms you report (the shaking, the flashbacks, the sense of being frozen), I’m inclined to says this sounded traumatic. During trauma, because a very specific part of our brain determines we are in an unsafe situation, certain biological processes begin to unfold which make us fight, flight, or freeze. This means that if you are having a reaction like this, even if it does not make sense to your friend, your body told you it was a terrifying experience and you felt unsafe. And, when that happens, you can’t do anything about it —  your nervous system is wired to respond this way, so you are definitely not overreacting.

If you don’t feel safe with him performing it, don’t let him do the exam. Ask for a female colleague of his, or ask for another woman to be present. In some of the medical clinics where I live, anytime a male performs a pelvic exam on a woman, another female needs to be present — either a nurse or female physician. You can always ask for that.

I’m wondering if this was severe enough that it would be appropriate for you to make a complaint to the college about this gynecologist? If you felt violated or disrespected, or that his conduct was unprofessional, you might consider discussing it with someone else. If you do not want to do this, you could write a letter to him to tell him about the impact of his actions on you.

Just by your response alone, it may be important for you to seek some support — perhaps counselling. Especially if you have had a history of sexual assault or trauma, events like these might be particularly overwhelming, not because you did anything wrong, but because of how our brain stores trauma. When we have been through trauma before — especially if it was developmental — when any kind of trauma happens again in the future, we may be more likely to freeze or dissociate. Again, this is not your fault. And, you did not deserve to have this happen to you. But to prevent this and other events from creating even more distress for you, I suggest seeking some support, or doing more reading about trauma.

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to info@feministcurrent.com with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride
Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women’s experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women’s experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of “Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are” and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.

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  • oneclickboedicea

    I would say that anyone lifting up a woman’s skirt without asking permission would be guilty of sexual harrassment and I would think you are well within your rights to complain to the surgery manager. If you dont feel up to doing that, you could complain to the governing body of gynecology in your country, or simply ask for another female doctor. I think his bedside manner sounded rapey.

  • alittner

    Re: the doctor, I am so sorry this happened to you. I had a similar experience with a male obgyn when I moved to a new city and he was the first person I could see on short notice. He was flippant and said some sexist things, and at the end of the exam (when I was already sitting up) put his fingers in me and moved them in and out and said something about my tilted uterus and how different positions might make me experience pain during sex, which I had said was a problem during the pre-exam portion. I was utterly shocked. I froze and couldn’t say anything. I didn’t even report it to the health board for a month (which they later held against me) because I was so traumatized. I am a survivor of past sexual assault, so I got a lot of therapy after that to work through it. I want you to know that this happens to women, it happens more than you think, and it’s not your fault. Make a complaint to the state health board. Even if they don’t discipline him, it will be on his record and maybe they will believe the next woman who reports him. Or maybe some woman already did, and it will help bring him to justice in your case. Sending you sisterly love and healing.

    • Hekate Jayne

      That is truly fucking horrifying.

      Jesus. I am so sorry.

  • Wombat

    Please don’t even consider going back to that doctor! Both I and a friend have felt obliged to continue to see doctors who we objectively knew were failing us seriously (although we weren’t assaulted) so I’m guessing it’s a thing for women to feel beholden to doctors. You don’t owe him anything (I hope you don’t owe him any money!) – take your custom somewhere you’re treated decently.

  • JCortese

    That GYN was definitely out of line. The best male doctors I’ve been to have always been polite and attentive and somewhat distant at the same time, I think because they recognize the fundamental oddness of being alone in a room with a woman and poking around her body for a living. They make a deliberate point of maintaining professional distance and sticking to neutral conversational topics. The fact that this guy went out of his way NOT to trips my warning system. Report him — you never know how many other women have said the same thing. I bet there are a couple of complaints against him already.

    And for the girl who is starting to watch porn — do get away from the stuff, but don’t beat yourself up with guilt over it, either. It wouldn’t be the first time that people get hooked on something that’s not good for them against their better judgment to deal with unfamiliar or extremely powerful emotions. It’s not a sign that you’re a hypocrite, just that you’re a human being. People can get compulsive about all kinds of things that are bad for them. You do have to get away from it, but you aren’t a space alien or anything, just a human being trying to deal with new and extremely strong emotions. Porn is EVERYWHERE in this culture, so it’s no wonder you ran into it and latched onto it. It’s like the shitty super-processed crap food of our culture — it’s everywhere, it’s got BILLIONS of corporate dollars behind it precisely to get people hooked on it, and it’s just as bad for your health long term as a diet of nothing but rainbow colored breakfast cereal, pepsi, and McDonalds. Put your health first and stay away from both.

    • Sashimi73

      What a great reply.

      • JCortese

        Porn and junk food are the two most pure examples of runaway unfettered capitalism in existence: they take a basic body appetite without which the species dies, and pervert it to turn people into addicts who can no longer be satisfied with the healthy, natural flavors and sensations that the earth gives us freely. The destruction they wreak is identical.

        People’s tastebuds can’t even sense the subtle sweetness of something like a slice of cantaloupe or an orange anymore because they have been burnt out by frappucinos and pop tarts, to the point where they can’t eat anything else and are dying from it.

        And simple enjoyment of healthy sex, enjoyment of the body of someone who loves you, doesn’t even make a dent if they can manage to get you hooked on violent anal penetration of a woman while she is tied up and beaten.

        Both make addicts of people by perverting their natural, healthy body appetites that keep us as individuals and as a species alive and well. And the industries make BILLIONS short-circuiting and destroying our healthy appetites to make us all addicts. After all, what better “customer” than an addict, right? Why else would these even BE multi-billion dollar industries? An addict is a unhappy, unsatisfiable customer for life.

        When it’s food, you can get them at age 18 months and keep them hooked for a short, unhealthy, diabetic life. When it’s sex in my opinion it’s worse, because that is our fertility and creation, and because that appetite hits like a ton of bricks when people reach puberty. No wonder we treat all treat Creation itself with such degradation (pollution, wanton destruction of the environment). We treat our own act of creation and fertility as if it’s an act of filth, an opportunity to make billions of tainted dollars by twisting it and twisting people along with it.

        It’s so ubiquitous nowdays too that I can’t imagine any kids getting hit in the head with the first rush of hormones who don’t find porn first. They are ALL getting damaged by it, just as little kids can barely taste apples anymore because their tastebuds need the intensity of Lucky Charms before they can even tell something is in their mouths.

        We are losing entire generations to the destruction that seeks to make of them the perfect capitalist consumers: addicts, based on the fundamental body appetites that keep us alive and healthy. This young girl has a healthy sex drive: that is a perfectly NORMAL THING! And it’s being used to compel her to damage herself by an industry run by a bunch of monsters who want nothing more than to wipe their assholes with $100 bills instead of $50s.

        I could fucking scream at what they are doing to kids nowdays — it’s a big part of what makes me so viciously protective of teenaged girls. The world hates them and seeks to colonize their brains to make them hate themselves, and it makes me want to pick up a baseball bat and go looking for strip joints to go smash in a few skulls among the clientele. The only thing keeping me from doing it is that I don’t want to land in jail.

        It is SUCH A RELIEF to make this flat-out statement of truth on a feminist website and not get pounced on by a bunch of idiots telling me that like, y’know, some women find it VERY EMPOWERFULATING to be treated like garbage during sex, and it’s like totallee okay, and feminism is, like, all about choicezzzzzzz!

        Feminism is about calling bullshit when you see it, and about defending women and girls like this wonderful young girl who senses with great awareness and intellect beyond her years that something terrible is being done to her by our destructive culture, and that she wants OUT. Sweetie, I admire you for being up front and aware of what’s happening, and I have 100% confidence that you can kick this to the curb and find a healthy, enjoyable way to make sex a part of your life that enriches you instead of degrading you.

        • Wren

          I love your rants!! They are TOTALLY welcome here!

          ” The world hates them [girls] and seeks to colonize their brains to make them hate themselves”

          Reading this I finally really get it (something everyone else here already gets, but I’m still a newbie at Radical Feminism), but porn serves two purposes: to train rapists-to-be and to train girls to be cum-dumpsters. I used to think it was only to teach boys to be violent and to maintain a state of porn-sick terrorism over women to keep them in line, but now I realize that it only succeeds if women internalize violent porn, and how can we not?? We rarely ever see depictions of healthy sex (even if we never watch porn, most sex scenes in the media are at best casual, non-loving sex, or even coercive, cause that’s normal!!). This is why we have articles about anal sex in Teen Vogue. They need to know what’s expected of them as early as possible! Do they even know that sex can be an expression of love?Does anyone even remember what loving sex is??? I’m not sure I’ve ever really experienced it.

          Here are your options, young ladies:
          Either be a cum-dumpster or a spinster.

        • Hekate Jayne

          You said:
          “It is SUCH A RELIEF to make this flat-out statement of truth on a feminist website and not get pounced on by a bunch of idiots telling me that like, y’know, some women find it VERY EMPOWERFULATING to be treated like garbage during sex, and it’s like totallee okay, and feminism is, like, all about choicezzzzzzz!”

          It really does feel good to not only acknowledge reality, but to have other women say OHMYGAWD, ME TOO.

          The reality is ugly. It is violent, misogynist, sexist, and incredibly difficult to live with and try to still enjoy a little bit of peace.

          But living in denial and embracing my inner whore, or whatever, is no way to live. I am not giving up. And it is good to know that I am not alone. None of us are. Not here, anyway.

  • rosearan

    As far as I’m concerned, putting women in stirrups is a gross violation of human rights and human decency. It’s medical porn. Pelvic examinations can be more than adequately performed without subjecting women to this degradation. When I was in the later stage of pregnancy with twins, my gynecologist (a woman) told me and my husband that this was the way she delivered babies, and that this was how she would deliver mine. I was angry and upset and simply refused to deliver my babies in this way. She argued that I was ‘high risk’ and that this was the only safe medical procedure. I went away and networked to find a gynecologist (another female doctor) who would allow me to give birth in the way I wanted. I gave birth upright and kneeling, using a birth stool. No degrading open-legged, genital exposure to professional strangers.

    • JCortese

      It’s all about getting your cunt to eye level, for THEIR convenience, so they don’t have to stoop. Bullshit. The human cunt isn’t meant to be at eye level. You want to serve a woman while she’s giving birth, you get BENEATH her while she brings new life into this universe where you BELONG, pal.

      It grinds my fucking gears that cunts are thought to be some some filthy, swampy embarrassment apparatus instead of the gateway to life, light, and knowledge that they truly are. We all glimpsed sunlight through one of those things for the first time, and should get on our knees and worship the damned things like goddesses for letting us live. And if that means that a doctor who is assisting at a birth has to hunch over on their hands and knees and get a crick in their neck, then that’s what it means.

      • Hekate Jayne

        You are my new best friend.

    • Gundog

      My wife is 7 weeks out from our first child. I have attended every doctor’s appointment and class offered. I was quite relieved that modern birthing is not like your story, the movies, or horror docs like the Business of Being Born. No more inducing labor, shooting the mother up full of drugs, sticking her in stirups and then prying the baby out. We will have a big room with a standing shower, balls, racks, and all the equipment. We did hire a doula to be safe though. Those women are awesome.

  • Omzig Online

    Ok, so I confess I haven’t done many pelvic exams, but I’ve done few, and I can’t think of a single reason to place a hand on a woman’s inner thigh. Coupled with his weird comments, I think his behavior is suspicious, and you should consider reporting him, if you feel comfortable enough. I think he was grooming you, quite frankly. Your instincts are obviously good, and your gut is telling you that something was wrong, so give your self permission to trust your own gut.

  • Marieke Bos

    Thank you Hillary and everyone for the support. A few days after it happened I wrote a complaint to the hospital. I might also write him a letter as someone suggested. The second exam was by another gyno, again a man. It was urgent and there was no woman available. I did request there would be a woman present and they arranged for a nurse to be present.
    I tried therapy a couple of years ago but spent most sessions explaining rape, sexual assault and sexism aren’t my individual problems but a problem of our collective society. Therapists really should be trained in radical feminism.

    • Meghan Murphy

      They really should…

    • Kiwipally

      *hugs* I’m really sorry this happened to you.

    • Wren

      “I tried therapy a couple of years ago but spent most sessions explaining rape, sexual assault and sexism aren’t my individual problems but a problem of our collective society.”

      Oh, I’ve been through that. I had better luck when I went to a rape crisis counseling service.

      • Melanie

        I’ve been through that too. If only I could change my distorted perceptions …

        • Womble Bananaroom

          WTactualF!

  • Kiwipally

    Is there any other way of having a better experience in these matters? Recent medical publications suggest that the physical pelvic exam is unnecessary for many women because it doesn’t pick up conditions such as ovarian cancer (e.g. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1947956-overview) and the method of undertaking pap smears is literally medieval. Although the substitution of the HPV test for the pap smear may offer improvement for some women (http://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2017-09-20/what-you-need-to-know-about-pap-smears-being-phased-out/8753278)

    But some women with disabilities aren’t ever going to be in the situation of being able to perform their own HPV sampling.

    I can’t help but think that if men were in the situation of needing to have something inserted up their penis every year then medical science would have marched onto a less physically invasive technique years ago.

  • Hekate Jayne

    There is a group of women loving your comments. And they aren’t even here!

    https://www.reddit.com/r/GenderCritical/comments/7b4cg1/notyourrescueproject_how_a_white_middleclass/

  • Anthocerotopsida

    That last letter, so unbelievably relatable. I’d like to think I would have spoken up for myself but I probably would have thought and done the same things, and then I would have agonized over it for a long time, exactly like M. I’m outraged for you, sister.

    The way the doctor told her to “get over her shame”. No. That is gaslighting. As if the only reason a woman might be uncomfortable getting undressed or being touched by a man is because she has some kind of irrational hang-up that she needs to get over. As if a woman can’t trust her own instincts telling her when she’s in danger. Using old sexist stereotypes to *shame* and coerce her, god it makes me sick.

  • Womble Bananaroom

    the gyno letter is just horrible. Is there no woman gyno available? I would never go to a male dr for pap smears or such.Medical personnel provide a payed for service. You are in charge. Always.