Lust: Not Just a Guy’s Problem: Jessica Harris
Lust: Women deal with it, too. Author Jessica Harris shares her brutal path through porn and sexual shame as a Christian woman—and defines a pathway out.
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Lust: Women deal with it, too. Author Jessica Harris shares her brutal path through porn and sexual shame as a Christian woman—and defines a pathway out.
Lust: Not Just a Guy’s Problem: Jessica Harris
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Season 1, Episode 44: Lust: Not Just a Guy's Problem
Guest: Jessica Harris
Air Date: July 8, 2023
Jessica: I kind of said, “Okay, God, here's the deal. I'll make a deal with you. God, like I don't know if you've ever done this.” I said, “I will do whatever you want. I will be a missionary to like anywhere in the world you can send me to a closed country. Even like, I think it'll be kind of cool, but pornography has to come with me. It's just part of my life. It's part of who I am. It's stuck. I'm stuck. You're just going to have to put up with it. Sorry.”
Shelby: Somewhat anxious, always authentic, this is Real Life Loading.
I'm your host, Shelby Abbott, and you know, I was listening to part of a podcast episode of Real Life Loading Today, and I thought to myself, I sound like an eighth grader with a head cold. My voice is so nasally. It just is. I don't like it. So, if you're like me and you don't like the sound of my voice, I apologize, but guess what? I don't like it any more than you do.
All right let's just move on from that. Today's episode is a very important one. Today I'm talking with author and speaker Jessica Harris about discovering God's grace for women struggling with porn and sexual shame. That's right. We're not talking primarily about men today, but women in relation to this sensitive subject.
But hey, if you're a guy, you're definitely going to benefit from hearing this too. Don't tune out. Jessica has written a book called Quenched, and the premise of that book is this. If you're a woman who has struggled with lust and porn, feeling trapped in a destructive cycle that keeps you distant from God, you're not alone and there is hope.
As I talk with Jessica today, she's going to tell me first. About her personal story of finding freedom from porn, and then we'll talk about sexting and nudes, shame and freedom, and finally, why you should be curious about your own struggles. This is a fantastic and important conversation with Jessica Harris.
I want to ask you about your personal story related to addiction, pornography, and sexual shame. Could you share with me what happened in your life related to this topic?
Jessica: I grew up in a Christian home and we went to church every Sunday, twice on Sundays, and then Wednesday evenings, and then like the pancake breakfasts and the big tent revivals and the missions conferences. We were always there and still broken.
My dad was abusive and left when I was little, probably seven years old. When I was thirteen, I found hardcore pornography while researching for school completely by accident.
Jessica: This is not something that we talked about in my family, like ever. This is not something that was discussed in my church beyond the sex is good, but save it for marriage. Don't have it until you're married conversation. That was it. Okay.
So, at thirteen I thought, okay, this is what everyone was talking about. Now I understand what this big secret is. And in my mind, pornography seemed safe. Like it seemed like an alternative that was healthy. Like this isn't, I'm not sleeping with anybody. I'm not going to get pregnant, I'm not going to get a STD. Like what's wrong with it?
I began to just watch it for fun. Then by the time I was a senior in high school, so by the time I was seventeen years old, it had become this all-consuming part of my life, where if I wasn't actively doing schoolwork or sleeping or eating, then I was doing something related to pornography. It started to affect my grades. It started to affect my sleep, and I thought, okay, maybe this has gotten a little bit out of control. Got to dial it back a little bit here. When I tried to dial it back, I couldn't.
I can't stop myself. I feel like I can't stop this. So, I resorted to self-harm at one point, trying to get myself to stop and that didn't seem to work. I went looking for help and I didn't know where to go to for help. I was afraid to go to my family. I was afraid to go to my church. So, I went off to college and thought, I'll get caught there, and then they'll be able to help me because they'll know how to help. They did catch me and then they turned around. They said, we know this couldn't have been, you women don't have this problem.
I was like, am I the only woman in the world who's gotten myself into this mess? And I gave up at that point. It shocked my faith a little bit of - wow God, I know You want to love me, and I know you say You can love anybody, but obviously I have somehow messed this up so much there's no way that You could love me. Thank you for trying, but I guess I'm on my own.
Shelby: So, you gave up in the sense that you stopped trying to get better, basically. Is that what you mean?
Jessica: Stop trying to get better. And I decided, you know what? If I can't be the good Christian girl who used to be addicted to porn, then I just don't have a choice. I have to be the porn star who used to be a Christian. And so, 17 years old at a Christian college and was like, you know what? Yes, sure, I wanted to be a doctor. Sure, I wanted to have this life that was great and glamorous, but I just didn't feel like I could get free. And it was like if you can't beat them, then you join them.
And so, it just affected my worth and affected my understanding of my own value and just seemed to crash all my dreams. It was because of this lie that women don't have this problem. Women do have this problem. That's why it's Important, I think, for me to share my story and to talk about it, because when we don't talk about this kind of stuff, we don't give women hope for freedom. We just leave them kind of stuck to fight this struggle on their own.
Shelby: Totally agree. Yes. So, what ended up happening when you got to that position and you're in the context of a Christian college?
Jessica: I left college after one semester. I went back home. My mom had
unfortunately lost her job at that point. So, I actually just called the school while I was home on break and just unenrolled from the school. Then we went back and got my stuff.
God really got a hold of my life in those next few months, and so I actually ended up at Bible college the following fall. We're all aspiring adult actresses go to school. It was there I said, “Okay, God, here's the deal. I'll make a deal with You. God, like, I don't know if You've ever done this.” I said, “I will do whatever you want. I will be missionary to like anywhere in the world. You can send me to a closed country. Even like, I think that'd be kind of cool. But pornography has to come with me. It's just part of my life. It's part of who I am. It's stuck. I'm stuck. You're just going to have to put up with it. Sorry.”
And it was there at Bible college that they pulled all of the female students into a devotional meeting, and they talked about strongholds. They said, we know some of you struggle with pornography and we want to help you. I had thought, I am alone and there's no way out. And here they are saying you aren't alone. And we do know the way out and we want to help you get free.
Shelby: So, what happened then?
Jessica: Right? They had given all of us a slip of paper. It was partially filled out and it said, my name is “blank” and my stronghold is “blank”. They encouraged us to go ahead and fill it out and then hand it into the Dean's staff. So, like an accountability and kind of confession thing.
I remember being angry almost because I wanted the cute, I call it the Christian Barbie answer. I had grown up in the church, right. So, I knew like the right Christian answers to say kind of like, I don't read my Bible enough. I don't pray for two hours a day. You know these, I wanted a cute Christian stronghold. I didn't want this one.
Shelby: Yes. Yep.
Jessica: And it was almost like God said, “Listen, like you've been asking for a way out. This is like your engraved invitation.” Practically like, yes, they've already started the conversation. You have a piece of paper in front of you, all you have to do is write your name, which you know, and your stronghold.
Jessica: Which, you know, like, and just hand it in. So, it was a little more discreet. I rolled mine up into like the tiniest little scroll, tears just pouring. And I'm like, read these later, hoping that they would just get lost, you know, like, yes. I actually don't want you to read it at all, but instead they did.
The staff read it and then they came to my dorm room later and they said, “Jessica, What you wrote in that paper was brave and we want to help you.” I just remember thinking like brave is the absolute last adjective that I would've used to describe that. I can think of like ugly, disgusting, just so many other things. But they said, “No, this was brave and we are here for you and we're going to come alongside you and we're going to help you with this.”
Shelby: That's like this. Beautiful picture of Jesus right there of like not shaming you and not making you feel guilty. I'm seriously getting emotional right now. I'm so thankful that they responded that way to you.
Jessica: Me too, me too.
Shelby: Praise God for that. Oh my gosh. So, when they responded that way and they came back to your dormitory, wherever they met you and talked to you and they said they wanted to help you, what did that look like from there on out?
Jessica: The first step was for me to go to the bookstore on campus. And get this big obnoxious workbook that was the size of an 8-1/2 X 11 sheet of paper, super thick. That was the thing that we had to work through. I met weekly with a member of the Dean's staff to go through that workbook, and that was much more of like accountability.
Let's talk about this problem of pornography. Let's talk about the temptations that you've had, and let's see how you're doing with regards to that. At the same time, there was a team of women around me who were more concerned with answering the question of who is Jessica when she's not struggling with pornography? When that's gone, when we get rid of that, when we help her break free, who is she going to be and what's that going to look like?
Because I had been exposed to it at thirteen. I didn't know how to have healthy relationships with people, with guys especially, I totally objectified men. I did not know how to control my emotions because every emotion, I just used pornography as a coping mechanism, and so I would get really angry. I would get really happy, whatever it was, I was just so unstable emotionally, because when you're taking that crutch away and that security blanket, you have to actually deal with life. You have to actually cope with situations, and so they came in and said, “We're going to help you with these other things that pornography's been masking and hiding these other issues like, we're going to help you with those.”
This one person's worried about the porn and whether or not you're breaking free from that. But we are here to help you reestablish your identity of who you are in Christ, and we are here to help you build that. I honestly credit that team with my freedom, as opposed to the one-on-one accountability that happened every week. I feel like that team and that feeling of let's go for wholeness here and let's go for healing was really what brought me to freedom.
Shelby: We'll get back to my time with Jessica in just a second, but now it's time for a Shelby Sidebar.
Is there something in your outward appearance that you don't like? Is there anything about your body that you would change if you were able? I certainly would with my body. Well, I'm short. I've always been that way. I was constantly made fun of as a kid and now as a five foot six inch man today. I'm often viewed as kind of less than or unable, when it comes to typical male dominated things like, I don't know, carrying heavy furniture or a casual game of like tackle football. It's always been a great source of pain for me.
But what about you? No doubt every person walking the planet can always name something about their body that they wish were different. If given the choice, we'd probably like to be, you know, a few pounds lighter, a couple inches taller, and multiple degrees, more visually appealing.
All of us want to be more physically attractive and consequently we probably wrestle with our appearance because we have a tendency to value outward beauty much more than we should. This is why verses like 1 Samuel 16:7 are so important. It says at the end of that verse, “that the Lord sees not as man sees, man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
How amazing that God's economy of worth is so different than ours. What a gift of grace. Once we really take hold of this truth that Scripture presents and learn to value the worth of our hearts - more than our reflections in the mirror, our paradigm can shift and look on the greater importance within people. Character, integrity, love, and humility are the kinds of qualities that communicate beauty to God.
In the end, His economy is the only economy that really matters. When we ascribe to the countercultural economy of God, we align ourselves with His heart for people. He sees who we are on the inside. Which is what makes the saving work of Jesus Christ all the more astounding. Christians are all the more beautiful, clean and righteous on the inside, not because of personal attempts to give our hearts a makeover, but because we have already been made over by the blood of our Savior. When God sees our hearts, He sees His Son and nothing is more beautiful than Him.
This has been a Shelby Sidebar on Real Life Loading. Now back to my conversation with Jessica Harris.
One of the, the things that you talk about as well was you said that today that young women are becoming pornography. Obviously, this has happened with the increase of the internet and the number of young women who are engaging in sexting and sending nude pictures of themselves to others, even Christian young women. What can we do to help them? And maybe even share a bit of your personal story related to that.
Jessica: Right. My personal story with that is when I was seventeen at the Christian college and had given up and it said like, “I'm just going to have to be a porn star.” I started an online relationship with a complete stranger. I have no idea who he is. He says he's a student at a university nearby and he asks for nudes.
And so I'm 17 years old. I locked my dorm room door because I have a roommate. Lock my dorm room door. Hope she doesn't come back, because she has a key. And send him pictures.
I wish I could help people understand that there's something happens to you when you commodify yourself. When you allow yourself to be reduced to that. And to this day, those pictures are still one of the biggest regrets of my life. Because somewhere out there very well could be seventeen year old me and I have no control over what's happening to her.
It sounds like control and that's how culture can spin it sometimes. Like you need to be in control of your sexuality and it's your body and you can send it and you can do whatever you want to with it. But those pictures don't go away, and you don't have control over them anymore. I wish people could understand that part of it. There's something just that feels so, I don't want to say dehumanizing, but I just feel like that's the only word I can think of right now.
Jessica: That’s just like when you're watching pornography, you don't know who those people are. You don't know their real names, their favorite colors, what they like to eat; you don't know anything about them. Then here somebody else is getting the gratification of my body, but they know nothing about me. They don't know me. It's like the person gets removed from the body. Like who I am as a person doesn't matter anymore. That is a hard and heavy falsehood.
So when you have these young girls who are getting caught up in this wave of sexting and self-exploitation, and they're being told by their boyfriends or by culture, this is what you need to do. You need to sell yourself as a sex object. They're walking down that same path of - it doesn't matter if I'm comfortable with this; it doesn't matter what I like; it doesn't matter; like none of that matters. All people care about is my body and that's not true.
I wish people could understand that it's not just as simple as like your rights and your sexuality and, and what you're allowed and aren't allowed to do. I's fundamental. There's a fundamental truth that's shaken there and that is that who you are as a person matters and being known is the gateway to intimacy. You don't want to divorce those two. When you do, there's just, what you're saying is, “Who I am as a person does not matter.”
Jessica: And that's not true, but that's heavy and that's hard. That's something you have to heal from. That's a big deal. It's not just, this is my right, and this is fun. Like it's a big deal that you're messing with there.
Shelby: Yes. That's obviously like heavy, but what would you say to someone who's maybe already done that? So, what practical tips you would give that person who if has maybe compromised in that area before?
Jessica: Yes, I would say in general, there's definitely grace for that. Just because the pictures never go away doesn't mean that you're continuing to do wrong. Does that make sense?
Shelby: Yes, yes.
Jessica: You made one mistake and one choice. And I don't even like the word consequences, because it's not like you're being continually punished for this. You have made one choice and one mistake, and it was the wrong one.
Jessica: Or you're feeling like it was the wrong one. There is grace; there is forgiveness for that, and you can remove yourself from being responsible. I am not responsible for what people are doing with my pictures right now. As I've moved on with my life and I got married, I let my husband know that these were out there. And obviously as I'm doing, like running a website and speaking, there's, there's this fear that - You know what, if somebody sees this and recognizes who I am and then decides to, you know, leak these to the public, like, we see that even with, you know, stars.
Shelby: Yes. Like celebrities.
Jessica: Yes. We see this happen. There's grace to get through that too. But I think that that's going to be such a rare thing. And even if it's like a high schools or colleges, it feels like a big thing now. There is healing and there is grace for that. And so, I would say, “Give yourself grace for that one mistake that you made.” And then I would let somebody know as soon as you're willing to, because then if they do come back around somehow, if there's an exploitation element to this - where someone's going to try to blackmail you with these things, this happens - you let somebody else in on this so that you are protected. And that you have somebody on your side who can help you navigate maybe some.
And again, these aren't common things. I think, I doubt my pictures are still anywhere out there. I'm sure they have been overwritten by hundreds more, but just let somebody else in, let somebody else know what's going on. So that they can give you some level of protection, especially if you're going to have this level of retaliation or this gets uploaded to the, the web and stuff. Just have people on your team to help you walk through whatever that looks like.
And then for the love, don't go looking for it. If you've sent your pictures out there, like God, I'm sorry that was a mistake. I'm looking for grace and forgiveness and I'm not going to chase them [the pictures] down and figure out where they are. I do not want to know. Yes, I do not - I don't want to know what happened to them.
Shelby: Super helpful, yes. So obviously with all of this there can be an extreme amount of shame that comes with it, and so I really want to talk about that next.
Can you explain what you call the three signposts of shame, and why it's important to recognize them in this struggle?
Jessica: Yes, absolutely. The three signposts of shame come from, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman. Dan Allender is an absolute amazing pioneer in the field of pornography addiction and trauma and all kinds of stuff is just profound. They wrote a book called The Cry of the Soul, which is a book about shame, basically. They point out three signposts of shame.
The first is an absorption with self. And what that is, I can't see the goodness in anybody else. I don't care that you're a great person and that you say you love me. You say, I can tell you anything. I know me and I am a horrible, rotten, unlovable, unworthy person. I'm a worm. It's this. If you knew me, you wouldn't love me anymore because I'm not able to be loved. It's this, I can't see beyond what I've done wrong. I can't see beyond what I believe my identity is. I'm just stuck on it.
Shelby: All right. Okay
Jessica: The second is a flight from exposure. And what that is, is like now I'm hiding, so I'm a failure, I'm a fraud, and I don't want you to know, so I'm going to hide. For a lot of Christian women that can look like overachieving in the Christian sphere. I think what you'll find and what you'll see is it's almost like when we're battling shame, we try so much harder to cover up and to protect. We’re building these masks and these pedestals because we don't want you to get close. I don't want you to know who I am because I'm a horrible, rotten, ugly, unlovable person. I am keeping you from being able to figure that out. I will break off relationships because if they get too close, it's scary. The flight from exposure is even I'll distance myself from God.
Jessica: Because I don't want God to know, even though like we understand that He knows, but it's like, but I don't want Him to know, so I'm going to run and I'm going to hide.
The third one is violence and not like you're not beating people up, but it's this anger and it's either directed to other people or yourself, or even both. But it's this, I'm not okay with who I am. I'm going to hide it so you don't know. And if you even try to get close, I am going to make sure you never try again.
Shelby: Right. Okay.
Jessica: I think it's important for us to see those things, because sometimes it looks like I'm making the smart decision for me. I'm having boundaries, you know, I'm just having healthy boundaries or I'm helping myself to not experience so much shame. No, that is shame, right?
Jessica: The feeling of I need to be isolated. I can't be near my family. I can't tell anybody at church, so I'm going to leave my church. I can't tell these friends, so I'm not going to hang out with them anymore. I'm going to skip out on girls' night. Like, whatever it is you're going like, well this is just so I don't experience their judgment and shame.
No, that is shame, that belief that you have to be distant and isolated and can't be around other people. That is shame and it's lying to you. It's saying it's trying to protect you and it's saying you're better off on your own and you're not. That's not God's promise for us. That's not the gospel. That's not freedom.
His freedom, the voice of grace and the voice of the gospel is one that calls into community and it calls into reconciliation. Whereas shame, isolates and divides and cuts, the gospel restores and yes, unites and reconciles. So, He promises us an abundant life and He also promises us freedom from shame. He doesn't shame us. There's no shame with Him.
Shelby: Yes, that's helpful to have you break that down, because I think probably not a lot of people who do wrestle with shame would probably be able to articulate it in those terms. They just know what they do and it kind of is a knee jerk reaction for how they want to protect themselves. That's super helpful to be able to break that down.
Now, I'm curious, have you in, in dealing with not only the addiction and your struggles, but also dealing with shame, have you asked yourself, “What am I really looking for? Or what's going on underneath the surface beneath a specific desire for pornography that I think many of us have, and why am I drawn to what I'm drawn to in a curious kind of way that wonders - what do I really want?” Have you asked yourself that question or do you even, do you think that's an offensive question to ask?
Jessica: I don't think it's offensive at all. I think it's a really good question. There's actually, I don't know if you've ever heard of Jay Stringer and his book Unwanted [subtitle: How Sexual Brokenness Reveals Our Way to Healing – FamilyLife Today podcast URL: familylife.com/podcast/guest/jay-stringer], but it's,
Shelby: I have yes.
Jessica: It's based on that premise of we get, in the church, we get so caught up with like, just stop the behavior. Just stop it, you know, just, just stop. It doesn't matter what led you there. It doesn't matter why you're doing it; you're doing it because it's sin and you're wrong and just stop it.
But it does matter why you're going there, because that can point to places in your life that need healing. What can happen for women and probably for men too, is that, okay, fine, we finally get the willpower to break free from pornography. But if we haven't healed those deeper things that might be driving us there, then we're just going to run to something else. We're going to run to self-harm. That's a big one, I think for women who struggle is, well now if I'm not going to pornography, then I'm just going to beat up on myself. I'm just going to cut myself or burn myself or eating disorders. Like we just will find other things to numb a pain because we're not focusing on healing that pain.
I think it's important that you address and figure out is there something that's driving this? Is there something that is behind it? And I think we get a little nervous because we don't want to blame it on something like, no, you're responsible for your actions and absolutely you are. But that also means you're responsible for getting healing to where it needs to be and understanding your own journey, and that it's different from the person next to you who might have the exact same struggle, but has a different motivation for it.
I love that book Unwanted, because it walks through that road in a very gracious way of like, yes, this is an unwanted behavior that you have and you're wanting to stop it. Where could this be coming from and how does the gospel intersect there? Not just like here where it gets you to stop what you're doing, but how do we get the abundant and healed and whole life that Jesus promises us?
It's not by cutting off all of the rotten fruit. It's by healing the soil and the tree and like it's by dealing with the roots of things and not just hacking fruit off of a tree and hoping that it is different next time. It's not going to be different next time until you do something about what's causing it.
Shelby: Yes, that's really good. At the end of your book you write a letter to those who don't struggle. So why would you include something like that in your book when it comes to talking about the struggle with pornography and sexual addiction?
Jessica: Yes. I wanted to, because I figured some people would pick up the book just out of curiosity. I wanted them to see that even if this isn't part of your struggle, you still can have an important part in someone else's story. So, you can be the voice of shame or you can be the voice of grace in somebody else's life where the odds are you do know a woman who struggles like statistically. If you know women, you know a woman who struggles with this.
Shelby: Yes, yes, yes
Jessica: I just wanted people to understand that you can still have an important part to play. You get to be an ambassador of Jesus. You get to be that voice of grace and reconciliation, or you can be the voice that backs up the lies of shame and says, “Forget you I'm not going to have anything to do with you now because I don't want anything to do with a woman who has this struggle.”
Just the importance of knowing you can also help, and you can also be a voice of grace and you can also mentor and disciple. These women and help them find freedom. You can have a part of their story too. You don't have to know the struggle to know how to get them to Jesus.
Shelby: That's great.
I loved when Jessica said, “It's not about cutting off the rotten fruit. It's about healing the soil and the tree. It's about dealing with the roots of things.” Gosh, applying the gospel to the deepest areas of our hurts and struggles is where we start to see real change. I loved my time with Jessica Harris.
If you want to pick up a copy of her book, I'd totally recommend it. It's called Quenched [subtitle: Discovering God's Abundant Grace for Women Struggling with Pornography and Sexual Shame].
And if you like this episode of Real Life Loading with Jessica or thought it was helpful, I'd love for you to share today's podcast with a friend. And wherever you get your podcast, it could really advance what we're doing with Real Life Loading, if you go ahead and rate and review us. It's certainly easy to find us on our social channels. Just search for Real Life Loading or look for our link tree in the show notes.
I want to thank everyone who's on the Real Life Loading team, Josh, Kaytlynn, Jarrett, and Chloe. I'm Shelby Abbott. I'll see you back next time on Real Life Loading.
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