Perhaps the most difficult negative consequence of porn to “see” is the toll that it can take on our self-esteem. Your self-esteem has to do with your self-respect and integrity, and how good you feel about your ac­tions and relationships with others. If you find yourself thinking “I don’t know who I am anymore,” “I hate myself,” or “I’ve become a hypocrite,” your self-esteem is in jeopardy. As one man said, “I just don’t like who I’ve become. I’m a liar and a cheat. And my relationship with porn has become the vortex of my self-hatred.”

Whenever we experience a difficult life problem as a result of porn use, such as an upset partner, a sexual problem, or poor job performance, it’s normal for our self-esteem to plummet. Injuries to self-esteem are like football injuries. We shake them off the first several times, but eventually they add up and we can’t even get up off the field.

It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you’re plagued by shame, fear, and a constant need to hide part of your life from those around you. Nick explained it like this: “I felt very guilty on the one hand but also very justified in using porn on the other. And, I figured ‘I’m a piece of shit anyway—I might as well prove it.’ I was caught in a never-ending cycle of shame, and I couldn’t find the strength to pull myself out of it.”

For Brad, his low self-esteem catalyzed many angry fights with his wife, Paula. “I had lots of shame and anger in my heart,” he said. “I’d project it on to her and she’d get mad. I felt guilty all the time because I was doing something I knew I shouldn’t do and didn’t want to be doing. The character I had was not the character I wanted, and I was mad at myself for not living up to the expectations I had for myself and the person I wanted to be.”

One significant way porn damages self-image is that it is contrary to the moral and religious values of many users. For example, more than 50 percent of Promise Keepers, a Christian evangelical group dedicated to uniting men to become “godly influences” in their families and in the world, report having a problem with pornography. It doesn’t feel good to present yourself as a moral authority when you are engaged in activities that go against your values and moral code. As one man said, “Pornog­raphy relegated me to being a spectator in the church. The secret life I kept and the shame I felt neutralized my power as a role model and took me out.”

Rob spoke of how demoralized he felt when he was faced with the in­congruity between who he thought he was and the reality of his behavior. In a remorseful voice he said, “My wife went out shopping with our kids. I said I had work to do, but instead I spent the afternoon online looking at some pretty intense hard-core. I heard her pull up in the driveway and I got up to go help her unload the groceries. Well, I forgot to disconnect the computer.

“Our daughter walked in there and saw this image on the screen and yelled, ‘Mom!’ My wife went down there and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ I felt so ashamed and humiliated. But I lied to my wife and said it was some stuff that popped up when I was on the Internet. I didn’t want her to be­lieve that I would be out there searching for that stuff. I didn’t want her to think of me as that person, somebody who would do that. It was devastat­ing—devastating to her, devastating to my daughter, devastating to me. I thought of myself as rigorously honest about so many things in my life, and then I had this porn thing going on over here, in this other world.

“At that moment, a door had opened up into my secret life. My wife was going, ‘Okay, who is this guy? Who is he?’ Ironically, just a few days before this happened, I remember my wife telling her mother that I was the most honest person she knew. I thought, Oh my God, I am actually the biggest piece of shit you know.

Feelings of low self-esteem can also be fueled by the fact that on some level most porn users realize that porn is exploitive and degrading to others, especially women, children, and people of color. One man said, “I know that people are exploited in the making of porn films. Some­times I can actually see and feel the exploitation in the movies. I see it in the women’s eyes and faces. Boy is that a killer—watching a movie and knowing something wasn’t right there.”

Porn users who are into particular types of pornography, such as porn depicting molestation, rape, bodily injury, sex with children, and sex with animals, often suffer from tremendous feelings of guilt and shame. These feelings make it difficult to be genuine with others, have inner peace, and a good sense of self-worth. Len was drawn to reading stories of parents who sexually abused their own children. He told us, “Sometimes I feel morally deficient and not up to the same standards as the average person. What kind of person am I, given that I find pleasure from things that most people find unacceptable?”

When porn leads someone to develop an interest in abusive and criminal sexual behavior, the damage to self-esteem and self-worth can be severe. One man shook with tears telling us porn had turned him into a “pervert” and “a visual rapist.”