Pornography and Attachment This Emotional Life - PBS

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Attachment / Blog

    Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

Pornography and Attachment


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Here is a glimpse into my dissertation research, which explores the vicissitudes of the mother-daughter attachment relationship through the lens of women who work in the sex industry. This excerpt highlights the complexities of early childhood mother-daughter attachment dynamics and subsequent feelings about body and relatedness/disconnection. As noted in my first blog post, the earliest moments of attachment and bonding between caregiver and infant inform the future relational landscape. Our first relationships invariably impact future choices in connection- friendships, lovers, and long-term partnerships. Here is a snippet from the 20 interviews that took place with women who work as actors in pornography. The interviews were up to two hours in length and explored a variety of dynamics centered around the mother-daughter relationship and early childhood attachment.

The names were chosen by each interviewee to represent themselves in this piece of writing. These are not their real or stage names.

There is lonesomeness inherent in the development of requisite vigilance and premature wisdom for young women who did not have the luxury of maternal constancy. Muddled attachments were ubiquitous themes in the interviews, depicted in a variety of distinctive and often paradoxical ways, ranging from reflections on the mother-daughter attachment dynamic to friendships to the discourse on love with regard to romantic partnerships. For example, Mackenzie stated:

I’ve never really been close like to anyone to the point where I had someone to talk to about whatever was on my mind or I did have people to talk to, but I didn’t want to. I’m the type of person that just keeps everything in, and I think it just builds up over time and stress just caused it to explode and, you know, I didn’t know what else to do.

Mackenzie portrayed marked ambivalence in wanting and not wanting to be close to others, a contrapuntal reflection on relational intimacy and care. So much unfiltered emotional residue has been housed inside of her body due to years upon years of stuffing and holding feelings with no steady maternal receiver, resulting in a frightening fantasy that she may actually “explode.” Thinking about the current state of the mother-daughter dynamic, Mackenzie reflected:

Yeah. Yeah. We’ve become very close. At least that’s what I think. I mean I can talk to her about anything and I do. But as I was saying before, I believe she has the same thing that runs in the family, but she doesn’t want to admit it. She won’t see a doctor and she’s always depressed and she doesn’t really talk to me about things. She’s kind of like what I said earlier how I am, I just hold things in. That’s like what she does. She’s like the only person that I can talk to though.

Here again Mackenzie struggles to cherish and relish that which she does feel she receives from her mother, thereby constructing emotional meaning and connectedness within this seemingly tenuous relationship. From this depiction, it seems she is in a veritable quandary around relational fragility and parsimoniousness.

Sigal, age 50, described a resonant experience which occurred just after her birth, in which she recalls simultaneous maternal handling and recoiling. Yes, she held me a lot. She held me a lot. I also remember when she pushed me away. I remember it very vividly when I – I don’t know how old I was maybe two years old. She didn’t breastfeed me, but she would hold me when she fed me. And – and I loved her breasts and I would cling at them.

Here Sigal hints at abounding “clinginess” and the desire to practically burrow into her mother’s non-lactating bosom. The 20 participating women revealed an ambiguous conflation of closeness with clinginess and misattunement in the context of early mother-daughter interactions. Sigal seemingly longs for metaphorical maternal oneness, whereas Sullivan, age 43, daydreamed about disappearing from maternal fragmentation through dissociation. “I used to think that, I used to pretend that my life was a soap opera and that I had like this evil woman who wasn’t really my mother, who hated me; that I lived in her house and so I pretended it all wasn’t real. Because she’s just a – she’s a sick person.” Sullivan spoke with disdain about the ever-present relational neglect predicated by her mother during childhood. “I don’t ever recall one hug, one hand-hold, one kiss, anything… My mother taught me how to love by not loving… She’s not my mother. She gave birth. That does not make you a parent or a mother.” Here Sullivan wrestles with the attachment complexities that were very much alive in her girlhood, resulting in a sense of maternal lovelessness.

Madison, age 54, like Sullivan described having grappled with a deserted mother-daughter dynamic throughout childhood. Furthermore, Madison recalled enduring multiple shaming experiences in which her maternal attachment relationship became that much more perplexing, robbing her of a sense of cultivated confidence or competence.

And I was never close to my mother. And I remember a particular instance when – well, she would come to the school things. I was in all the plays in school when I was younger, and she would come to see me. But she would always tell me that I was a show off. You know, I never got the pats on the back from Mom or Dad. And nobody ever said they loved you.

Ava, age 48, similarly reported a constant buzz of discouraging sentiments spouted by her mother, obliterating hope and maternal trust. “My mother’s mantra was kinda you’ll fuck it, you know, you’ll fuck it [referring to life in general] up. That was my mom’s mantra.”

Correspondingly, Emiko, age 21, reflected on her early connection with her mother in a way that highlighted just how bleak it was, evidenced by naming it “the worst.” “We [referring to mother] had such a love-hate relationship. We had the worst love-hate relationship ever.” More explanation as to the particulars of the dynamic revealed Emiko’s struggles growing up in an abusive maternal environment. “I felt that she hated me. Like she’s [mother] very – she was physically abusive at one point. But then I – right now, I mean, I look back and I think it’s because, you know, she was also hit as a child. Like her mom, one time, pushed her down the stairs.”

Intimacy and loving relationships become something to be feared or fled from when early attachments are formed within a relational matrix of commotion and distrust. Mackenzie tentatively made connections between her blurred relational lens and how it impacts her feelings about being close to people as an adult.

I’m too busy and I have problems getting close to somebody. I’m not a very intimate person. I don’t like public – like if I’m out with someone, I don’t want to hold hands or kiss in front of people. Like I’ll have sex in front of a hundred people, but like someone that I care about – I don’t know. See this is why I tell you I have issues (Laughter).

Imprints of early attachment experiences, according to the illustrative examples interwoven above, have long-lasting effects which deserve exploration in an attempt to better understand identity development, embodiment, and subsequent sexual choices.