Can I get over what happened in my boyfriend's past?
August 20, 2007 12:38 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend dropped a bomb about his past. What do I do now?

My boyfriend of two years recently admitted to me that when he was younger he used to look at child porn.

I have no idea what to do. I feel sick, ashamed, guilty at all of this not only because of his actions in the past but because part of me still wants to be with him and make it work.

I’m so conflicted and feel sickened at the idea of even entertaining working things through with him.

When he was aged 17 to 21 among his other ‘normal’ porn habits, he’d also check out pictures of girls (usually no actually activity involved) around the age of 10 and up. This went on for four years and was years before I met him. Following an existential crisis he came to his senses and withdrew completely from that aspect of pornography.

I asked him if he was attracted to girls of that age now and he says he’s disgusted by it and that even back then seeing girls of that age in the street meant nothing to him. They were not complete yet, as it were. He enjoyed the illicit rush of searching for the pictures but he doesn’t deny that he must have been somewhat attracted to them to continue looking at that kind of pornography for four years.

I’m the only person he’s ever admitted this to after I let him know that if he had ever had any kind of fetish that he was keeping from me that it was okay to tell me. I believed I could handle it but I guess I never thought it would be this.

He says he understands completely that I would want nothing to do with him but at the same time would be willing to do absolutely anything to show me somehow that he’s okay now and that that was just a shameful period in his life. We’ve already discussed counseling and therapy for him alone and for us together soon but I still don’t know what I want.

I love this man, he has been the most amazing, caring, sensitive guy in the world. He has his flaws like everyone else but he has supported me through my darkest days and we work so well on every level. We communicate all the time, we talk constantly and we’ve never kept anything from each other and this was something he was planning to die without ever mentioning to anyone else. Then I asked the question and he felt he was doing a disservice to me for telling the truth.

Am I crazy to even contemplate continuing my life with this man? He used to look at child porn for fuck’s sake! Is there anything worse? I don’t even know. He swears to me that he would never have or ever could have done anything in real life, it was the separation through the virtual world that continued his ignorance.

What should I do? Am I crazy for thinking that maybe we can work through this? If it was something that was still ongoing I would have left instantly but the situation seems different now. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Any advice would be appreaciated. If you’d wish to remain anonymous (and I’d understand why) please mail me at

I also want to clarify something. For six months it was pictures of girls and the rest of the time it was Japanese manga stuff, lolicon? Which to me makes a bit of a difference as within lolicon there's no child being exploited or hurt. That doesn't change that for a period of time he was still looking at child porn, though. Apparently he found somthing attractive in how repulsive it was.

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Am I crazy to even contemplate continuing my life with this man?

No. Young people do all sorts of stupid shit. Keep in mind he didn't abuse them and he admitted it to you. That's not a sign of some sick, perverted mind per se.

Is there anything worse?

Actual sexual abuse would be much, much, MUCH worse.

What should I do?
Talk about it with him, maybe do a bit of counseling together to see if it's something he has gotten over and something you can get over. It would be poor if this wonderful relationship ended over something stupid he did a while ago and now regrets.

There are much worse things he could have done. Keep in mind he hasn't hurt anyone.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:03 AM on August 20, 2007

do you believe him when he says he doesn't look at it any more and doesn't have any child predator feelings? if you do, then let it go already.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:07 AM on August 20, 2007

Is there anything worse?

There's PLENTY worse. Much, much worse.

I'm quite sure you're gonna get a lot of DTMFA advice, so I thought I'd chime in early with something non-hysterical. And true, I believe.
posted by tristeza at 6:07 AM on August 20, 2007

Apparently he found somthing attractive in how repulsive it was.

This stuck out for me. It sounds, IMHO, like he didn't get off on the fact they were underage, or fantasize about any prurient activity. It sounds like more of a fleeting sick fascination, the same reason some people will watch the sick shit or Stile but never contemplate undertaking anything similar in real life. More of a "holy crap, I can't believe they do that."

I think you'll be just fine. He was 17-21, a time when many people explore their sexuality and all that entails. It seems more like (albeit misguided) curiousity than anything else to me. And apparently he felt badly enough about it to not tell anyone, until now.

And he told you, which I believe is a tremendous testament to the amount of faith and love he feels toward you.

So, if you're asking if HE'S worth it, I would say definitely. I think the real, more difficult question, which is one only you can answer, is can you deal with it? Seems like your boyfriend has certainly moved on, to the point where he can admit his mistake to you in trust. Are you ready to accept this past shortcoming and love the man he is now, or are you unable to move past the man (practically boy) he was then?
posted by tr33hggr at 6:29 AM on August 20, 2007

When I was 5, I had a crush on another 5 year old. Does that make ME a pedophile?

When I was 18, I had sex with my 17 year old girlfriend. Does that make me a pedophile?

The emerging sexuality of a child is a vast, undefined, perplexing, odd territory that NO ONE guides you through. Are you suggesting that any prospective boyfriend of yours must have led a perfect childhood?

The law makes a distinction between thought and action. For adolescents, the rules recognize that they lack judgment and the law cuts them a lot of slack. Adulthood doesn't magincally arrive at 18 for a lot of people, and BF may have solidified into a stable adult at 21.. maybe later.

Your hysteria is the same crap that is fueling an epidemic of unfounded accusation in this country, IMO, and is a lot more harmful to society that the honest admissions of your boyfriend. I have been witness to two completely false accusations of improper sexual behavior that nearly ruined two lives. One, thankfully, I was in a position to squash flat as a member of a grand jury convened to persecute an innocent teacher. Another, more recent, was aimed at a local handicapped man falsely accused of stalking. This case resulted in broken bones in his face, courtesy of the local police. In court, the charges were proven false.

Do YOU want to be on the team that approaches these situations rationally, or do you want to be on the team that stones the witches? It's time for YOU to be an adult, and find out what the real story is and act appropriately. Honest admissions of inappropriate juvenile and young adult behavior rise to the level of worthwhile honesty, not condemning guilt. Hone your discerning skills.

Your boyfreind, poor man, did not drop a bomb... he set off a firecracker you seem to insist was a nuclear weapon. Hone your discerning skills.
posted by FauxScot at 6:34 AM on August 20, 2007 [11 favorites]

Let me start by not saying that I think he is likely to offend or that he's guilty or horrible. How the hell would I know?

But you - are you going to be able to let this go? Are you going to be watching him when he's with your nieces and nephews, just checking to make sure, look, see, no inappropriate touching. Are you going to be able to walk past a school with him and not carefully watch to see what he's looking at? Are you going to be able to forget it when he holds your daughter in his arms for the first time? Living like that for both of you would be really unpleasant.

I think you need more help on this than the internet people can give you.
posted by b33j at 7:00 AM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

You are over reacting. It's no big deal.
posted by BeaverTerror at 7:05 AM on August 20, 2007

Adolescents tend to do stupid, illegal shit; the don't do stupid, illegal shit part of the brain often doesn't fully develop until well into adulthood... which is why some idiots will actually jump off a bridge if their friends dare them to.

Your BF has to have realized that there was a non-negligible risk in telling anyone of this prior failing; that he chose you, of all people, actually bodes rather well for the relationship provided you can deal with the information... and (this is the ironic part) put it behind you.
posted by The Confessor at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I feel sick, ashamed, guilty at all of this not only because of his actions in the past but because part of me still wants to be with him and make it work.

I can empathize with your feelings. For all of the time that you've known him, "he has been the most amazing, caring, sensitive guy in the world", and it was exactly these traits what must have driven him to detest what he was
doing. This revelation is such a shock, it isn't any wonder you feel the way you do.

But imagine the guilt he had to feel, as a genuinely caring person!

I might vest an exponentially greater amount of pride in a person who had succumb to what he did, and then convinced himself of how wrong it was. His sensitivity and caring drove this out of him. It wasn't public shame (though he was prepared to die with this secret) nor legal trouble that drove this behavior from your boyfriend!

I’m the only person he’s ever admitted this to after I let him know that if he had ever had any kind of fetish that he was keeping from me that it was okay to tell me.

On top of everything, he sounds courageous! If you love him, reciprocate his nobility and honesty with yours. Let it be, in fact, okay.

He says he understands completely that I would want nothing to do with him but at the same time would be willing to do absolutely anything to show me somehow that he’s okay now and that that was just a shameful period in his life.

Shame and willingness to utterly assure you that he is beyond this. You said you want to make it work, and so does he. I'm not sure what stands between two people that love each other and equally want to fix their problem!

FauxScott makes some good points. The knee-jerk reactions that are commonplace in this sector of taboo can be utterly dangerous. Some seem so quick to sympathize with a victim that they never quite make it to identifying the actual victim.

Participating in therapy together and separately is probably a great idea. You might need a little help moving past your disgust, and he might need a little help in dealing with his own shame and guilt. Both of these might pose a serious threat to your togetherness if you're willing to let it. But if to be together is what you want, you don't need to let it!
posted by ifthe21stcentury at 7:08 AM on August 20, 2007

Oh, man. I didn't want to be the downer in this thread. I think everyone else has good points -- it's true that this may not have been a big deal. It's true that there's a lot of hysteria about this topic in the media today. But I don't want you to walk away from this thread with an easy excuse to ignore the issue.

I have no idea what's up with your boyfriend. If what he said he did is all that he did -- then perhaps you can find a way to work through it. Please note: you're not required to work through it -- if you can't, you can't, and no amount of right-thinking is going to make it work for you. But, keep in mind:

- 4 years is not a short time.
- If he had some pedophile leanings, and he felt guilty enough to want to confess to you, he'd probably do it this way -- downplaying it so that he could judge what your reaction would be. Sort of like coming out of the closet, right?

Again, I don't know your boyfriend and I don't know what the truth is. You're going to have to make the call, and you're going to have to trust your own intuition. And that's hard, because the easiest thing to do in this situation would be to ignore it -- because you love him, and because you're invested in the relationship.

Please don't let yourself be blinded by your love. Let go of naivete, innocence, and rose-colored glasses. Put aside any obligations you feel that you have to him. Look at him with clear eyes. Is he telling you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Again, I don't mean to say that he's not telling the truth -- I really don't know. But it's the only important question. It doesn't matter if he really loves you, or if you love him, or if he's been a wonderful guy, or anything. The only question that matters here: Is he telling you the truth?

It's a difficult question to answer, but it's pretty freaking important. Don't let this go until you have reached some clarity on it. It may take a while.
posted by ourobouros at 7:33 AM on August 20, 2007

I don't think you're over reacting, and IT IS a big deal. I'd feel the same way you do.

Now, it seems he is in fact over it, regrets it and realizes how disgusting it was, and, most importantly, he has his feelings figured out and knows why he did it, and that he is not a pedophile and would never actually engage or get off on child sexual abuse.

That said, and if you really want to pursue this relationship, then you need counseling, because as I see it the only problem that remains, or actually exists right now, is your not being able to cope with it.

You're not doing a bad thing by trying to work it out. Yes, it's all horrible, but it IS in the past and no real harm was ever done. Look for help in therapy, once you're able to figure all your feelings out and learn how to let them go, you'll both be ok.
posted by AnyGuelmann at 7:37 AM on August 20, 2007

Let me just stress a point, to complete my previous answer: it's absolutely imperative that you find a way to be completely sure about his regrets, and that he would never be capable of doing it again or letting it escalate, and that this is not something he's just keeping under wraps. Not sure how you'd do that, but that is the main thing.
posted by AnyGuelmann at 7:40 AM on August 20, 2007

I’m the only person he’s ever admitted this to after I let him know that if he had ever had any kind of fetish that he was keeping from me that it was okay to tell me. I believed I could handle it but I guess I never thought it would be this.

What, exactly, were you expecting? A foot fetish? S&M? Peanut butter? When he was at an age where he may or may not have been that sexually active, but was probably still defining his own sexuality and roles, and he did something he now regrets. Not only that, he admittedly did it because of the transgressive nature, not because of an inherent draw. Imagine that his current sexuality is defined by an absence of child erotica.

Do you think that his current life, or his current sexuality, have been shaped in any way by this? I personally kind of doubt it, unless there are details you haven't shared. He had the honesty to mention this, and was probably hoping for some long-awaited absolution: if you had said "Wow, that's kind of bad, I'm glad you moved past that!" he would have had a shame he's apparently carried around be alleviated. Coming clean and dealing with the consequences is his therapy.
posted by mikeh at 7:43 AM on August 20, 2007

You asked about your boyfriend's past.

I'll answer by posing some questions about the present and future.

The present:

Are you sure that he's stopped looking at images of children? Have you had a chance to look at his browser history?

The future:

If you ever had children with this man, would you ever be able to feel comfortable leaving him alone with them? And if something did happen, would you ever be able to forgive yourself?
posted by jason's_planet at 7:51 AM on August 20, 2007

While I agree with most of the responses above -- i.e., in all likelihood this is nothing to worry about, it was brave of him to tell you, etc. -- I did find this a little odd:

I’m the only person he’s ever admitted this to after I let him know that if he had ever had any kind of fetish that he was keeping from me that it was okay to tell me.

Had I been asked that question, I would have interpreted it as: "Do you currently have any fetishes that you have not told me about because you're worried about my reaction?" I would not have interpreted that as an invitation to tell you about past fetishes that I no longer have, or am currently repulsed by. In other words, is there a chance that he still has these feelings and saw this as an opportunity to float a "trial balloon" and gauge your reaction? Again, my answer based on what you've said is, "probably not," and that he just saw this as an opportunity to share something personal that he feels badly about, but I don't think things are as cut-and-dried as some of these people who don't know you or your boyfriend are trying to make them out to be.
posted by pardonyou? at 8:08 AM on August 20, 2007

I'm going to doubt that he would ever tell you in the first place if he were still into this kind of thing. Regardless of your saying it was ok to tell secrets.

The thing that bugs me about this whole story is: you tricked him. You lied, though maybe not intentionally. You made it seem ok to tell you, then freaked out.

I'd be surprised if he trusted you to tell you anything he was ashamed of again for a long time. That's not good for a marriage/long-term relationship.

It sounds like he has dealt with it. Is over it. He doesn't appear to need counseling alone - you appear to need counseling alone about how you are going to deal with it (or not). If he's willing to go with you, even better.

To answer the question: it's possible to get over it. You may or may not need to go to counseling. If though, your attraction to the guy is gone now, if you can't help thinking of that and feeling revulsion when you're with him (long term, obviously right now it's on your mind), the relationship will not work and it's pointless to pretend. And he's probably already learned that when you say it's ok, not to believe you. So you've got that going for you, counseling or not.
posted by ctmf at 8:24 AM on August 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

The question isn't whether or not he's a bad person, it's how you're going to feel later on if you two have kids. If you feel conflicted, I think it's better to get out now. Maybe the next girl he won't admit it too, or something.
posted by delmoi at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2007

Wow ctmf, I hope you're not right. I hope a person can create a safe space for their loved ones without implicitly accepting the use of child pornography! What if it hadn't been pornography four years ago, what if it were a 14 year old 'girlfriend' last year? Would you still accuse the op of 'lying'??

No one can *really* promise that nothing will change their feelings. Feelings just aren't under our control like that. To imply they are... sounds a bit creepy. The most you can promise is to handle the unexpected in a caring way, which I think the op is doing. I think this is understood between two adults who understand that unconditional love is for children, and even then, doesn't necessarily extend to unconditional relationships...
posted by Salamandrous at 9:01 AM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

So you asked your boyfriend to be completely open and honest with you, and he did, and now you want to dump him? Grow up.

He didn't cheat on you, he didn't betray your trust, he didn't kill a dude or rape someone, he looked at some weird porn. Gross, illegal, morally reprehensible porn, but if you have a problem with that then god help you, you will die single.

One of my friends once said that everyone is fucked up beyond comprehension. Him, me, your boyfriend, you. I'm sure there are dozens of things you could tell him about your innermost thoughts that would send him running faster than a vagina with teeth, but you're not going to. Nobody is perfect, relax. Your boyfriend is (probably) not a pedophile, and you are definitely overreacting.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:06 AM on August 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

That was not, by the way, an endorsement of child porn.

Gorilla porn, maybe.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:09 AM on August 20, 2007

You're overreacting.
posted by awesomebrad at 9:12 AM on August 20, 2007

On the other hand, while viewing child pornography is very different from actively participating in abuse, it is contributing to the existence of an industry that exploits and harms young girls.

This isn't true. Buying child pornography contributes to the industry. Simply downloading free pictures doesn't contribute to anything except someone's bandwidth bills.

Assuming this was on the net, do be aware that things are different than before. In 198x, he'd have had to actively seek the stuff out in a long, involved enough process that it might imply some serious desire on his part. But with the net, the weirdest shit in the world is clicks away, so it's easier to indulge in things that you don't really care about very much.

Is there anything worse?

Things worse, at least as long-term prospects go, include but are not limited to:

*Hitting you
*Hitting other women
*A violent temper
*Actual child abuse
*A history of animal abuse
*Date rape, if you think of that as different
*Global thermonuclear war
*Being a tweaker, crackhead, or having some other nasty drug habit
*Stealing from you
*Cheating on you
*Cheating on past girlfriends
*Radical mishandling of money
*Financial fraud
*Paranoid schizophrenia
*Borderline personality disorder
*Untreated or undertreated bipolar disorder
*Untreated major depression
*Being a furry
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:35 AM on August 20, 2007

I can understand your ambivalence. There's nothing wrong with feeling shocked and repulsed. And you're not a bad person for considering staying with him. I think that if you can accept that all your feelings about the revelation are okay to have, you'll be better able to sort things out. Also, you don't have to settle it today. You can give it some time. If your boyfriend is truly disgusted by his youthful porn choices, he'd be the last person to fault you for having doubts.
posted by wryly at 10:29 AM on August 20, 2007

Again, to join the pile on. I believe it is normal to have "taboo" fantasies, particulary in the teen, late-teen phase while your sexuality is developing. As an Irish catholic woman I had a taboo fantasy that really had me going at this stage even though in real life I wouldn't have dreamed of anything like it.

IT is FANTASY. Fantasy has a very specific function in our sexuality which may, or may not be related to how we actually behave in the real world.

If you have seen no sign that this actually turns him on in practise, let it go already.
If however, you are a pre-pubescent looking adult woman, think twice.
posted by Wilder at 10:45 AM on August 20, 2007

There's a huge difference between looking or thinking about something, and actually DOING it. You're overreacting.
posted by Meagan at 11:24 AM on August 20, 2007

You know him better than we do. From my experience with people with an actual problem, they like to test people. Usually, it is: I was molested as a child (which is probably true), see how you take it, whether you express pity, shock, or bonding. Then they would talk about how they "acted out."

One thing he may have been doing is preparing you for a worse secret. It is unusual for someone to jump straight to their worst secret (unusual, but not never). Of course, you know whether this is a jump from previous things you were told. You might want to run his name through the Dru Sjodin site.

I also agree with the above, that it might not be that significant. There are a lot of people who do things temporarily when they are younger and then it goes into the past.

Which gets to the dilemma: how do you know? The pedophile wears a mask and is usually good at it, knowing the consequences of revealing himself. The innocent person will look the same.

The first matter is: if this is all there is to it, can you live with it? The fact that you are asking here suggests you can.

The second matter is: can you live with the suspicion that it could be something more?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:29 AM on August 20, 2007

All the comments telling you that you need to 'know' and be 'positive' that this is not a current fixation are unrealistic. You will never have this issue completely resolved. For most people the question simply never comes up and so it doesn't prey on their mind. You can't get that back and there is no way to eliminate the doubt. What it comes down to is, how comfortable are you with uncertainty? If your best guess is that he is worth staying with, will you be able to notice the nagging little questions and let them go? If you are wrong will you be able to forgive yourself because you know that you made the best choice you could with the available information and you stayed open to new information that would cause you to reevaluate?

If the associations overwhelm you, let it go. It's a difficult possibility to accept but I don't think it will ever go away. So, if you stay be realistic about your own mental environment and don't accuse yourself when suspicious thoughts arise and don't indulge yourself in them without new evidence. It's a fine line...
posted by BigSky at 11:56 AM on August 20, 2007

Ah, the demon rears his ugly head. Seeing as this is the witch-hunt du jour, I have to say I'm impressed by the amount of good advice given to the poster. But really, just to reiterate--your boyfriend took an awful big chance telling you something like this, probably knowing full well what the consequences could be. Much more than you did, by asking him to be honest with you, obviously. He probably knows that there is a distinct possibility that you won't be able to get over this. However, if you can, he's not going to give you up easy. If you still love him after this, then he better hold on to you, no? The question, therefore, is not whether you should stay with him. It is whether or not he can stay with you.

So take the advice of the of people with stones in their hands and drop him if you can't get over it. He would be better without you, too.

And while you're mulling it over, you might also want to think about all the things you haven't told him about you that you are ashamed of, and what he might think about them if you told him. Everyone has deep, dark secrets and fantasies, and as republicans everywhere are so good at demonstrating, it is the ones who demonize others for having them that usually have the most to hide.
posted by tjvis at 12:05 PM on August 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

One of two things could happen here. Either you could break up with him and the porn viewing will have happened, or you can stay with him and the porn viewing will have happened.

Either way it happened.

Not staying with him won't correct the past.
posted by santojulieta at 1:04 PM on August 20, 2007

I follow those who think the two of you can get past this, and that intimacy as deep as the two of you are attempting can be the foundation of a truly wonderful relationship-- but with one caveat: if you, anonymous, are exceptionally prepubescently girlish in face and form, you must find a way of being very, very sure of him in order to continue the relationship.
posted by jamjam at 1:22 PM on August 20, 2007

I once had a boyfriend divulge a secret to me: a confession of shameful, compulsive, exploitative and morally gruesome (if not actually illegal) sexual behaviour. I accepted him and remained non-judgemental; I was able to forgive the bad bevaviour because he suggested it was all in the past. It wasn't. Later, after the break-up, after the grief and deciphering of lies and (expensive!) therapy, I realised he had not been telling me about his past, not really. He'd been telling me about himself. And I should have listened.

I'm not saying this is the same (for starters, I generally make a point not to draw character inferences from people's internet habits), and generally, I'd like to think that people can confess their shameful secrets to their loved ones without fear of rejection. I'd like to believe in the restorative powers of honesty and forgiveness. But I also know from experience that we ignore our instincts at our peril - and there's nothing wrong with having non-trivial deal-breakers. If he's been the wonderful partner you say, then you may well choose to stay with him despite knowing this secret. But keep your eyes wide open and your wits about you. Decide what you won't forgive, and if the time comes, stick to it.

Good luck.
posted by hot soup girl at 2:11 PM on August 20, 2007

Not crazy to contemplate continuing.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:44 PM on August 20, 2007

Yeah he was young. But four years. FOUR YEARS. I think a passing fancy would have passed a wee bit faster...
posted by CwgrlUp at 8:02 PM on August 21, 2007

I'd be interested to see how Dan Savage would respond to this. Maybe you can email him this question?
posted by mjao at 3:09 PM on August 22, 2007

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