07.27.12

Jennie Ketcham Interview: Recovering From Sex Addiction

Memoirist Jennie Ketcham talks to Rachel Kramer Bussel about her past as pornography actress Penny Flame and how she was able to quit the business.

To escape the chaos of her divorced family and feelings of neglect, Jennie Ketcham started having sex as a teenager. The high she got from male attention led to posing nude and then building a career as award-winning porn star Penny Flame. Behind that persona, though, the real Jennie was hurting, lonely and self-medicating with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and she chronicles all of this in her memoir I Am Jennie and on her blog Becoming Jennie. Here, she tells about her sex-addiction-recovery process, surviving rape, and how she feels about the porn industry now.

Was there a specific moment during shooting Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew that it clicked for you that it was real and you embraced being a sex addict? How did you know that you had to quit porn as a result?

I don't know that I'll ever "embrace" being a sex addict. I think that's probably one of the most difficult things about addiction; I must reaffirm that I am an addict all the time. No matter how much I know it's true, there will come a day where I think, Well ... maybe not. The day I knew I had to quit porn was when we started talking about checking out of the Pasadena Recovery Center. I'd been ensconced in this wonderfully safe rehab bubble—no phone, no Internet, no rent, no closet filled with vibrators or talk of real life. Once we started discussing what we would need to do "on the outside" to stay sober, it was a little bit of a white light moment. I remember thinking, I don't know what I'm going to do, but I know I can't do porn anymore

Your recovery process for sex addiction included not masturbating, and making a masturbation trigger list. Why was that one of your rules?

It's about engaging in healthy sexual behaviors and learning how to love and exist in an intimate relationship with another human being. Because I used masturbation as a way to escape healthy, intimate relationships, it was important to take a break from it so I could work on my ability to be close to people. Like any addict, there are certain triggers that make a person want to use. It's the same with using masturbation to escape (or get "high"). Certain things make me want to disconnect. If I can identify these things, and learn how to deal with them constructively, my recovery will progress. If I can't, then I'll feel like I got hit by a truck every time one of them comes along. 

I Am Jennie by Jennie Ketcham
‘I Am Jennie’ by Jennie Ketcham. 352 pp. Gallery Books. $25. ()

How are the addictions you faced related to each other?

The disease of addiction is like a giant treasure chest of pirate's booty. You think all you have is gold doubloons, but once you take those out of the chest, there are a few rubies and maybe a necklace. Sometimes you dig deep and there are some super sparkly diamond rings too. But all that fancy distracting shit is in the same chest. At first, I cut the drinking and drugs out of my life entirely because I knew if I started drinking, it would be far too easy to say "just one more quick scene." A year and a half into it, I started drinking alcohol again because I didn't believe that alcohol was the primary problem. It turns out that it doesn't matter if there is a primary problem. What matters is that I'm suffering from the disease of addiction, and as long as I am taking things that have a physiological effect on my body and mind, I am cutting myself off from my feelings. I don't need any help shutting off or disconnecting from the people whom I love. So alcohol is out of the question again. Fortunately, drugs never came back into my life.   

You mention your damaged relationships with female friends, "choosing men and cock over them," as a byproduct of your sex addiction. How have you worked on changing that?

I've probably found the most healing from working on my ability to connect with women. In the beginning, I would actually pray each night that female friends would come into my life. Upon the suggestion of a mentor, I quit taking guys' numbers and would only put females' numbers in my phone. I started to make an effort to be emotionally available to the women I met at work, in 12-step meetings, yoga, etc.

Because I used masturbation as a way to escape healthy, intimate relationships, it was important to take a break from it so I could work on my ability to be close to people.

Along the same lines, what advice would you give someone whose partner (or potential partner) is struggling with or has struggled with being a sex addict?

If your partner is struggling with sex addiction, it's important to remember that there is nothing you have or haven't done that has caused it. There are resources available to you as well as him (or her). It's important for your own health to reach out for your own support. You need and deserve it. Just make sure you have a safety net. That goes for any addict, not just sex.   

What was the biggest challenge in shedding the Penny Flame persona and embracing Jennie as your identity?

Probably letting go of the idea that everyone knew me as Penny Flame. That turns out to be a crazy generalization. There are plenty of people in the world who have never encountered Penny or Jennie, thank goodness. It's insane for me to immediately assume that anyone I meet knows what I once did for a living, or that they will only be able to see me as Penny (although those people do exist). It's the same as thinking every person I run across knows what I ate for breakfast or the color of my underwear. That's all ego, thinking that Penny Flame was so superfamous that I'd never be able to escape her. 

Some people would say that all porn stars are sex addicts; how do you respond to that?

Some people would also like to say that all porn stars have been abused as children, raped, are drug addicts. Though I can't say I knew many sober or sexually "responsible" porn stars in my eight years of adult, I also can't say that they all use sex in the same way I did. I don't think it's safe to generalize about any industry or the people therein.

You write that some of your porn industry friends told you they wished they could quit too but were tied to porn financially. What advice would you have to someone in that situation?

I would say the same to anyone who wishes to make life changes that involve financial and emotional risk: You can do anything you want if you are prepared to do whatever it takes. I was fortunate enough to have a little nest egg, but my first paycheck back in the real world was totally shocking. I would suggest reaching out to other people who have left for guidance (we are fairly easy to find), building the necessary network of familial/therapeutic/group support, and making verbal and public commitments to quitting. I found the more public I was about leaving the industry, the more unlikely it became that I would return. I guess there's one good thing about my giant ego—it wouldn't permit me to go back once I said I was gone. 

I was impressed that you don’t show disdain for the entire porn industry, even though you distanced yourself from it and most of the people in it. How do you feel about the industry as a whole, and are you in touch with people from your porn days? Do you feel the porn industry is too easy of a lure for people who are sex addicts?

I am kind of ambivalent about the industry as a whole. It was my entire life for nearly one third of my life, and I was prepared to spend the remainder of my existence filming and being filmed in pornography. I don't think the porn industry is too easy of a lure for people who are sex addicts because for a sex addict, it could be obsessing over a girl at a coffee shop, strip clubs, beaches, a guy who smiled two seconds longer than you expected. I do, however, think that porn is too easy of an answer for women and men who are desperate for the trifecta combo of money, attention, and love—even if the money received feels dirty, the attention, unhealthy and the love, contrived. I wish there were some handout they gave you that listed all the emotional issues you may come up against as a result of selling sex for money, and maybe a little pill that you could take right when you begin your porn career that would help you stay in touch with reality. But by the time people are ready to quit, most are so tired and wounded (or confused or numb or high or dead) it's nearly impossible to talk about it.

You're starting a nonprofit organization called Surviving Rape. Can you tell us more about how it will work and why this was so important for you?

If you are a person with any sort of sexual history, finding emotional healing after being raped is sort of a hat trick. You can't really take a person to court unless you are willing to have your history put on the stand (mine, fortunately, is Google-able). And even then, some people don't find healing in putting their rapist in jail. It was important for me to address the lack of healing solutions available to rape victims because as a rape victim who can never send her perpetrators to jail, I understand just how difficult that healing process is. I had been working on Surviving Rape for two months before it became glaringly obvious that I'd opened a pack of Big League Chew that had way more gum in it than I could handle. I received a ton of emails detailing attacks, and after reading about 15, I knew that being a rape counselor or having a primary purpose of helping rape victims work through the trauma would require more boundaries than I am capable of maintaining. Things may change, with years and training, but as it stands now, the project and nonprofit is on an indefinite hold. It's more than I know how to deal with, and I don't want to cause any more damage to those victims in need of help.

What is your relationship like with your parents today?

If someone would have asked me three and a half years ago what my relationship was like with my parents, I would have said that my mom is my best friend and my dad is some guy I used to know. Now, my mom is my mom and my dad is my dad. I am blessed enough to say that, today, I have the relationship with both parents that I have wanted since childhood.  

You're currently in a stable live-in relationship. How is this one different from past relationships?

We do this thing that my therapist Jill calls "communication." Basically, when I'm upset, I find a productive and constructive way to share my feelings, instead of hiding under the covers. And he does the same with me. I used to say, "Oh, yeah, I'm fine. Sure. Fine." Then I would pack my things in the middle of the night after feeding my ex-men coma-inducing pot brownies, sneak down the stairs and change my phone number on the drive to a new home. So I don't do that anymore. I am faithful to and honest with my man now because what we have is an authentic and intimate relationship, something I value and have worked hard to be a part of. I think the biggest change, though, has come in letting him be there for me.