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Pornography is more abundant and accessible than ever before. So it probably isn't surprising that it appears to be having a greater impact on romantic relationships.
This week, the Sugars begin a two-part series on the topic. Part 1 focuses on some basic questions about porn — is it wrong to use it? Why do people turn to porn? Is there such a thing as "healthy" porn use in a relationship?
They discuss with the help of sex therapist Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography.
Is it bad to masturbate to online porn? I am a happily married man in my mid-50s, and have been married for 15 years to a wonderful woman. We have a satisfying sex life, having sex approximately once every week.
However, I go online to masturbate to porn about three times a week. I work from home and find that I become sexually turned on during the working day. I look at masturbation as a healthy release. Viewing online porn allows me to accomplish the "task" more quickly and get back to work.
That other purveyor of personal wisdom, Dr. Phil, advises that watching porn is an immoral betrayal of a marital partner and advises us that the women in porn videos are likely to have been abused as children and are being exploited. I have a teenage daughter and avoid videos of young girls, preferring age appropriate subjects in the so-called "mature" category. I also avoid watching porn up to 24 hours before I am likely to have a date with my wife in order to be able to enjoy and contribute to our sex together.
My wife knows that I look at porn. While we don't discuss it, she doesn't feel that it is a betrayal of her. I look at viewing porn as an extension of masturbation, which I believe is healthy and a necessary release, one that is as private as going to the bathroom. If not for porn, I would still masturbate. I doubt Dr. Phil believes that masturbation is immoral. Is masturbating while fantasizing about someone beside my wife immoral? Assuming that online porn is the problem, is it possible that you can make distinctions?
I know that many of the women on porn sites are probably psychologically damaged in some way, and that the pornography industry may be contributing to that damage. On the other hand, is it possible that accepting money for video sex is not always exploitative? Is it possible that some of the women who perform in online sex videos do it out of a healthy appreciation of sex?
Troubled by Porn
Steve Almond: I could have written this letter, and I felt a great sense of sympathy for this guy who’s trying to figure out the same questions I struggle with when I bother to even struggle with them: “Am I complicit in something that is very clearly against my moral code? In what ways? And what are my other alternatives?” I think he is in a productive state of bewilderment, and I think most of the men of conscience in the culture who consume porn in one way or another are either suppressing this set of questions or are struggling with them. The porn industry is like football or like meat or like fossil fuels – it’s essentially exploitative. But because I have a libido that operates differently than my wife’s, I get horny and I want relief. I lament that I no longer sit there and do the imaginative work of masturbating without porn. There are a lot of people who aren’t even grappling with the ways in which pornography is an ethical concern because, frankly, people don’t want porn served with a side dish of ethics.
Wendy Maltz, sex therapist and co-author of “The Porn Trap:” I have a lot of respect for the man who wrote this letter. He’s really thinking about his relationship to porn and trying to figure it out. He doesn’t have the secrecy and shame element going on that a lot of people have with porn. But there’s something happening — he’s starting to question it. I can’t say if his porn use in particular is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s so personal. People have to figure out for themselves, “What does porn mean to me? What is it doing to me? Where’s it taking me?”
Cheryl Strayed: What do you mean when you say “Where is it taking me?” Do you mean to suggest that, in some ways, his porn use could be robbing his marriage of a sort of intimacy that it might have if he didn’t use it?
Wendy: Porn is a very powerful product. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. There’s a conditioning process associated with porn. It can become a stronger habit. Our sexual arousal response gets patterned to particular cues, and those cues can be the images in porn or they can be the smell of a lover’s neck. Images are very powerful, so porn could be affecting the intimacy he has with his wife in ways he’s not even aware of. He says porn is not an issue in his marriage, but he and his wife aren’t really talking about its place in their relationship either.
Steve: There’s a kind of “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy when it comes to porn in relationships. Pornography, predominantly for men, is a little secret cavern – it’s a place we go, even if we’re in happy, deeply communicative relationships, as it seems this guy is.
Cheryl: Part of my response to this letter is that there’s nothing wrong. This guy wants to have an orgasm about four times a week. Presumably, if his wife wanted to have sex more, she would be making advances towards him. And he has a different sex drive than she does, and so he just takes care of himself. He doesn’t need to tell his wife. There is such thing as privacy, even when you’re married to somebody. Wendy, is this inherently a bad set-up, or are you thinking, well clearly, because he’s asking these questions, he’s not entirely comfortable with it?
Wendy: From a clinical perspective, we’re not talking about someone who is disassociated or who uses porn in lieu of sex, but there’s something going on for him – he signed his letter “Troubled by Porn.” One of the things that I wonder about is, why does he use porn a lot while he’s working? Is sexual release a way of dealing with stress for him? Maybe he’s not feeling as productive or as recognized in his field as he’d like to be? Has porn become a way that he self-soothes? And if so, is that at the expense of learning other ways to take care of himself – reaching out to a real person or going for a run? The other thing is his age. Being a man in his mid-50s, it can take a little longer to get sexually aroused. The erections aren’t as firm. Sex can become a little bit more laborious in terms of functioning, but under usual circumstances, that’s offset by really good communication with a partner you’ve been with for years.
Cheryl: Or by a sense of humor – that sex doesn’t have to be a performance. It doesn’t always have to equal orgasm. It’s a sensual exchange of pleasure and communication.
Wendy: And there’s this wonderful growth that a couple can have. I’ve been married for nearly 40 years now, but I had a rough beginning as a sexual person. I’ve now experienced what it’s like to be in a long-term relationship where you don’t have a heavy influence of porn and where you can really work with your partner and learn with your partner and grow with your partner sexually. I think a lot of couples are missing out on that growth.
Steve: Troubled by Porn, you’ve reached a moment where you have to ask yourself, “What is the meaning of porn for me? And if I’m unsettled, do I need to start having the difficult, but necessary, discussion with my wife to say, ‘I feel greater desire and I want it to be towards you. I want to find a better balance between my porn use and our sex life together.”
I am writing to you because I need advice on a taboo subject I never thought I'd need advice about: porn. I’m a woman in my late 20's and could count the number of porn scenes I've watched in my lifetime on one hand. I don't get turned on by it, and I suppose I judge its impact on relationships and its stereotypical abuse by men.
My on-and-off boyfriend of 3 years uses porn, and has been open about it in the past; but I thought his use stopped after we got back together. Maybe a year ago, there was one evening when he encouraged me to take the dog for a walk so he could engage in "man activities.” I was appalled. Cue fight. His defense: all men do it, it's natural, and I should get over it. Somehow, we got past that fight.
Now, a year later, I have moved away from a beautiful city, great job and wonderful friends, to a new, big city to be with him. We wanted to be together and the move was seamless, as if it was meant to be. I should mention that we do have a great relationship and a great sex life. But after 2 weeks of living together, I walked in the door. He said "Dangit!" His explanation was that he was about to engage in "man stuff." Seriously?! But I just walked in the door - why don't we engage in "couple stuff?" Why would my coming home be a bad thing? We can enjoy each other! I was irate. Again: cue the fight. His defense: all men do it, it’s not personal, it means nothing, it doesn't diminish our sexual relationship, it's natural and it's my problem. He's not helping me feel differently about it at all.
Sugars - what do I do? I love him, but I can't share my bed with porn. I can't feel adored and accepted by him when I now know he needs those images of other women in his life. I don't know how deep this goes, but is he really picking porn over a great relationship? Help me, Sugars. What do I do?
Scorned & Sporned
Wendy: This is a situation where there’s a betrayal of intimacy and trust. Scorned & Sporned’s partner has actually said he prefers to be with porn than to be with her. She has good reason to be bothered by this. She recognizes that her partner is doing something harmful to the relationship, and her partner is not seeing it as a problem. In fact, he’s angry and he’s pushing her away, which are responses of people who are triggered and shamed.
Cheryl: I do think that this boyfriend is being very inconsiderate and not taking his girlfriend’s feelings seriously, so I’m not going to back him up on that. But he isn’t totally incorrect in saying, “Listen, this is natural, normal and all men do it.” I think he’s saying something honest to his girlfriend when he defends his porn use.
Steve: I can agree with that, but I also think that when he says, “It means nothing,” that’s bullshit. It does mean something. It means, like a lot of men, there are moments where I will say, “I’m choosing to do this because either “couple stuff” isn’t available to me or “couple stuff” is too complicated, it’s too inconvenient, it’s too laborious. I just want to have a bio-emission with this fantasy of sex.” I think S&S is saying, “Wait a second, is there a part of your sexuality that I have no role in and can’t participate in and that’s taking you away from me?” She feels like porn is literally in their bed. She needs to say to her partner, “Look, this isn’t going to go away. We need to talk about your porn use, what it means to you and what it means to me. We have to try to bring it into the light.” Otherwise, her partner is going to keep saying, “You’re being uptight,” and he’s going to keep driving her away.
Wendy: One of the things to look at, too, is how much even just the three of us can automatically confuse masturbation with using pornography, as if using pornography to have an orgasm has become today’s masturbation. They’re different. In my work as a counselor, a lot of female partners are not really upset by the idea of masturbation. A lot of couples have integrated healthy self-solitary sex, and it’s not an issue. But pornography, for a woman, is a competitor.
Cheryl: Scorned & Sporned, I would suggest that you and your partner enlist the help of a therapist because you guys think about porn in such profoundly different ways. It will help to have a neutral, informed third party who can help you either negotiate some positive terms, or to come to the truth that you’re not meant to be together.
Wendy: S&S’s letter reminds me of a quote by a psychiatrist from the early 1900’s, Harry Stack Sullivan: “When the satisfaction or security of another person becomes as significant to one as one’s own satisfaction or security, then the state of love exists. Under no other circumstances [is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the term].” And this is what’s lost here in this relationship – S&S’s satisfaction and security is threatened, and her partner is not loving in his response.
Cheryl: That’s beautiful, and I think this applies to anyone who’s having a problem in their relationship, whether it’s porn or something else. If your partner doesn’t care about your satisfaction and security as much as he cares about his own, that’s something to really pay attention to, and a change needs to be made when that’s the case.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.