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Pornography and Adult Relationships

Posted Jun 04 2009 10:33pm

A few years ago, a married couple I was working with in therapy got into a heated debate about the use of pornography in their relationship. Contrary to what you might think, it was the woman who enjoyed watching porn on the internet while her husband found it unacceptable. Apparently they would argue about porn's merits, or lack thereof, for hours on end throughout the week.

"What's the big deal? It's just sex. Fun sex! We should watch it together, spruce things up."

"Absolutely not! It's completely unhealthy and I don't want that in our lives."

Over and over, day after day. Ultimately the woman won out, as she simply watched porn when her husband wasn't home. It's not like he could stop her, so he simply tried his best to ignore that the issue existed. This, however, left him feeling bitter and resentful.

We all know that porn is more readily available today than it ever has been. And unless you've been living in a cave since the birth of the internet, you also know that millions of people, both single and in relationships, "use" porn on a regular basis. Good or bad?

The answer lies in the motivation. Like almost every other element of sexuality, pornography can be beneficial to people or serve as a detriment. It can be celebratory and exciting or objectifying and numbing. This is what I attempted to explain to my therapy couple. The problem was that each was so sure of his/her position that neither wanted to hear that the answer was far more nuanced than a simple good or bad.

Using a model of traditional, "regular" porn (e.g., not amateur, not child and completely consentual), what are some of the specific pros and cons of pornography in people's lives and interpersonal relationships [1]?


1) Pornography can be used by couples to enhance their sex lives.

As previously discussed on Why Marriages Fail, most species are not designed for monogamy and humans are no different. If we are hardwired to have sex with many different people, one could argue that pornography is an acceptable way to do that without deviating from the relationship (see counterpoint to this below). I've had more than a few couples make statements along the lines of, "we are both attracted to other people but we don't want to be swingers, have an open relationship or betray our partner. Porn helps us to live out these impulses in a safe, mutually agreed upon environment." This is a variant on the defense mechanism known as Sublimation, which involves taking unacceptable impulses and channeling them into more appropriate actions. This, of course, assumes that both partners consent to the notion that watching porn is acceptable. But when they do, many state that it enhances their own sexuality, with some reporting that it gives them new things to try in their sex lives.

2) To some degree, pornography brings fantasies to life.

Sex is just as much about your brain as it is your body (see more on that below). Until the first pornographic films came along, many people's visual fantasies were confined to photos, the written word or perhaps the burlesque house. While little can replace pure imagination, porn can be used to bring sexual elements into people's lives that they might not have the opportunity to experience (unless, perhaps, they are willing to pay for it). Very few people can be rock stars, but porn brings people that much closer to having whatever they desire in the bedroom (or whatever room it is that you tend to do those things).

3) Porn can be considered as simply an aspect of human sexuality.

Philalawyer and I shot the breeze on how sex is awesome. Is watching other people have intercourse an extension of our own sexuality? If it's something to be celebrated and enjoyed, who is to say that consenting adults shouldn't be allowed to experience others engaging in the act, even if they are, in fact, acting? Stereotypically men are sexually aroused by visual material while women benefit more from verbal/spoken stimuli but the reality is that both sexes are fully capable of heightened arousal through watching others have sex [2].

However, as I pointed out to Philalawyer, sex can have enormous psychological ramifications. So if pornography is truly a form of human sexuality it doesn't come without potential pitfalls and consequences.


1) Pornography rarely, if ever, demonstrates real intimacy.

This point is most important for late teens and 20-somethings. As I said, complete sexuality involves both your body and mind. Many people, especially those who are new to sex, bypass their brains and emotions for the sexual release. However, this is only a fraction of what sex is about. The most satisfying sex comes from a complete physical and mental experience. Porn does not provide that. In the simplest terms, porn shows people fucking, nothing more. And if you watch closely, a huge percentage of pornography has no kissing in it whatsoever. No one is required to crave emotional intimacy, yet most people do at some point in their lives. Porn will never make achieving that goal easier.

2) Porn can create unrealistic expectations for "real life" partners.

Assuming we aren't talking about amateur porn and/or voyeuristic material, make no mistake: the people you are watching are actors. They are wearing make-up to cover up their flaws, there is flattering lighting for the scene, many have had plastic surgery, they are tanned and often very good-looking. This problem is along the lines of what you see in glamour magazines with colossal amounts of photoshopping, and we know what most celebrities look like without make-up (thank you paparazzi for the one thing you are good for).

The actors in porn, whether they get any enjoyment out of their work or not, are doing just that, acting [3]. The moaning and screaming gives the impression that sex will always be a mountain crumbling, novel and mind-bending experience simply because it's happening. If these are the messages you are carrying into your relationships your partner will inevitably fall short of your expectations. In fact, this failure will probably lead to emotional distance in a relationship because you will often be left thinking "why isn't our sex like the one I saw on the internet?"

3) Depending on your relationship status, porn could be viewed as a form of cheating or sexual abandonment.

This is the counterpoint to benefit #2. Most significant relationships have the understanding that there will be an attempt to be monogamous. That generally involves a physical, mental and emotional commitment to a partner. While few would disagree with the idea that it's natural to feel some sort of attraction to other men/women, many would argue that using pornography is, in fact, being with someone who is not your partner. Your mind and body aren't with the person you committed to, are they? Some people have reported to me that one member of a relationship isn't even interested in having real-life sex, but would rather be with these "other people" he/she sees on the screen.

So, is pornography for you and your partner? Only the two of you can answer truly answer that. Challenge yourself:

1) Am I appreciating porn for its true colors while at the same time recognizing its artificiality and inability to translate with significance to real life?

2) Am I using it in a way that my partner would accept and/or want to be a part of?

3) Am I developing unrealistic expectations for a current or future partner?

These are the questions you should be asking yourself when pop in that DVD or click on your favorite porn site. If you're answering these questions as yes, yes and no, respectively, then get off this site and go enjoy yourself. But if not, then it's time to start rethinking what it is you are getting from porn and how it's negatively impacting your life.

[1] I say SOME as I base these reasons on both my clinical training and practice. This list is by no means exhaustive and could probably be added to ad infinitum by anyone with an imagination.

[2] "Voyeurism" is actually a DSM-IV diagnosis, but requires that the person being watched is unaware of being observed.

[3] We must also remember that many of these actors need plenty of Viagra and many actresses use recreational substances just to be able to do the job, which detracts from the "enjoyment" you are seeing on screen.

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