Sex & Relationships

Can Pornography Actually Help Our Relationships?

Take the shame or secretiveness away from porn and it can be one of a couple's most powerful tools.

Photo Credit: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Porn is polarizing. Porn is confusing. Porn can be alarming. For therapists, porn can push us out of our comfort zone and trigger negative countertransference. But one thing is for sure: porn is everywhere, and it’s here to stay. Right now, Internet porn accounts for 35 percent of all web traffic in the United States. More people visit porn websites than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. Twenty-five percent of men admit to accessing porn at work, and 30 percent of all porn users are women. That’s a lot of people watching porn, but it doesn’t mean that we’re being overwhelmed by an epidemic of “porn addiction,” as some people suggest.

Studies show that the brain of somebody who identifies as a “porn addict” is very similar to the brain of someone with a high libido who doesn’t self-identify as a “porn addict.” And a libido issue isn’t an addiction issue: it’s not a disease, and it doesn’t require some sort of sex rehab. In fact, the label addiction actually stops the conversation and doesn’t help us get at what may lie beneath someone’s sexual behavior, or the social context within which they’re pursuing their desires.

But if not addiction, then what? Sure, excessive porn use can be a symptom of mental health issues. When someone’s depressed, for example, their use of porn might increase, along with drugs and alcohol. But excessive porn use is the result of these issues, not the cause. Porn use can also be a coping strategy, or means of distracting oneself from stress and anxiety. As a distraction mechanism, there’s nothing wrong with an orgasm. So when we want to talk about problematic porn use, instead of talking about porn as an addiction, let’s talk about it as a symptom of a bigger problem, or a maladaptive coping mechanism, or even an impulsivity disorder, rather than one of compulsivity.

Some therapists report seeing a new category of erectile disorder emerging among a group of young men that’s linked not to performance anxiety, but to what might be called an idiosyncratic masturbatory style. Because of Internet porn, some young men are masturbating maybe 300 to 500 percent more than they otherwise would. As a result, the nerve endings in their penises literally get habituated to a kind of a friction and pressure that’s not easily replicable by a vagina during intercourse. So they’re losing their erections during sex.

The number-one problem that I see with couples and porn isn’t related to the content of the porn itself, but to the far larger issue of the secrecy around porn use. It’s common for a woman to come in and say, “I found this porn on my husband’s computer. What does it mean about us?” Studies have shown that when couples are open about their masturbation and porn habits, they’re much less distressed. In fact, women whose partners were honest about porn use reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction and lower levels of distress. Honesty about porn is equivalent to comfort with sexuality, communication, possibilities for sexual creativity, and expansion of sex scripts. Female participants whose partners were deceitful about porn reported more relationship dissatisfaction and personal distress. In short, dishonesty about porn is equivalent to a sense of betrayal, distrust, lower self-esteem, and sex ruts.

Of course, for couples who watch porn together, it’s not an issue at all. It may just be that they need more psychogenic stimulation and novelty in their relationship to get aroused. One of the most useful things that a therapist can do is to help a wife go from seeing porn as her husband’s secret fetish and addiction to normalizing it as something that lots of people are interested in. Once you take the shame or the secretiveness away from porn, it can become one of the most powerful tools a couple has to expand their erotic life together. Sometimes I’ll do a sort of porn tour with couples, where I’ll show them the range of porn sites on the Internet. We’ll look at everything from some soft-core hetero porn to some really extreme fetish stuff and talk about what’s comfortable, what’s uncomfortable, and what was a little arousing. Doing that with couples can be useful in helping them expand their experience of sexuality.

In an age of high-velocity porn and turbo-charged sex toys, recreational sex with ourselves can make relational sex with our partners seem boring by comparison. Most of the couples who come to therapy are looking to integrate the relational and recreational in the context of a secure long-term attachment—what I term “rec-relational” lovemaking. Porn can play a big role in achieving that fusion, and it doesn’t have to take away from a secure attachment. In fact, with the right kind of guidance, it can deepen it.

This blog is excerpted from "The Case for Porn." The full version is available in the January/February issue — Speaking of Sex: Why Is It Still so Difficult?"

 

Ian Kerner, PhD, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist and nationally recognized sexuality counselor who specializes in sex therapy, couples therapy and working with individuals on a range of relational issues. Ian is the New York Times best-selling author of numerous books, including She Comes First (Harper Collins) which is the best-selling sex advice book of the last decade and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Ian is regularly quoted as an expert in various media, with recent appearances on CNN, The Today Show, The Dr. Oz Show, and The Takeaway on WNYC. He lectures frequently on topics related to sex and relationships, with recent appearances at New York University, Yale, Princeton, the French Institute Alliance Francaise and the inaugural Sex and Attachment conference in NYC.

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