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Depathologizing Porn

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Why Can't It Be Just an Acceptable Diversion?

By Joe Kort

In more than 25 years of practice, I've heard hundreds of stories of how pornography use can damage people's sex lives profoundly and ruin their marriages. I've personally had many couples describe the shame and secretiveness of one partner's involvement with porn. Time and again, I've treated people for whom viewing porn has become a compulsion and who've come to prefer it to being with a partner. Yet I've worked with many for whom porn isn't destructive to their relationship, but, in their view, offers a source of excitement and satisfaction they wouldn't otherwise experience.

Of course, these days, it's impossible to grasp the impact of pornography on relationships without considering the role of the Internet. Years ago, finding new and titillating erotica was a time-consuming chore.In the last couple of decades, though, the range of graphic material available online has exponentially accelerated the appeal and use of porn. Trying to explain the effect of the Internet on porn consumption, sex researcher Al Cooper has written that the driving force is the "Triple-A engine of Access, Affordability, and Anonymity." While it may take alcohol 30 years to ruin an alcoholic's health, only a year's worth of heavy cocaine use can lead to a total mental and physical collapse. Now, for some porn users, the Internet has become a kind of virtual cocaine.

Yet, despite the undeniable harm that porn can do, we therapists need to bear in mind a fundamental fact: the overwhelming majority of people exposed to it don't become addicts. Patrick Carnes's research shows that sexual addiction affects three to five percent of adults, suggesting that porn use isn't about to turn us into a country of addicts glued to their computer screens. Further, assuming that porn inevitably leads to addiction can blind us to understanding its nonpathological appeal to so many people—most of them men who are quite normal in every other way. It can make it harder for us to accept that, in many relationships, porn use may satisfy needs that have nothing to do with psychological pathology or sexual dysfunction. In fact, noted sex researcher Helen Fisher argues that the brain-inhibiting effects of antidepressants pose a much graver threat to couples' sexuality than porn. She even advises couples to go on the Internet and look at porn as a kind of hormone booster, arguing that porn "drives up dopamine levels, which drives up your testosterone."

To be sure, porn use is permeated with a sense of the forbidden that triggers intense emotion, but as therapists, we need to understand it on a case-by-case basis and be careful to separate our own biases from our clients' needs. To begin to see porn in a more normalizing light, it can be helpful to understand the ways in which porn can be incorporated into a relationship without secretiveness or shame.

Many gay male couples I know, both in and out of therapy, consider porn a fact of life—obvious testimony to the reality that one partner's world of sexual desire can extend beyond the other partner's ability, or willingness, to satisfy it and the person's own need to enact it. In these couples, partners discuss each other's porn stashes without a sense of dismay or anger, sometimes even with a bit of amusement. "He's into that, but it's just not my thing," one partner might say. "But if it gets him off when I'm not available or in the mood, that's fine with me." In many gay couples, the use of porn is transparent and nonthreatening, an expression of each other's different sexual tastes, rather than an indictment of the other person.

In my work with gay couples, I typically see more open sharing of sexual interests and dislikes from the beginning of their relationships than I do with most straight couples. In most gay couples, porn isn't usually seen as detracting from the couple's sexual connection, especially if they agree on "house rules" together: the forms of porn that'll be used, whether or not other people are involved via chat rooms and webcams, and the use of public forums, such as sexual bulletin boards and fetish groups. Sometimes I hear that my male clients watch porn together, but often each partner understands that he has some sexual appetites that don't include his partner, and that he can satisfy these in fantasy without undermining the trust level within the relationship.

It's been well established that men and woman differ markedly in their response to erotic material. Generally speaking, the popularity of Internet pornography is overwhelming testimony to the importance of visual stimulation to men and the restless search for sexual novelty that so many men find exciting. Whether through innate wiring or social conditioning, women appear to be more relational in their consumption of erotically stimulating material. Even the erotic entertainment aimed at a female audience, a growing component within the porn industry, relies far more on plot, storyline, and character than the typical display of raw sexuality and primitive dominance featured in porn for men. Nevertheless, despite their entirely different emphasis, the erotic novels and sexually explicit romances favored by women are also a means of erotic-fantasy satisfaction, and express the desire to imagine a partner who's more exciting than the person with whom they're actually sharing their bed. Having such fantasies doesn't have to mean that, over time, a woman will betray her husband with someone else, or that their relationship is somehow doomed. I believe that the same holds true for most men and their use of porn.

Accordingly, open porn use introduces a relational question that most couples never face: can both partners acknowledge an erotic sexual-fantasy world that doesn't include the other person without undermining their sexual connection and violating the boundaries of their relationship? Most couples never confront this question, but the porn explosion of recent years has produced increasing numbers of couples who, for whatever reason, can't avoid dealing with it, and they're coming into our offices seeking help.

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