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|Out of the Shadow - Page 3|
A Therapeutic Intervention
My perspective on pornography underwent another shift in the early 1980s, when, as a newly married and practicing clinical social worker, I started specializing in sex therapy. I'd initially worked as a drug-and-alcohol counselor, but switched to sexuality counseling when I noticed a strong connection between people's self-esteem and self-confidence and how good they felt about themselves sexually.
Sex therapy was a new, exciting, and much-needed clinical specialty, providing solid information, advice, and a safe place to discuss and get help for a wide array of sexual-functioning problems and concerns. Leaders in the field—people like William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Lonnie Barbach, Helen Singer Kaplan, Joseph and Leslie LoPiccolo, and Bernie Zilbergeld—were opening doors and providing information that had long been needed.
My training to become a certified sex therapist with the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists included attending a required Sexual Attitudes Reassessment (SAR) seminar. With my fellow aspiring sex therapists, I watched a wide assortment of sexually explicit movies, some blatantly pornographic, others made and intended specifically for educational and instructional purposes. We watched films on masturbation, heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking, oral and anal sex, sex in the aging and disabled populations, sadomasochism, bondage, and more extreme sexual practices. Then we discussed our reactions in small groups. The seminar enabled us to explore our attitudes, feelings, and beliefs about all kinds of sex, and to gain confidence in helping clients with sexual problems. I found the direct and graphic nature of the SAR helpful for recognizing and challenging harmful myths and stereotypes, such as the mistaken idea that only young and beautiful people can have really good sex.
I began to consider pornography as an intervention that could be used for educational and therapeutic purposes. In sex therapy manuals, trainings, and conferences, it was touted as a product that could help clients reduce inhibitions about sexual practices, avoid boredom, and spice up their sex lives. It was considered "harmless visual stimulation"—an easy way to expand sexual awareness and safely explore sexual fantasies and desires, inside or outside a committed relationship.
To the extent that sex therapists had concern about the dangers of watching pornography, professional discussions were limited to whether porn use could lead to sexual violence. Then, as now, no clear and reliable link emerged. The consensus was that pornography became a problem only when the viewer couldn't distinguish between fantasy sex and real sex (believing, for example, that women enjoy being raped), or was using it in ways that endangered children (leaving it out where it could be seen), or harmed trust in an intimate relationship (pressuring a partner to do something he or she didn't want to do).
In tune with the times, I sometimes assumed that when one person in a relationship was into porn and the other wasn't, the reluctant partner was likely "sexually uptight," "withholding," or "unadventurous." Therapeutic strategies often focused on negotiating the type, use, purchase, and storage of the pornography, rarely on discouraging its use. I might, for instance, help a couple reach a decision that they would only use porn together and would choose movies that they both enjoyed.
Like many of my sex therapy colleagues, I kept a box of classic pornographic novels in my office closet. I'd lend copies of Fanny Hill, The Pearl, and Lady Chatterley's Lover to female clients who were learning to become orgasmic. Hot sexual reading coupled with genital stimulation was and still is promoted in the field as an effective therapeutic intervention for boosting erotic excitement and helping a woman "make it over the hump" to have her first orgasm. I suggested pornography, as I might a heating pad or a vibrator, because of its stimulating effects. Porn, with its repeated descriptions of seduction and sexual activity, offered a way a woman could stay focused on sex and leave distracting thoughts and worries behind. The result of sexual functioning—climaxing—justified whatever means it took to get there.
I did have occasional misgivings, however, about advocating pornography in treatment. As a product, it was usually poorly made and portrayed sex in unrealistic, inaccurate, unsafe, and impersonal ways. For example, even though surveys show that monogamous partners are actually the most satisfied with their sex lives, porn kept featuring extramarital sex, multiple partners, and impulsive sex between strangers as more exciting. It often portrayed women as mere objects and playthings for male sexual enjoyment. It gave little or no consideration to hygiene and protection from pregnancy and disease. It promoted a callous attitude toward sexual exploitation, coercion, and aggression. Recommending pornography to clients began to make me feel, for lack of a better analogy, somewhat like a pimp, introducing clients to a "sleazy" worldview of sex. But I silenced my concerns, reminding myself that an open-minded sex therapist could regard pornography as simply a "tool of the trade."