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|Out of the Shadow - Page 5|
A Possessive Mistress
I may have thought I was done with porn, but it wasn't done with me! In the late 1990s, people began calling my office seeking help for problems they felt had been caused by porn use. One after another, the requests came in, often several per week. Some pleas for help came from porn users themselves, worried about their own dependencies and the possible repercussions—for example, losing interest in their partner, experiencing a compulsive need for sex, and getting into risky and hurtful sexual practices. But many calls came from the intimate partners of porn users, and these callers, primarily women, were in obvious emotional distress. Engagements had been broken, weddings and plans to have children had been called off, and otherwise successful, long-term marriages were teetering on the brink of divorce.
The number of inquiries took me by surprise, so I began to ask my colleagues if they were having similar experiences. Many were, and we began to talk about how porn had changed from a side issue, which arose only occasionally in sessions with clients, to the primary reason many people were now seeking therapy.
Despite my decision to stop using porn personally and professionally, until this point, I still frequently thought of it as a temporary, experimental/supplemental sexual activity, and even a benign adolescent phase in sexual development. But the growing client base experiencing problems with it and the depth of their pain opened my eyes to the fact that, for many, porn was becoming a critical, even essential part of their sexual repertoires. With science-fiction strangeness, porn was competing with real-life partners, and it was even emerging as the most important object of some clients' sexual desires.
Perhaps we should all have seen it coming. Within a short period of time, with the aid of high-tech electronic devices, such as VCRs, cable television, and the Internet, pornography had broken through old barriers of scarcity, expense, and fear of exposure and evolved into a product that was available for pleasure on demand. With 24-hours-a-day availability, media saturation, and unlimited variety, pornographic material was starting to overwhelm people's ability to resist it. As one man shared: "About five years ago, I discovered the Internet, and that's when the shit hit the fan for me. Suddenly it was "Close your eyes and imagine something and go look for it, and with a click of the mouse, there it is!' And best of all, it was free and nobody the wiser."
At this point, porn started looking to me like a compliant mistress, who promised an exciting, personalized, highly charged erotic alternative to the mundane realities and complex challenges of sex with a real partner. Always ready, willing, and reliably sexy, the porn mistress catered to the user's needs. It never got old or tired, required no emotional or sensual attention for "herself," never said no or rejected her "lover," and was always willing to explore any and all sexual acts, or even invent new ones. I was shocked one day when one man disclosed that, even though he loved his wife and experienced satisfying sex with her, when he masturbated to porn, it was "the best sex ever."
The reactions of intimate partners to what was happening was almost identical to that of clients I'd counseled whose partners had been having affairs. Women came to me shocked and traumatized when they'd learned about their partners' relationships with porn. I remember one in particular who clutched her chest as she sobbed, "His betrayal feels like a knife has been thrust in my heart." It didn't matter that her husband's "mistress" was on celluloid and pixels on a screen; he'd still betrayed her by channeling his sexual attention and energy away from her, onto someone else, and then lying about it! She felt angry, hurt, alone, powerless, and unable to compete with the perfect, airbrushed young bodies of the women featured in the videos she'd found her husband masturbating to. Her trust in and respect for him were gone, and she told me she felt as sexually abandoned, insulted, and betrayed as if he'd been with another woman. As with an affair, female partners often spoke of their partner's porn use as absolutely incompatible with their ability to stay in the relationship.
Many of the male porn users in committed relationships were surprised by the intensity of their female partner's reactions. They generally felt entitled to use porn and were ready with rationalizations for their "It's safer than a real affair," "All guys do it," and "It's nothing personal" were among the most common reasons they gave to try to get their partners to understand and accept their actions.
My deeper understanding of the emotional pain that partners of porn users were feeling, coupled with an awareness of the growing number of couples for whom porn use had become a significant relationship issue, changed the way I focused my treatment. Instead of automatically considering porn use as something to be negotiated, I began to address it as I might an extramarital affair. I tried to help both partners understand their relationship crisis, process their feelings, empathize with each other, and rebuild trust, security, and intimacy. With this approach, I reasoned that many porn users would come to see their behavior, and especially their accompanying deceptions, rationalizations, and emotional withdrawal, as inconsistent with their personal goals and the needs of the relationship. I thought that, on their own, they'd decide to give up porn, allowing their partners to process their feelings of betrayal, overcome resentments, and move toward forgiving and trusting again.
Even with my newfound awareness about how porn could assert itself as an easy sexual outlet, I remained na•ve about one vitally important issue. I assumed that once couples could address negative repercussions and get the "real" sexual relationship back on track, the person who had the porn interest would no longer "need" or "desire" it, and could easily give it up. I couldn't have been more wrong! Some clients were able to "ditch-the-mistress," but many weren't. It became apparent that I'd underestimated the power of the new pornography. Something more insidious was going on.