Is Porn Incompatible with a Loving Relationship?

Talking Frankly About Secrecy, Shame, and New Levels of Intimacy

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.

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.

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.

Wayne and Lori

Wayne came to see me after his wife, Lori, found links on his computer to websites showing female dominatrixes ordering men around, spanking, binding, and gagging them, and forcing them into sexual acts. Also, Wayne had collected pictures of foot fetishism—women forcing their feet into a man's face and mouth or making men give them foot massages and paint their toenails. Appalled and furious, Lori accused him of being a sex addict and a deviant, and demanded he go immediately to counseling.

Wayne assured me he'd never actually acted out his fantasies with women—or men, for that matter. In fact, he'd never wanted to act them out. "I'd never want to make this happen in real life," he told me. "It's just a fantasy, that's all. I don't know where it comes from, but I enjoy it."

Wayne didn't prefer these fantasies to having sex with his wife. He reported his relationship with her was more than satisfactory, sexually and otherwise. But when Lori discovered his online pornography use, they both had to confront the challenge this revelation posed to their relationship.

After getting a full history, developing an initial picture of Wayne’s marital relationship, and assessing his use of porn with a sexual-addiction inventory, I concluded that he didn't fit the profile of a sex addict. His use of porn wasn't compulsive, he didn't prefer it over being sexual with Lori, and it didn't decrease his sexual drive or desire for her.

Lori was adamant that his porn use had to stop. For her, any kind of porn was simply abhorrent, and his fantasies, whether acted out or not, were unacceptable. Feeling shocked and betrayed, she felt she didn't know her husband anymore. The knowledge of what he viewed and fantasized about eclipsed everything else in the relationship for her. She had no interest in participating in any such sexual fantasies.

My goal in this type of couples session is to see what it might take for the partners to listen to each other without being overwhelmed with reactivity. I wanted Wayne to hear Lori's upset and dismay at his behavior and the way she'd discovered it. I also wanted to see whether she could find a way to understand his porn use without taking it so personally.

I asked Wayne and Lori if they'd be willing to watch some of his porn together. This would be a chance for Lori to try to see what her husband's experience was actually about, instead of remaining attached to what she'd always thought, read, or heard about pornography. Wayne was agreeable to this, saying he'd find it odd but strangely erotic. Lori tentatively agreed.

Surprisingly to Lori, she found that she wasn't as bothered by the porn as she thought she'd be. I encouraged them to continue being sexual with each other in the way they'd always been, but to stay alert to any signs of sexual distance between them. After some weeks, Lori reported that she felt comfortable with their lovemaking and that she didn't feel that Wayne was in any way distant or sexually unavailable to her.

My work with Lori and Wayne involved helping both spouses understand the "impersonal" element in sexuality represented by fantasy life and porn use in a way that rendered it safe and unthreatening—not as a reflection on their marriage, their sex life, or their partner. They realized that while his fantasy world had an impact on their marriage, it needn't overwhelm the rest of their relationship and invalidate their feelings for each other. Discussing the use of porn and each other's sexual fantasies allowed them to develop a new kind of ease and empathy for each other, based on a shared and explicit understanding of the private sexual fantasies that wouldn't have been revealed except for the revelation of Wayne's porn use.

Porn use can exist comfortably within a relationship that both partners feel is otherwise adequate and fulfilling. But when the worlds of porn and relationship suddenly collide, as it had with Wayne and Lori, the experience is profoundly disorienting. The therapist's task then is to help the couple discover how to absorb this new information, define limits with each other, see whether a sense of trust can be restored, and, if possible, find a way they can grow together as the result of the experience.

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This blog is excerpted from "Depathologizing Porn" by Joe Kort. The full version is available in the November/December 2009 issue, The Porn Explosion: How Are Therapists Reacting?

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Topic: Couples | Anxiety/Depression

Tags: addict | addiction | counseling | depression | divorce | emotion | empathy | psychotherapy | sex | sexuality | marriage | networker | love | romance | porn | porn addiction | relationship

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6 Comments

Sunday, June 24, 2018 10:31:57 AM | posted by Sandi
This article was written by a counselor who was trained to uphold porn as a personal choice, not to be seen as addiction since not everyone who watches it will become an addict. I get that. It is amazing to me that this counselor would then turn around and suggest that Lori watch porn...would it not have been safer for Wayne to take a significant break from porn and see how that affected his relationship rather than take a chance on how Lori would be affected? My favorite book on the topic are “Your Sexually Addicted Spouse” by Barbara Steffens/Marsha Means. It is sad that this counselor was only supporting Wayne’s lifestyle (which would probably be harder to address) so I guess it makes sense that he would take the path of least resistence by having Lori watch some porn. And in this story, it worked out. Whether this worked for the future of their relationship remains to be seen.

Saturday, June 23, 2018 10:52:52 PM | posted by kayle
I've seen Dr Kort talk about this in a taped lecture and i didn't agree with him then either. I think the idea of exposing the traumatized partner to her spouse's porn only serves to further traumatize and confuse her. Porn by its nature teaches men that instant gratification and extreme sexual experiences are to be expected. This is damaging to the male viewer as much as to his partner, whether female or male. Just because a man is not currently using it compulsively does not mean it has not affected his view of himself, of real or potential sexual partners, and of intimacy. The behavior seen in porn is the opposite of intimacy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016 4:56:46 PM | posted by marvy
You are overlooking the sexual politics of porn. It portrays women as sexual objects for men's pleasure. Even if men don'st act out their imaginations through infidelity it is still degrading to women to be seen as tits, ass and a pretty face in media and life. Educate yourself by reading blogs like Collective Shout and Feminist Current.

Sunday, October 16, 2016 5:45:52 AM | posted by Will
This is a very disappointing article and a major red flag for women in heterosexual relationships seeking counselling. I wish the author was able to grasp the fact that a power imbalance exists between the sexes, that this is global, and that the economic exploitation that underlies the social power hierarchy is founded in control of reproduction and in sexual exploitation. I wish that he had even a rudimentary grasp of how pornography operates within this, as would fit any person who presumes the authority and wherewithal to advise heterosexual couples. There is a recommendation below for J. Stoltenberg's work. Robert Jensen's "Getting Off", Gail Dines' "Pornified" and any recent writing by Christopher Hedges on the topic are good educational resources. It is dismaying to see the common conflation of pornography consumption and "fantasy". The vast majority of pornographic films contain extreme violence and degradation of women by men, including as the author has pointed out, anal and facial abuse, chocking, vomiting, verbal abuse, gang rape and more. These scenarios have been enacted by actual human beings, many of them heavily coerced, in service to enormous profit. To excuse this as "fantasy" is a pathology in an of itself, let alone encouraging a woman who has healthy response of self-preservation in the face of it to question and modify this response. Rather than counsel her to not take it "personally" - truly perplexing advice from an expert who presumably is meant to assist in a couple in building trust and intimacy - he might validate her impulse to self respect and to human ethics in questioning her partner's indifference to female humans, his habit of processing orgasm to the extreme debasement of female humans, and his tacit support for a predatory industry built on the abuse of vulnerable populations. While the author's approach is in keeping with mainstream and to shed light on the situation from a point of view based on factual evidence when that evidence is broadly denied and dismissed in the culture would take a particular sort of courage, it is the position of ethical integrity. I worry for the millions of women who comprise the composite "Lori". Clearly we are in Orwellian times when a woman's psychological integrity is most endangered in the very place she goes to seek support and healing, and clearly the psychological profession has failed to pull itself out of it's deeply misogynist roots. The most tragic aspect of this is the tremendous opportunity lost for profound healing of our culture and the individual men and women who are shaped by and in turn shape it. If individual therapists like Joe Kort were brave enough to call this current cultural phenomenon at face value rather than indulge in labyrinthine rationalizations for the degradation and exploitation of women, they could initiate true progress. I sincerely hope that Mr. Kort uses his training and experience to question his own denial about these issues and to examine his own attitudes towards women before he counsels any more of them. I also hope that the moderators for Psychotherapy Networker will see fit to publish my critique.

Monday, November 30, 2015 2:19:27 PM | posted by Brooke
This would be hilarious were it not so offensive. The author's attempts to re-package porn are adolescent and condescending. I recommend the book " Refusing to be a Man" by John Stoltenberg as a starting point for this author to correct his harmful dirth of knowledge regarding the subject of pornography.
Consensual erotic material can be a mutually enjoyable approach to sexuality for couples, but pornography is inherently misogynist. There are tons of academic studies to prove this. I think this author does not realize the harm he is doing to the psychosexual functioning of society but attempting to normalize the pathology of pornography. Since I am doubtful my suggestions will be taken up by someone who so obviously is committed to male privilege, let's just consider that the word porn comes from the greek word for female slave, whereas erotica comes from Eros, god of love. Pornography is never acceptable in a healthy relationship. Erotic entertainment is a choice. Please stop confusing the two and peddling it as normative and healthy.

Saturday, September 12, 2015 7:31:33 PM | posted by Mary Kay Cocharo
Thank you Joe. This needed to be said and you said it so well!
I find that frequently the pain and disruption that occurs in intimate relationships happens as a result of the secrecy and shame that feels like betrayal, not actually, by the "thing" itself. I like your approach and the reminder that not all people who watch porn become addicts, any more than assuming that all people who have a glass of wine become alcoholics.