The Case for Porn

Can Pornography Actually Help our Relationships?

Ian Kerner

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?"

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Topic: Couples | Families | Sex & Sexuality

Tags: addiction | addictions counselor | healthy relationships | help with addiction | internet | love and relationships | porn | porn addiction | pornography | relationship fail | secrets | Sex & Sexuality | sex addiction

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2 Comments

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 10:27:37 AM | posted by Alice
Noticeably missing from this commentary is an emphasis on the very real relationship between the porn industry and the perpetuation and normalizing of the degradation and violence toward women, including rape, torture and abuse. The porn industry is a multi-billion dollar industry BECAUSE men like Ian Kerner are using their power and platform as an "expert" to promote an industry that is notorious for the degradation of women. Kerner states, "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." Is this for real? I can't help but lump Kerner into the category of men who rationalize continued social dominance by normalizing reckless and harmful "mainstream" behavior. Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society aptly sums up this problem: "Consider slavefarm.com, which contains free images of women being raped, tortured and degraded. As with all other types of violence against women, the amount and degree of violence that women are subjected to in the online sex industry are minimized, denied, and ignored. It is often said that the movement to redefine prostitution as "sex work" is an example of this phenomenon." Does Kerner promote this as well? I'm angry and disappointed in Psychotherapy Networker for giving this man a platform to continue to promote an industry known for degradation and violence towards women. This is irresponsible and unprofessional. When these mistaken conclusions are given a platform in your magazine, it makes our expertise as professionals who advocate for clients' best interest suspect. Imagine if my client, who was raped by a group of fraternity boys at a Big 10 school who engaged in porn prior to the rape, found this in my waiting room. I wouldn't dream of telling this young woman that she should ever feel pressure to "deepen" a relationship, as Kerner suggests, by watching porn. She should never be sent a message by any therapist that she should normalize porn. It would be belittling, dismissive of her pain and harmful to her well being. Kerner is misguided in his conclusions and so is Psychotherapy Networker for giving him a platform.

Saturday, February 6, 2016 1:48:15 PM | posted by M.A.
I agree with a lot of what you have written about openness and honesty in relationships, as well as normalizing sexuality. However, the larger social issues associated with the existence of pornography are not addressed here - and some of them are critical. For example, porn use is often correlated with increased violence and reinforcement of the rape culture - particularly the right of men to use girls and women sexually without their permission, and to blame them for tempting men into undesirable sexual behavior (https://donnysramblings.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/how-porn-affects-us-a-list-of-peer-reviewed-studies-as-well-as-magazine-articles/). Most porn sites are not invested in giving honest age and background information about their models, and they do not demonstrate that the models necessarily have choice in what they expose or how they portray themselves. There are a few feminist/humanist sites (like Abby Winters) that include honest information and make it clear that the models are consenting adults. However, these are the rare exceptions and you really have to be looking for respectful porn to find them. Essentially, it is not a healing solution to promote an industry that is so clearly full of dishonesty and sexual abuse. Even socially acceptable modeling is fraught with oppression, abuse, and using people - especially girls and women - as objects. To pretend that those issues do not exist when you view mainstream (unregulated) porn to help your relationship or explore your own sexuality is dissociative and does not consider the relationships and overall value of those you are viewing.