• Korey McWilliams, LCPC

Is Porn Ruining Our Relationship?


At the outset of our first meeting, Tony informed me that he had been researching erectile dysfunction on the internet and determined, in no uncertain terms, that it resulted from his porn addiction. Tony was distraught, humiliated and filled with shame. Despite the longstanding love and commitment in his twelve year marriage, the joy of his life had become his distant roommate. Their relationship had grown cold and sexless.

After Tony and I discussed what he meant exactly by “erectile dysfunction” and “porn addiction,” Tony revised his conclusion, porn wasn’t the real problem after all. As many others similarly afflicted with sexual or mental health concerns, Tony had desperately wanted to make sense of his woes and as a result, looked hastily for explanations by turning to the wild wild web. A quick internet search yields no shortage of individuals offering anecdotal evidence for porn’s destruction of their relationship. In the face of shame, confusion, and uncertainty about the cause of erection difficulties, porn becomes an easy target to blame. However, when clients like Tony present with worries about erections, the causes are ALWAYS more multidimensional and complex than simply, “I’m a porn addict.”

Our discussion revealed a number of potential contributing factors unrelated to Tony’s porn watching. Was part of the problem the shame Tony has carried since childhood when his mother drove him to be, in her words, the “perfect son?” Well, perfect until the time she caught him masturbating to porn on the family computer. From then on, she never let him forget he was now the “could have been perfect son.” Or, maybe it was Tony’s confused wife who saw her husband turning away from her after yet another failed erection that he couldn’t explain. Had he lost attraction to her? Perhaps it was the lack of sex education about how his aging penis no longer achieves and maintains erections like it did when he was younger. Or, maybe it was the long stressful energy draining hours at work, where despite a long-standing desire to quit his job, he stuck it out because of the need to be the perfect husband and provider. Or, as is the case with most clients I work with, some combination of these and other physical, psychological, and relationship factors converge to work against firm and reliable erections.

I, and others, contend that the watching of pornography alone does NOT cause sexual or relationship problems (www.realyourbrainonporn.com). The most disruptive aspects that porn brings to a relationship have little to do with the porn itself but instead hinge on how we or a partner interpret the meaning or reasons for the porn watching. Having a negative reaction to a partner’s porn watching often demands checking ourselves first by looking more deeply at our assumptions and what porn means to us personally. Just as we manage other conflict in our relationship, we should never rely solely on our own perception but instead strive to understand our partner’s perspective, as well as the more specific concerns that may underlie our negative opinions.

I agree that porn is not for everyone and that’s fine. But if your partner is into it and you’re not, why should your opinion matter more than theirs? Strive to be open minded and accept that porn may be a point of contention like so many others in a relationship, where the solution starts by sitting down and listening to your partner’s perspective before dismissing it out of hand. Use your grown up skills to engage in healthy dialogue, not a one sided dictatorship.

In my sex therapy practice, I hear many concerns about porn that necessitate going beyond a knee jerk reaction into the realm of honest and authentic discussion. Sometimes the impact on the relationship is real but the reasons typically have more to do with us than our porn watching partners. Here are six common fears I hear from partners concerned that porn watching might be impacting their relationship:

  • My partner will lose their attraction to me

  • Porn will cause erection problems

  • Watching porn is cheating

  • Our sex life will suffer

  • Only perverts watch porn

  • Porn is addictive

Before dissecting these six partner fears, it’s important to clarify what we mean when we use the word “porn.” Unfortunately many opponents of porn undermine their critique by portraying porn as a monolithic entity lacking in variety beyond sexual perversions and sexual assault of women. This is a gross over generalization that is neither true nor helpful. There are ALL KINDS of porn with ALL KINDS of actors with ALL KINDS of bodies doing ALL KINDS of CONSENSUAL activities and this sexual diversity existed long before internet porn came on the scene. Many romance novels contain just as graphic depictions of sexual acts as some internet porn. Essentially porn is like the world’s biggest banquet hall and there are types of food from all over the world, some made by professional chefs and a whole lot of DIYers trying to win the chili cook off. Unless you just dislike chili, you’ll find some offerings that you really like and some that are actually kinda gross. Like most things in life, NOT ALL CHILI IS THE SAME. Nor is porn. Typically the way people judge porn has more to do with their beliefs about sexuality generally than the actual images being presented. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t observations one can make about porn industry priorities and trends but if you do generalize, you might be making false assumptions about the interests of your particular porn purveyor of concern. Back to those six common partner fears...

My Partner Will Lose Attraction to Me

The most frequent concern I hear is that watching porn has or will negatively impact the viewer’s attraction to their partner. The reasoning goes that if someone conditions themself to get aroused by only looking at porn stars who look unlike their partner, eventually their partner won’t be enough to turn them on. On the surface, this sounds reasonable. Fortunately, this fear is unfounded. If your partner isn’t attracted to you, either they have already lost their attraction for other reasons, or you’re projecting your insecurities that result from a comparison of yourself to porn performers. This makes sense. If I have a negative body image or I’m not confident in my looks or I’m uncomfortable with my own sexuality, how could I not feel jealous knowing my partner gets turned on by people who possess the appearance I so desperately crave? Jealous feelings provide an opportunity for us to learn more about our OWN insecurities and how those may be keeping US from enjoying a relaxed, shame free sex life. Tragically, in some cases, the partner who feels unattractive may show increasingly less interest in sex and unknowingly drive their partner to increase their porn viewing as a way of compensating for the loss of sexual gratification in the relationship! Always look deeply at your own needs and desires before you start demanding that your partner change their behavior.

Porn Causes Erectile Dysfunction

As I mentioned with Tony in the introduction, losing erections in and of itself can feel devastating but when the cause remains unclear, it only deepens the sense of helplessness. Without a clear cause it’s easy to find internet keyboard experts waving their fingers at the destructive power of porn. Unfortunately what often gets lost in the discussion is that the porn watchers are not only watching porn, they’re also engaging in highly arousing erotic stimulation of their genitals! Self touch can be a healthy and important part of understanding sexual arousal that can facilitate erections during partnered sex and may actually be necessary for a lot of penises, particularly as they age. For many penis owners, masturbation serves as their only known method of relaxation and stress relief. Masturbation habits, however, are a different story and deserve further examination.

While porn represents a neutral stimulus that we project our own discomfort and insecurities onto, repetitive masturbation habits developed over years or decades, present a real and common impact. Masturbating in the same body position with the same hand using the same type of movement with the same stroke speed and the same death grip can result in a conditioned arousal pattern that works well for getting off quickly and with great satisfaction. Unfortunately this habitual pattern can pose challenges when it comes time for partnered sex and for some, that means difficulties achieving or maintaining erections.

Think about it. Masturbation, whether to porn or not, allows for a solo sexual experience filled with relaxation and having zero partner expectations about erections, performance, lasting long enough, not lasting too long, or bringing a partner pleasure. Any well trained sex therapist will tell you that not enough relaxation and too many distracting expectations during partnered sex are the most likely contributors to erection difficulties, not porn. As was the case with Tony, there are typically multiple causes underlying erection difficulties. While it can be easy to blame porn, we can’t dismiss the fact that people are not just watching porn, they’re also masturbating. Long term solo sex habits don’t always translate to partnered sex. If our arousal pattern becomes rigid and less flexible, sex may become less arousing and thereby affect erections during partnered sex where the demands are much different. In sum, if you or a partner are having erection difficulties, perhaps your masturbation ritual needs a closer look. Try diversifying your masturbation and porn watching habits so you are able to get off in a variety of ways, perhaps even with a partner!

Watching Porn Is Cheating

Most of us don’t talk about sex enough and too many of us don’t talk about sex at all, even with a partner. The silence and secrecy that often surrounds porn and masturbation will eventually create conflict if genuine differences exist in attitudes towards their necessity. Not discussing your differing attitudes towards porn and masturbation before entering into a committed relationship sets the stage for one of the partner’s to feel betrayed.

Partner 1 - “I had no idea you watched porn. Have you been hiding it from me the whole time we’ve been married?”

Partner 2 - “I didn’t want to tell you because I was afraid this is how you’d react!”

Partner 1 - “So you thought hiding the fact that you’re essentially having sex with other people was a good idea? What else are you doing that you’re not telling me about?”

If you’re not being open and forthcoming about your personal sexual interests, at some point you may unknowingly cross a partner’s boundary for betrayal. Even though YOU may not see it as such, your partner may. Take the opportunity to get to know each other’s sexual needs even better than you currently do. Talk about where each of you learned your attitudes towards porn and masturbation. Genuinely share and discuss what porn watching means to you and what you get out of it. Ask yourself specifically, what does my partner’s porn watching mean to me?

We all have a right to our own private sexual experiences. Committing to a relationship does not mean controlling your partner’s sexuality. On the other hand, our partners also have the right to voice their concerns about porn. A healthy relationship allows both parties the right to be heard and understood. How the conflict resolves will depend on your ability and willingness to listen, understand and accept a perspective different than your own. Perhaps your inability to have these conversations reflects a broader deficit in the relationship, not solely around porn. If you are finding these conversations too difficult, it might be time to speak with a sex therapist.

Our Sex Will Suffer

If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to compete sexually with porn stars, ask yourself, do you really want your sex to compare to porn? Most professional porn typically lacks sufficient foreplay, emotional expression, laughter, and loving affection. Is that what you want your sex to be like? Comparing your sex to porn probably means dissatisfaction with your sex life. We need to remember that as a form of fantasy, professional porn can entail a lot of highly atypical sex acts being committed by highly atypical bodies. Would you compare your cooking to Top Chef or your basketball skills to an ESPN highlight reel? Probably not. If you are, the problem isn’t the porn, but most likely your unrealistic comparison.

Move your focus from blaming porn to taking an honest assessment of any deficits or differences in sexual desire or interests in your relationship. Concerns about porn may have brought issues into the light but they would have reared their head eventually. This can be a good thing. Be thankful. Now you can collaborate on a solution, not argue about a red herring. Why not approach this difference like any other difference in the relationship? Maybe now that it’s out in the open you can compare your sex life to the one you want to have. Engage in conversations with your partner. Not just one but multiple, ongoing conversations about BOTH of your sexual wants and needs, including but not limited to watching porn.

Only Perverts Watch Porn

The overwhelming majority, about 97-98% of humans will fantasize about sex at some point in their lives (Lehmiller, 2019). Further, to paraphrase Esther Perel, the things we fantasize about during the night are the very things we protest during the day (Perel, 2017). Given the taboo nature of many common sexual fantasies and our cultural attitudes towards sex, it’s not surprising that having sexual fantasies can be a source of great shame and guilt. Most of us are not eager to have water cooler conversations about the sexual dreams and erotic fantasies we had over the weekend. Instead, we keep them to ourselves, occasionally or frequently feeling that something might be wrong with us. This internal conflict makes it difficult to reconcile within ourselves, let alone share our fantasies or porn interests with a partner.

No, your partner is not a pervert or secretly gay if they identify as straight but like to watch gay or trans porn. Likewise, your partner is not straight just because they enjoy watching straight porn. Porn is fantasy! Having fantasies does not mean we will act on them; erotic orientation is different from sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to who we are and who we pursue in real life. Erotic orientation is what turns us on and refers to our fantasies, kinky interests, and porn preferences. Our erotic orientation is governed by the imagination and is unrestricted by traditional boundaries around gender roles and sexual orientation. Sometimes sexual and erotic orientation overlap but we can’t make assumptions about one type of orientation, just from knowing the other.

By the way, I have no idea what you mean when you say “pervert” but there’s probably a less judgmental and more specific way to describe our partner’s behavior like, “my wife likes to watch gay male porn” rather than “my wife is a pervert.” See the difference? One of them actually tells me something meaningful that we can have a discussion about, the other just reflects my ability to be judgmental and elicit defensiveness in my partner. Let’s be honest though. If you still think your partner might be a “pervert,” it’s not because they watch porn. People who engage in unethical or violent behavior and happen to also watch porn were already predisposed to acting violently and unethically. Porn does not make people do anything other than get aroused and even that’s not guaranteed! Even when people do want to try something they’ve seen in porn, it’s because they were already the type of person who was interested in those types of things.

Porn Is Addictive

One obstacle to honest conversation about porn watching is the assumption that if someone watches “too much” porn, they may develop an incurable “porn addiction.” Just because you find porn unappealing or immoral doesn’t mean that someone else’s watching it will turn them into an addict. “But,” you might say, “they watch it all the time!” Well, I say, who gets to decide how much porn and masturbation is too much? If you’re against porn or masturbation, any amount of your partner engaging in them is probably too much. In most cases, “too much” ends up really meaning, “more than me!”

Although common, it’s insufficient to simply say, “I can’t control my porn watching because I’m an addict.” Sorry folks, you don’t get off the hook that easily. You don’t get to say, “I’m an addict because I watch too much porn” and then say, “I watch too much porn because I’m an addict.” That type of circular reasoning avoids responsibility for looking more deeply at the impact a porn watcher might be having on their relationship as well as the reasons why porn has become a preferred activity. If porn watching has impacted your relationship, you cannot absolve yourself of responsibility by flaunting the excuse that “I’m a porn addict!”

The addict label may provide some temporary relief by offering a perspective that says, “I am not alone,” but that’s where the benefit ends. Labels only describe our behavior, they really explain nothing about how to proceed towards understanding a cause or solution. There is no cookie cutter treatment approach for so called “porn addiction.” Relationships and individuals deserve a broader and more nuanced perspective other than simply, “Don’t do it!” or “It’s out of my control!” If your partner worked too much would you be okay with just saying, “they’re a workaholic so there’s nothing I can do?”

Let’s quit using the word addiction as if it explains anything and instead talk specifics about how porn ACTUALLY impacts the relationship. If we can detach from our moral judgments, sexual discomfort, and personal insecurities about porn and focus on the actual relationship needs that have gone unmet, we can then begin to have a fruitful discussion focused on mutually desirable solutions. In my experience, when couples are able to communicate honestly about their needs, a number of real concerns emerge that indicate porn or masturbation might actually be affecting their relationship:

  • Decreased partnered sexual activity due to a drop in sexual desire resulting from recent or frequent masturbation

  • Masturbation habits that render partnered sex less arousing by comparison

  • Poor communication and conflict management in the relationship; avoidance of discussing porn or masturbation interests and making assumptions about shared beliefs

  • Spends excessive amounts of time with the computer resulting in fewer opportunities to engage interpersonally. This obviously encompasses activities beyond masturbating to porn.

  • Violates PRIOR explicit agreements about masturbation, porn viewing or other sexual boundaries

  • Nags you repeatedly to watch porn when you’ve already expressed disinterest

  • Talks or tells jokes about porn or sex more than you want

  • Leaves porn accessible to children

  • Leaves evidence of masturbation laying around the house

  • Spends unacceptable amounts of money on porn

So, is porn ruining your relationship? It might be but probably not for the reasons you originally thought. In addition to the actual outcomes above, there is some really unethical, racist, violent, misogynistic, homophobic, and trans-phobic porn on the wild wild web. But that doesn’t mean that the porn your partner watches is problematic. Romance novels have long served up graphic and diverse depictions of sexuality with nary a drop of dissension among the partners of avid readers. If you believe a partner’s porn watching is a problem for you or for your relationship, have a deeper conversation about your sexual desires and frustrations and about what engaging porn fantasies means to you or your partner. Don’t assume. Regardless of your beliefs, stay focused on the actual impact on your relationship. If that’s not working, give me a call and let’s all talk about it together. Your relationship and sex life will thank you!

SOURCES

Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure. (2016) Ley, D., Berkeley, CA:S tone Bridge Press.

His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America's PornPanic with Honest Talk about Sex. (2016). Klein, M., Santa Barbara, California: Praeger. State of Affairs, (2017). Perel, E., New York, NY: Harper.

Tell Me What You Want. (2019). Lehmiller, J. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.

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©2018 Korey McWilliams, LLC