The issue around pornography’s influence on sexuality has never been more important to address than it is today, simply because pornography has never been more integrated and relevant in our culture.
Our purpose here is not to assess it from a moral perspective but to ask, "What are porn’s practical implications for relationships?" First of all, we must acknowledge the main reason for using porn—to increase pleasurable sexual stimulation and intensity. And the fact is, few products deliver on what they promise the way porn does.
So for something that so consistently produces its desired results, the next question becomes, "Is it worth it?" We believe you should seriously consider this question if you or and/or your partner use porn individually or view it together to enhance your bedroom experience.
On the upside, viewing online pornography can provide a quick and convenient means to a pleasurable end. Some people can use porn in moderation, without hiding it from their spouse and without obvious detrimental effects on their relationship. In our experience this group represents the minority. Sometimes couples look to porn to spice things up in the bedroom. When viewed together, it can help couples to discuss their sexual preferences and experiment with what they see.
However easy to access and ubiquitous it may be, it is a potentially addictive process for about 5-10 percent of users. It tends to hook at-risk people hard and fast, leading them far past their originally intended boundaries. Like other addictions, people usually don’t know they are at-risk until they are already hooked. We have seen many people lose their careers and families and incur legal consequences because of an unmanageable relationship with porn.
[Editor's Note: Within the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the official manual used within the psychiatric community, sex addiction was debated, but ultimately excluded from diagnosis in this edition. This article from Time magazine explores the continuing conversation.]
This was not typically the case before the early ’90s when it took at least some effort to purchase a magazine or video, not to mention the risk of embarrassment if witnessed doing so. Not only did the internet make porn infinitely more accessible, affordable and anonymous, it also delivered the product in a way that was far more stimulating than any magazine or video. In fact, Dr. Patrick Carnes refers to online porn’s level of intensity as "stimulation beyond the original design" of the human brain. On brain scans, it lights up the reward centers of the brain in a similar fashion to crack cocaine.
“Not only did the internet make porn infinitely more accessible, affordable and anonymous, it also delivered the product in a way that was far more stimulating than any magazine or video.”
But let’s say you’re in the 90-95 percent that will not develop a full-blown porn addiction. No problem, right?
Well…there could be some complicating factors. First of all, on the male side of things, we are seeing a sharp increase in the number of men who struggle with Erectile Dysfunction, Delayed Orgasm and low desire who are otherwise healthy and relatively happy in their relationships. However, they have become so conditioned by the sexual intensity that online porn provides that they are not nearly as responsive to the real thing as they once were. Others need to bring mental images and scenes from their porn use into their sexual times with their partners in order to become aroused. (You can imagine their partners are not thrilled by these developments!). The good news is that after about 30 days of abstaining from masturbating to porn, they are usually able to resume normal functioning. For some though, the abstaining is not so simple, as it becomes apparent that some compulsion has developed.
There is also the complicating factor of how porn use affects perceptions of sexually normative behaviors and sexual expectations. We hear story after story about requests from one partner to another to engage in sexual behaviors viewed online. Sometimes, the partner is willing and both enjoy the experience, but other times, the request is perceived as offensive or uncomfortable. In other instances, there is no request because one partner spontaneously introduces the behavior.
For example, Megan began to notice that her husband, Rick, was becoming rougher and using coarse language during sex that she’d never heard him use before. In the past she had appreciated how tuned into her he seemed during sex, but recently it seemed like his mind was somewhere else.
When she asked him about the changes she was noticing, he told her he, "Just wanted to shake things up a little bit."
Megan told him she was all for variety but that she was uncomfortable with his distance and language. A few weeks later while they were engaged in some passionate foreplay, Rick attempted anal sex with Megan without any discussion. This activity had never been part of their sex life and Megan was shocked.
"What do you think you’re doing?!" she exclaimed. That seemed to snap Rick out of his trance.
"I just thought it might be fun to try something different, but I guess you aren’t up for that," he replied.
"No, I’m definitely not and I want to know what has gotten into you lately. Sex used to be so fun, and I always felt so close to you. But now you’re starting to scare me."
Eventually, Rick told Megan that he’d been doing some "online research" about sexuality and he had been drawn toward certain porn sites. Megan told him how surprised she was and that she much preferred that they discuss their sex life together as partners instead of secretly developing sexual agendas. She also let him know that she was hurt and concerned that he could so easily objectify her and she asserted that she was not okay with him continuing to visit porn sites.
“Megan told him how surprised she was and that she much preferred that they discuss their sex life together as partners instead of secretly developing sexual agendas.”
It wasn’t easy for Rick, but he did hear Megan and after several starts and stops he was able to turn away from his attraction to porn’s intensity. As he gradually moved back in the direction of his and Megan’s very real sexual intimacy, he was able to appreciate that there was some noticeable sexual intensity there also, but with the benefit of feeling genuinely connected to his wife.
Thankfully, Rick’s relationship with porn had not reached the level of active addiction, but many others are not so fortunate. It can take an aggressive course of psychological treatment combined with group support to effectively address more deeply entrenched patterns of behavior. Even if it does not rise to this level, masturbating with online porn is an isolating behavior, often done secretly, that involves directing one’s sexual energy, desire and arousal toward people other than one’s partner. And as in Rick’s case, it can influence one’s sexual expectations, preferences, style and presence.
If you are watching one scene after another of anal sex or ejaculations on faces or threesomes or high-risk sexual scenarios, or hairless genitals, then these things can start to seem normal even if they have never been part of your sexual enjoyment. Granted, for some people, this exposure may be a springboard into a new area of sexual enjoyment. But for many others, it skews their perceptions of normalcy and unrealistically raises the sexual expectations they have of their partner.
If you are wondering if it might be fun to watch some porn together, consider this: It might be. But if either one of you does not find this idea appealing, that should be enough to nix it (and without judging that person’s reluctance negatively).
However, if both of you really want to do this together, be aware of the potential to become dependent on porn to make your sex life feel exciting. It may provide a short-term boost, but you may also need increasing levels of envelope-pushing sexual behavior on screen to get the same boost going forward.
Drs. Bill and Ginger Bercaw are the founders of The California Center for Healing in Pasadena, CA. The Bercaws earned their Doctorates in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and have a combined total of 25 years of private practice experience. To date, the Bercaws are the only Licensed Clinical Psychologists who hold both the Certified Sex Therapist Addiction Therapist (CSAT) and Certified Sex Therapist (CST) certifications. The Bercaws’ first book, "The Couple’s Guide to Intimacy" was highly acclaimed by clinicians and non-professionals alike upon its release (2010). Their most recent book, "From the Living Room to the Bedroom: The Modern Couple’s Guide to Sexual Abundance and Lasting Intimacy" will be released Friday, March 21, 2014. The Bercaws have been featured speakers at professional conferences, trainings, academic institutions and seminars.?