You, Me and Porn Make Three

When her new boyfriend confessed that he looked at porn, Donna, 37, made her views clear to him. "I'm very antipornography," she says. "I think it's very degrading to women. I told him: This is something I can't have in a relationship." He assured her that he'd only been interested in porn because he was single and lonely. Then, after the two had been married nine months, she found out he'd never stopped, at times spending as much as $120 a month on Internet raunch.

Donna, who lives in a small town in Connecticut, was stunned. "I blamed myself—I wasn't attractive enough. I have a weight problem—I blamed it on that." She also worried that she was overreacting: "Was I too strict? Too moral? Missing something?" Beyond her doubts about herself, she had a larger problem to deal with: "It broke my trust in the marriage."

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Porn-gazing—whether chronic or casual—can become an explosive issue for a couple, corroding intimacy and demolishing the sexual connection. But reactions to pornography can be as varied as human desire itself, and fault is often in the eye of the beholder. For couples who already have sexual conflicts or difficulty trusting each other, porn can play a particularly destructive role. Yet in some situations, erotic material can be a healthy outlet for sexual fantasy, possibly bringing a couple closer together. Even a conflict over pornography, handled constructively, can improve a relationship.

Erotic images are more available—and more mainstream—than ever. According to comScore, which measures Internet traffic, 66 percent of Internet-using men between the ages of 18 and 34 look at online porn at least once a month. In the past, guys hid their liking for smut; now, they can openly embrace it, thanks to Jenna Jameson, Stuff magazine and a porn-friendly culture. As a result, pornography-related conflicts among couples are becoming more common, marriage counselors say. The argument often has a similar refrain: He looks at it, she hates it and each resents the other. One study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, Ana Bridges and her co-authors found that while most women weren't bothered by their partner's X-rated interest, a significant minority were extremely distressed by it. But are they right to be worried? Is the anguish misdirected—or is there something to fear about porn?

The Facts of Life

Many women feel betrayed by porn, even though their mates don't necessarily perceive it as a transgression. "It was infidelity," says Suzanne Vail, 43, of Nashua, New Hampshire, describing her ex-boyfriend's habit. "I felt cheated on." More than a quarter of the women in Bridges's study agreed. The feelings may arise from an unrealistic understanding of fantasy in adult sexuality, suggests marital therapist Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Sex-Starved Marriage and founder of Divorce-Busting, a therapy and coaching service aimed at saving marriages. Partners, even long-term ones, may have never discussed fantasies. "On the conservative end of the spectrum, some wives are upset that the husband would think about any other images or other women," she says. "I'm just amazed at that—some of these couples have been together a long time!"

Weiner-Davis will often try to "do a little sexual education," explaining that fantasy is normal and that a lot of people enjoy sexually explicit images—especially men, who tend to be more visually oriented. If that "doesn't make a dent, if the wife is truly beside herself, it is a betrayal and I treat it as such." Weiner-Davis doesn't necessarily agree that a husband in this situation is cheating, but the emotional dynamics are much the same: The porn user needs to understand his partner's hurt feelings, and she needs to find a way to forgive him.

Many women feel that the guy who looks at porn must harbor some hostility toward women. Yet research hasn't established a link between pornography consumption and misogyny. One study found that porn users actually had slightly more positive and egalitarian views of women than other men did, though porn users were also more likely to hold stereotypical beliefs—for example, that women are more moral.

It's a counterintuitive finding, likely to annoy both conservatives and antiporn feminists. But simultaneously liking porn and respecting women is consistent with a liberal outlook, which typically combines tolerance with an egalitarian perspective. If your boyfriend has an abortion-rights bumper sticker and a stash of hardcore smut on his computer, he may be Jerry Falwell's worst nightmare, but he's not all that unusual. Or perhaps the connection between porn watching and pro-female attitudes is more fundamental, suggests James Beggan, a University of Louisville sociologist who co-authored the study with psychologist colleagues at Texas Tech University. "If you spend your time looking at pictures of naked women," he observes, "that's not really consistent with not liking women. It's consistent with liking them."

Living Up to the Fantasy

Phil, a 46-year-old writer in New York City, doesn't enjoy porn that much. But when it first became readily available online, the novelty sucked him in. "In the early days of the Internet, I would sometimes surf through reams of online flesh," he recalls wryly, "but I found it numbingly repetitive, and the opposite of arousing." Partly out of boredom, Phil (not his real name) used some of the images to teach himself graphic design. When his wife found the files on his computer, "she freaked," he recalls. "I was just pasting women's heads on different naked bodies—you know, perfectly normal behavior," he jokes, "but it did not sit at all well with the real-life woman I was living with."

Phil's wife was the kind of gorgeous blonde that most men only fantasize about, yet he suspects that his looking at porn made her feel inadequate. He was bewildered. Any notion that he was looking at cheesy Internet images because she wasn't good enough, he says, "would have been wildly misguided." (The couple has since divorced for other reasons.)

That fear is very real for many women, who worry they can't compete with the airbrushed perfection of the porn star. And they are "absolutely right," says Barry McCarthy, author of Rekindling Desire, and a therapist in Washington—they can't. But not measuring up to an illusion shouldn't be cause for worry, he adds. What makes the woman in porn so erotic is not her red lips and her fake breasts, but the fact that she's "crazy," says McCarthy: she's ever ready, always willing to do anything to please a man. No real woman could or would want to be that way.

Psychologically healthy men don't have much trouble distinguishing between reality and the weird world of commercial raunch. The trouble emerges, McCarthy says, when a person "can't differentiate between fantasy and reality: 'Why isn't my girlfriend like that? Why isn't she into sex with animals? Why won't she let me ejaculate on her face?'" Suzanne Vail, who operates an online group for women who believe their partners are sex addicts, says women in her group have attempted to please porn-obsessed men through liposuction, breast surgery and crash dieting. If a man has a driving need to make his real-life partner into a porn star, he's got a problem. A woman who acquiesces in such an impossible pursuit may quickly find that she's got one, too.

When Porn Is Good for You

Porn can actually help foster emotional and sexual intimacy, says Colorado psychologist David Schnarch, author of Resurrecting Sex, who runs a couples therapy practice with his wife. He explains: "A significant portion of our work in helping couples develop a deeper sexual connection is through erotic images. Erotica, as well as couples' own masturbatory fantasies, can be useful tools for helping them develop as adults." How couples intensify their sexual relationship differs radically depending on the individuals and on the dynamic between them. But fantasy is certainly a part of a healthy sex life, and porn does contribute significantly to the archive of sexy scenarios in our heads. It can also inspire couples to experiment more.

Interestingly, in Ana Bridges's study, the women with the most positive views of porn's role in their relationship were engaged in a more creative activity: The couples were taking sexy pictures of one another, removing entirely the problem of competition with the busty and lascivious commercial sex bomb. "It's very validating," says Bridges. "It's me turning you on. Even in my absence, you want to look at me."

She's Looking, Too

While men do look at porn more than women do, the ease and privacy of the Internet allow many women who would never have dared in the past to explore this realm. Fully half of the women in Bridges's study said they looked at pornography themselves.

And women can become just as obsessed as men. Jennifer Schneider, an M.D. who has studied sex addicts, interviewed several women who became hooked on smut. One 35-year-old married woman said the pictures (especially those depicting S&M scenarios) "would haunt me day and night." The habit began to erode her marriage. "My husband could no longer satisfy me," she told Schneider. "I wanted what I saw in the videos and pictures and was too embarrassed to ask him for it." The woman said she was freed from her obsessions by God, but a good marital therapist might have viewed this as an opportunity for the couple to learn to talk to each other about their desires—and perhaps try something new.

There is little solid research on how men feel about their female partner's porn use—or, for that matter, on how porn figures into gay relationships, which could help illuminate how much a straight couple's porn conflict is really a matter of gender differences. Some men clearly find it sexy, perhaps seeing her porn interest as a sign of a woman's experimental nature or aggressive libido. But writer Pamela Paul argues in her new book, Pornified: How Pornography Is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families, that while many men hope their partner approves of (or at least tolerates) their own porn interest, they may be critical of a girlfriend or wife who uses pornography herself. An Elle-MSNBC.com poll found that six in ten men were concerned about their partner's interest in Internet smut.

Drawing the Line

Dose matters. According to research by the late Alvin Cooper of the Silicon Valley Psychotherapy Center, people engaged in any kind of online sexual activity for less than an hour a week said it had little impact on their lives; people using it for 11 or more hours a week said it affected both their self-image and their feelings about their partners. Anywhere between one and ten hours a week is ambiguous terrain. It may just be a way to release stress, but as Cooper has pointed out, "the Internet is... a very powerful force that people can quickly develop a problem with, like crack cocaine."

Donna's husband, Steve, was just such a person. "Before, the pain and embarrassment of buying a magazine or going into a sex shop would stop him," she says. "Once he got the computer, that was it." Some individuals are vulnerable to compulsive porn use because of their own psychological makeup. Steve is a diagnosed obsessive-compulsive, and in his case, the availability and anonymity of Internet porn lent itself to ritualistic, uncontrollable behavior. But online pornography can become an obsession even for people without psychological disorders, simply because it is so easily available and taps into such a powerful appetite.

Sometimes a Dirty Picture Isn't Just a Dirty Picture

Not everyone is going to embrace porn as a positive force. But it is usually possible to work through the conflicts posed by pornography use. Michele Weiner-Davis encourages couples to explore what it means in the dynamic of the relationship: Why does it bother her so much? Is there something he gets from it that he could be getting from the relationship? "Sometimes it is relational," she says. "For example, the wife may not understand the importance of a good sex life. Sometimes she's not experimental or passionate. If, in a long-term marriage, couples don't have a common goal of keeping marriage passionate," she says, an X-rated habit can be a symptom of restlessness.

A heavy reliance on porn may be an outgrowth of other sexual discontents. Many men complain that their wives have gained weight and are no longer very attractive, says Weiner-Davis. Others prefer smut to real sex because while they're viewing porn, they're in control, McCarthy and Weiner-Davis agree. Says McCarthy, "Couple sex is much more complicated." Says Bridges, "People think it's just a way to masturbate, but in a relationship it can be a punishment: 'I don't want to be with you right now.'"

In the case of one couple Bridges saw, the husband had pulled away from his wife's constant criticism and retreated into fantasy. She had to learn not to be so mean, says Bridges. While there are countless ways to withdraw from a spouse, porn is both satisfying and readily available. And because it's sexual, it's a far more loaded distancing strategy than playing golf or spending too much time at the office.

One solution to the porn dilemma that clearly doesn't work: surveillance. It undermines trust and can foster its own obsessions. Suzanne Vail says partners may get compulsive about monitoring, just as those married to drug addicts or alcoholics can become overly involved in policing addictions.

Researchers and therapists concur that couples are better off treating the conflict as a practical matter rather than a moral issue. Faith may not be such an important consideration: Bridges found that nonreligious women were just as likely as religious women to be upset over a partner's porn use. "Looking at this in terms of right or wrong isn't helpful," says Weiner-Davis. "There's a great deal of variation in what turns people on, and the question is: What can we as a couple do about it?" As she points out, couples work hard to reach agreement on many issues—how they will spend money, where they will live, whether they will have children—but often neglect to achieve any sort of consensus on their sex life: how often, what sort of activities, how much extracurricular interest is acceptable.

A couple may never see eye-to-eye on porn; even if he's not compulsive, she may always feel that it's disgusting (or immoral). As David Schnarch has often pointed out, tolerating discomfort—and recognizing that a partner's desires may be different from yours—is critical to a fully adult, intimate sexual relationship. Then again, if porn is repellent to someone you love, it may be worthwhile to call it quits, like smoking or other cherished habits we give up for the sake of a relationship. As Weiner-Davis says of porn, "You won't get a disease, but it could cost you your marriage."

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