It’s hard to talk about sex these days without the topic of porn being brought up — along with potentially very strong opinions. Given the easy access to porn on our electronic devices, most couples have had to talk about whether porn has a place in their sex life, while together or solo, and if so, what kind of place. Since porn isn’t going away, couples need to be able to talk about it in a way that leads to an agreement both can live with, especially when there are big differences in how the two partners feel about porn.

To have that productive discussion, it helps to start by eliminating some common misconceptions, so that you and your partner can better address the points you disagree on. Accurate information tends to lead to better discussions and decisions. Contrary to what many believe, the research simply doesn’t support the claims that porn is addictive in the same way that alcohol can be, or that it inevitably leads to greater and more problematic use, brain changes, or sexual violence. For this reason and others, porn addiction was not accepted into the latest version of the official psychiatric diagnostic manual.

     (Note: This post is not about the debate on whether or not porn is bad. If you’re interested in that, see the brilliant work elsewhere on the site from Marty Klein, Ph.D., David Ley, Ph.D., and Michael Aaron, Ph.D., all of whom have shaped my thinking on the topic. This post accepts that porn use is common, and that couples could benefit from coming to a mutual agreement about it.)

Although there are some who wind up spending more time or money on porn than they intend, the vast majority of users don’t run into trouble with it. Excessive porn use is usually the result of using porn as a way to manage anxiety, depression, loneliness, relationship stress, or other uncomfortable feelings. Therefore, those root causes should be addressed, and/or alternative coping skills developed. This may or may not involve a temporary abstinence from porn use.

For most people, the primary problems associated with porn use are the arguments that it sparks with their romantic partner. But it should be noted that higher porn use often follows problems in a couple’s sex life, rather than causing those problems. However, disagreements about porn use can maintain avoidance of partnered activities if porn becomes the path of least resistance. The obvious way this happens is when one partner uses up their sexual energy on solo activities, but it can also become a situation in which the other partner blames all of their sexual troubles on the porn use without looking at what else is going on in their sex life and relationship.

Porn use doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you feel that it is problematic, then you need to look at how it fits into what else is going on — what the porn use is affecting, but also what is affecting the porn use?

Talk It Out

When people talk about porn, several other issues tend to get blended together, which makes for a messy, unproductive conversation. Many discussions about porn also contain strong feelings about broader topics, such as:

  • Is masturbation acceptable, particularly if you have a romantic partner?
  • Is it acceptable to have sexual thoughts and desires that don’t fit “mainstream” sexuality?
  • Is it acceptable to have sexual thoughts and desires for someone other than your romantic partner?
  • Is it acceptable to have sexual thoughts and desires that you don’t share fully with your partner?

These are big questions that usually have multi-layered and nuanced answers. You may want to get a deeper understanding of how you each feel by starting with these broader questions. There are no right or wrong answers, but it is important to figure out what works for each of you individually and to seek points of agreement, as well as to explore what beliefs underlie the points that you disagree on. We learn a lot about sexuality without really stepping back and examining where those ideas came from and whether they still work for us. You may benefit from ongoing discussions that will involve reflection, questioning, and sharing, before the topic of porn even gets brought up.

lightwavemedia/Shutterstock
Source: lightwavemedia/Shutterstock

Come to Agreement

Open discussion prevents secrecy and unhappy discoveries — which are problematic regardless of what is being hidden. If you and your partner disagree about porn, it will probably help to talk with curiosity and honesty about the appeal or lack thereof. If your partner is interested in porn, then ask them:

  • What is it about masturbation that you enjoy — both with and without porn?
  • Can you describe the porn that you enjoy?
  • What is it about that porn that turns you on, compared to porn that doesn’t?
  • Are there themes, activities, or feelings from that porn that we could talk about incorporating into our sex life?
  • Would you feel comfortable sometimes including me in your porn use?

If your partner does not enjoy porn or feels uncomfortable with your use, try to understand their position by asking:

  • How do you feel about masturbation, and is it different with or without porn?
  • How do you feel about having sexual thoughts and desires about someone other than each other?
  • How do you feel about porn in general, and why?
  • How do you feel about me watching porn, and why do you think I enjoy it?
  • How do you feel about the specific kinds of porn that I watch? Are there some kinds that would be more acceptable than others?
  • What else do you want to ask me?

The discussion of sexuality in general, and porn in particular, can build intimacy and understanding. Your turn-ons may still be different, but you may be able to better appreciate what turns your partner on and why. It can be interesting and even exciting to learn about each other’s sexual fantasies and desires. Good reactions (by both partners) to honest disclosure reduce the guilt and shame that foster secrecy, uncomfortable avoidance, and/or unhappy discoveries.

So talking about porn becomes part of a much larger discussion about turn-ons, fantasies, desires, sexuality, and intimacy. This greater understanding makes it easier to negotiate an agreement about porn use that you can both feel good about and will, therefore, be sustainable. And if you do a good job with these bigger discussions, you will probably find that your sex life improves, regardless of what you decide about porn.

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