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Relationships

Is Porn Bad for Relationships?

Whether porn is helpful or harmful depends on the couple ... and the context.

Every couple has an idiosyncratic menu of topics that are easy for them to talk about and topics that are challenging for them to talk about. But there is one topic that is tricky for most couples to discuss, and that is the place (if any) that pornography has in their relationship. This makes sense given that the topic of porn lives at the intersection of several sensitive subjects:

  • Relationship boundaries: What’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds?
  • Privacy versus secrecy
  • Gender role socialization (especially for heterosexual couples)
  • Body image
  • Sex!

Last week, I posted two questions to my global community of almost 90,000 on Instagram:

  • In your experience, what is the impact of porn on a couple’s relationship?
  • In what ways?

Over the next 24 hours, I heard from over 2,000 people, and the responses to the first question came back like this:

  • 70 percent said porn was harmful.
  • 30 percent said porn was helpful.

Although Instagram only allows a binary response, many people sent me messages saying they wanted an “it depends” option saying further that it depends on the level of honesty/transparency, the type of porn being used, and the quality of the communication about the topic. It should also be noted that my audience is mostly women (89 percent), mostly between 25 and 44 years old (73 percent), and mostly US-based.

This is an immensely complicated topic that couples need time and space to sort through. You’ll find some additional resources at the end of the post, but for our purposes here, I want to share some of the responses I received. I am sharing them without weighing in or commenting. My hope is that hearing the perspectives of others will provide validation and context that may help you and your partner talk more openly and collaboratively about this sensitive subject.

Porn as Harmful

Here are six themes that stood out among those who found porn to have a troubling effect on their relationship, presented in order of how frequently they came up in the responses:

Porn use creates unrealistic expectations (this was by far the most common theme!)

  • Pressure on partner.
  • Insecurity about bodies.
  • Comparing myself to the video.
  • Male partner wanting me to imitate porn.
  • His porn-like fantasies don’t feel genuine to me.
  • Creates unrealistic body, erection, noise expectations.
  • Wondering if I am good enough.
  • Porn use leads to reduced empathy.

The relationship becomes less intimate

  • Cheapens intimacy.
  • I presume that he dehumanizes me somewhat but I need him to see my full humanity.
  • Creates insecurity.
  • Lack of imagination and presence.
  • Increases my body dysmorphia.
  • Destroys intimacy and becomes a “third person” in the relationship.
  • Sex becomes about being rough, saying demeaning things, and a quick fix.
  • Numbs uncomfortable feelings, to avoid dealing with the source of them.

Porn use reinforces sexist ideas and problematic sexual scripts

  • Unhealthy perspectives on women’s bodies and how they operate.
  • It teaches men that women are always up for a quick one.
  • Expectation to be like women in the video (I am not good enough, exciting enough).
  • Objectification and disconnection.
  • Expectations: Skinny figure, big boobs, endless orgasms, no woman can compete with that.
  • Concentrates usually only on men’s pleasure. Impacts on our thoughts about what “normal” sex looks like.

Porn use creates less desire for real-life sex

  • Porn made me impotent.
  • Dulls a man’s edge, alters brain chemistry, leads to less sex.
  • Feels disrespectful, especially if choosing it over me.
  • He disconnects from himself when using porn, intimacy is impossible after that.
  • Stamina is affected.

Porn use blocks healthy communication

  • The problem is when it turns secretive.
  • Breaks trust when it starts to feel secretive.
  • Destroys trust. Breeds insecurity.
  • In my experience, it starts with “let’s get some ideas” and ends with “why aren’t you doing XYZ.”

Porn use is a turn-off

  • His porn use killed my desire to be sexually intimate with him.
  • I wonder what he’s thinking of the women he’s seen when he’s with me, which makes me shut down.
  • It made my wife feel like she couldn’t be an erotic enough person.

Porn as Helpful

Here are four themes that stood out among those who describe porn as helpful.

Porn helps us learn about ourselves and each other

  • We used it as educational.
  • Sharing likes and dislikes in a visual way.
  • My partner had sexual trauma that cut them off from their desire, and had no clue what they wanted and porn helped us explore together.
  • It can open up communication and can help explore you and your partner’s turn-ons and turn-offs.
  • Allows us both to understand what we both like, especially because we are both bi and one of us is gender fluid.
  • It helps me talk about what we might want to try.
  • Helped us understand what we both like, inspiration, easier than saying out loud.
  • Supports solo sex that can be communicated to a partner.

Porn boosts desire

  • Using porn to increase sex drive before sex with partner.
  • It helps us do role play. Makes it more fun.
  • Spiced up our love life.
  • As an aid, it’s helpful. As an addiction, it’s destructive.
  • Break the ice to talk about desires, laugh together get turned out together.
  • No harm when both enjoy it and may watch it together.
  • No harm when enjoyed together, amplifies dirtiness, excitement.
  • Just the sound of it in the background enhances an already dirty session of sex.

Porn felt freeing/validating

  • It was helpful in me seeing women enjoy their bodies even when they didn’t look perfect, but that’s it!
  • When watching porn with a range of bodies, it can validate and feel like a celebration of imperfect bodies.

Porn fills a desire discrepancy

  • Helpful to not make your partner “responsible” to take care of your own needs.
  • It tides us over during a dry season and provides inspiration.
  • Solo sex gives you opportunities to figure out what you really like/want, can be shared later.
  • Taking some steam off when one of us isn’t in the mood without adding pressure.
  • Gives us space to explore sexual fantasies/kinks that aren’t shared.
  • Can take pressure off a partner when they aren't interested. I’m not solely responsible for your sex life.

I hope reading the feedback from other people feels clarifying and supportive.

Guidance for Couples

Rather than getting stuck fighting about whether porn is good or bad, couples need to dig a bit deeper and explore motivations for porn use, thoughts/feelings about porn, and agreements that can be made to neutralize the topic. These conversations may need to happen over time, and attempts to problem-solve may involve some trial and error. Use this post as a jumping-off point. Here are some discussion questions that can support a conversation founded in curiosity and empathy:

  1. Which of these themes feel most aligned with your experience and perspective? Why?
  2. What surprised you as you read this post?
  3. How can we protect the rest of what is good about our relationship from this struggle we’re having about porn?
  4. What do you think I could be doing differently to ease our tension around this topic? (Make sure you both ask this question of each other!)
  5. When we are struggling to figure out the role of porn in our relationship, what do you want me to remember? (Make sure you both ask this question as well!)

Approach this topic with openness and care will help you find a path forward that serves each of you individually and the two of you as a couple.

References

Additional Resources

How couples can talk about porn, and why they should (Alexandra H. Solomon, Psychology Today)

Shewey, D. (2018). The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture (JoyBody Books).

Klein, M. (2015). His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s Porn Panic with Real Talk about Sex (Praeger).

It’s time for porn to change (Erika Lust TED talk)

6 principles of sexual health (Doug Braun-Harvey)

My new e-course, Intimate Relationships 101: Building Relational and Sexual Self-Awareness, will help you address the common communication problems that couples often face.

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