How the “Porn Addiction” Movement Disrespects Women

Those treating "porn addiction" see women as pathetic victims of their feelings.

Posted Jan 16, 2018

Although “porn addiction” is not recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5, and the concept is dismissed by most professional sex therapists, the porn addiction movement is enormous and growing. 

There are porn addiction treatment centers everywhere, a growing number of seminars therapists can take to recognize and treat the symptoms, 10-step groups for addicts, and courts and clergy across the country who refer people to porn addiction programs or literature. 

The porn addiction movement claims that one of the biggest problems with pornography is the way it disrespects women. But the movement itself is what's really disrespectful to women. 

The porn addiction movement, of course, is focused on straight male consumers. Although there are millions of women who regularly use pornography, their spouses almost never complain about it. Similarly, the partners of gay porn users (male or female) rarely complain about it. 

When couples do quarrel about porn, it’s almost exclusively straight women complaining about the porn use of their straight husbands. That's why the book I wrote about this dynamic is entitled His Porn, Her Pain.

With this built-in constituency, the porn addiction movement focuses almost exclusively on male consumers (“addicts”), and their female partners (“co-addicts,” “co-dependents,” “enablers”). 

Most "treatment" programs such as The Ranch and The Meadows are eager to involve the female partner in treatment. Whether she participates or not, she is usually described as a pathetic creature whose head and heart have exploded because of the catastrophe of their man’s porn use. The movement looks at these women with a combination of pity, dismay, shame, and frustration.

In their websites, popular articles, and marketing materials, the porn addiction movement’s words to porn users’ spouses are a toxic brew of patronizing assumptions. 

They express the lowest possible expectations of women's internal resources, thinking, and decision-making. While the movement says it aches with empathy for the poor women who are victims of their spouses’ selfish porn using, it really sees them as tragic figures—overwhelmed by the phenomenon of their partner's porn use, and powerless to have a few sober and collaborative conversations with their mates.

In the guise of helping them, here are actual disempowering, insulting assumptions the porn addiction movement makes about women: 

  • Assuming women must compete with porn images—and inevitably lose. Women need to reject this idea, and to decide for themselves that they don’t have to compete with any media image. After all, we don’t assume we’ll be as smart as Sherlock Holmes, as strong as Wonder Woman, or as tenacious as Harry Potter. It isn’t just men who compare real women to fictional porn characters. Men need to stop—but women need to stop, too. The porn addiction movement says they can’t control themselves, and then blames porn users for the pain their spouse feels when she can’t control her own thoughts. That insults women too.
  • Assuming women will feel unattractive and lose their self-esteem. Unless she dies young, every woman ages and loses her youthful looks. How she deals with this is an important life skill that’s necessary for enjoying adulthood. Porn didn’t invent this problem. And women whose partners don’t watch porn face the same issue. Self-acceptance is crucial for every adult. In a world without porn, we’d still know that there are people out there with more money, a better golf swing, nicer hair, and better-behaved kids. How does anyone manage to enjoy living in such a cruel world?
  • Assuming women will feel betrayed by their partner’s porn use. Women can hate their partner’s porn use without the dramatic decision that this use is a “betrayal.” Of course, if they demand that their spouse promise to never watch again, they’re inviting that he do it in secret. When he later gets “caught,” they’ll wail that he’s broken his word, which will be true. That’s why I tell porn users to be very, very slow in promising they’ll never use it again. While there may be nothing wrong with watching porn, there is something wrong with breaking a promise. Some women ratchet up the drama by referring to “his girlfriends,” “his whores,” and “his orgies” when talking about porn use. Imagining that masturbating to pictures of women is somehow a real relationship is a choice. A bad choice. Women can dislike their mate’s porn watching without such drama. In fact, creating drama like this makes it far more difficult for a man to hear his girlfriend’s pain about the subject.
  • Assuming a marriage with a porn consumer can’t be intimate. What a terrible idea—holding a couple’s intimacy hostage to a zero-tolerance demand for no porn. The porn addiction movement assumes that women are so fragile, and their interpersonal attachment is so contingent, that they can’t possibly continue relating deeply with a partner they love under less-than-optimal conditions. How about honoring both a woman and her relationship by suggesting she negotiate with her partner: “Well, if you're not going to stop using porn right now, how do we make sure that our marriage is intimate? How can we address my misgivings?”
  • Assuming women can’t have (much less enjoy) sex with a porn-using spouse. The idea that a woman is too hurt, angry, or traumatized by her partner's porn use to want sex with him is nonsense. Everyone in a long-term relationship has to figure out how to want and have sex with someone who is imperfect. And everyone in a long-term relationship has to decide what's an irritation, what's a frustration, and what's a deal-breaker. She can’t stop thinking about his porn while they have sex, and so she can’t enjoy it? Instead of assuming that he must change, she could develop some mindfulness skills to improve her sexual experience. If a mate’s porn use is the biggest obstacle someone faces in maintaining a long-term sexual connection, they are indeed blessed.
  • Assuming she’ll become controlling and hypervigilant. Every couple has disagreements, and every spouse has to cope with the daily knowledge that their partner may be doing things of which the first partner disapproves. It could involve how a partner overeats, flirts, drives too cautiously, sneaks a cigarette (or a joint), communicates with his family, blows off the gym, spends money, or a thousand and one other things. How adults deal with this knowledge helps determine the mood in a couple. When one or both spouses nag, intrude, interrogate, play gotcha, or expect betrayal, closeness and bonhomie quickly fade. By assuming women will collapse into this role upon discovering their mate’s porn habits, the porn addiction movement disempowers them and promotes a destructive definition of dignity—“if you don’t feel compelled to be obsessively intrusive, you’re letting him walk all over you.” What an awful—and completely unnecessary—corner to back women into. 

Having described the partners of “porn addicts” as pitiful non-adults who fall apart at the discovery of their mate’s habits, the sex addiction movement promises to release them from their scathing self-criticism, self-loathing, shame, and despair.

How? By teaching them their spouse has a disease—and insisting he get it treated (not cured, of course—enroll in life-long treatment). But ironically— deliberately?—this just serves to encourage and normalize these awful feelings in the spouses of porn users.

It would be far more respectful to tell these women “you don't like that he looks at porn? That's a reasonable position. Go talk to him about it. Find out why he looks at porn, tell him how it makes you feel, explain why you want him to change, and work together to either modify his porn viewing, or to establish an intimate, sexual connection despite his objectionable habit.”

But there is no money in that—only integrity. Integrity is something that the porn addiction field talks a lot about—but only regarding its customers, and never about itself.