When Porn Hurts

porn hurts lynsey g

I was part of a conversation last weekend that made me do some real thinking about porn in the “real world.” It started with me pontificating on the topic of money in the porn industry and ended in… well… I hesitate to call it a fight. Maybe the right term would be a discussion of an ongoing fight within a long-term relationship. The topic was one of the partners’ occasional, habitual use of pornography, and the issue was that the other partner, though in all other respects a sex-positive person, felt very strongly that the use of pornography in a relationship is tantamount to cheating. It wasn’t just that the antiporn partner (we’ll call them the antiporn and proporn partners, for easy reference, and I’ll use the pronoun “they”) disagreed with the proporn partner’s porn consumption on an abstract level; the antiporn partner claimed to feel real emotional pain at the very thought of the proporn partner getting off to images of someone else. It breaks their heart. Porn hurts them.

I was put into a very strange position. We’d previously been discussing the rights of pornographers to make a decent living on their legitimate businesses. I’d felt very comfortable in that conversation, because we’d been talking about pornography in an abstract, distant framework. It was comfortably non-personal. But suddenly it had shifted to the intimate: the partners were talking about an ongoing debate within their relationship that has caused emotional pain to both.

The proporn partner described porn as a long-term part of their sexuality, which had been in their life for decades before they even met the antiporn partner. Porn wasn’t something they could just give up without having to readjust their sexuality, and they didn’t feel that they should have to, because porn use was just another part of a perfectly healthy sexuality. They claimed to now experience self-doubt, shame, and emotional pain around the experience of watching porn, where they had once only felt pleasure, due to the other partner’s expressions of distrust and pain.

The antiporn partner was adamant that although they had no problem with porn itself, that their concept of a monogamous relationship depended heavily on the very strict observance of fidelity, and that to them, using porn to get off to when the other partner was not around was, in fact, the same as cheating. It caused emotional harm to the antiporn partner because it felt to them that every time they left the proporn partner’s side, they feared being cheated on. They thought the proporn partner should give up the porn entirely in order to stop them causing pain.

I had gotten us onto the topic of porn, and I was the most knowledgeable person in the room on the topic. So I tried to offer as much objective knowledge as I could on subjects like the role of fantasy in porn use versus sex, infidelity and/or lying to a romantic partner versus openly discussing desires, and so on, but there wasn’t much I could say that would change the dynamic of the couple in question. Whether or not science supports porn use as a healthy part of sexual life, the antiporn partner was clearly upset by the proporn partner’s actions. And whether or not sex-positivity can be compatible with porn use in a relationship… none of that mattered. What mattered was that there was clearly pain happening.  I am not a sex therapist, although I’ve certainly considered going back to school to become one. I could offer information based on my years of study and involvement with the porn industry, but when faced with such raw, palpable emotional distress, I was left powerless to help.

I think it’s important for me to  hear conversations like the one in question. Too often in my writing, I hold pornography and sex and all the topics tangled up with them at an arm’s length from myself. I keep it clinical; though I feel strongly about the topics, I rarely apply them directly to myself. It’s one thing to rant and rave about porn’s first amendment rights and respecting the choices of pornographers, but it can be quite another to sit down with someone whose sexuality is deeply entwined with your heart and try to have a levelheaded conversation about the emotions that pornography elicits, especially if the acts being depicted–and jerked off to–are disturbing to your sensibilities. Or if your emotions tell you that that person is only watching it because you are not enough to satisfy them (as was the case here), or that you want to do the things you’re seeing and you should just do them with your partner (again, as was the case here).

It’s a complicated, knotted, crazy mess when you try to get into explaining why people watch the porn they do. Why they think it’s ok or not ok. It’s intricate. It involves emotional issues from childhood and beyond. It tangles up morality and religion and sociology and desire. Calling it tricky doesn’t even begin to cover it.

For me, in this case, the question came down to pain. It would cause pain for the antiporn partner if the proporn partner continues to use porn. But it would also cause pain for the proporn partner to stop using it just to make the antiporn partner happy. Both instances of pain would be very real. Neither is inherently a “better” option than the other, despite our centuries of antisex society convincing us that in all instances, the more conservative option is the morally correct one. The truth is, pain and anxiety are at issue, and compromise must happen. But only after a long, long conversation about why each side has the opinions it has, and how or why these opinions can or should be worked on.

Which, I guess, just brings me back to where I always start from. This shit is so complicated. It’s so difficult. It’s so sticky and gooey and uncomfortable. But the only way to make it less so is to talk, talk, talk, talk. Shine a light in on the emotions involved and the acts depicted. Force a vocabulary into existence to deal with these ideas. Bash your way through it. Teach those around you to do the same. The more we argue and debate, nitpick and concede, the closer we’ll be to getting it right.

0 thoughts on “When Porn Hurts

  1. liza moon says:

    if the proporn partner was self stimulating to climax without any porn, would the antiporn partner still feel violated? i’m thinking the issue here is more about boundaries than images. “you have to love me exactly the same way i love you” tends not to work out so well, no matter what bone of contention arises.

    Reply

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