Porn Isn’t the Problem

Predictably, my last post, Agreeing about Porn, sparked a lot of comments (and, ironically, disagreement). The anti-porn comments blamed porn for various problems, with the basic premise that if we got rid of porn, then these problems wouldn’t exist or at least would improve. Besides the obvious fact that porn is here to stay and therefore we need to learn how to deal with it, most of these problems are far more complicated or nuanced and not really about porn itself. The reason why this matters, and should matter even to the anti-porn crusaders, is that it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t fully understand it and therefore look for solutions in the wrong places. Or, as the saying goes, a problem well defined is a problem half solved.

If porn is a problem for you or your relationship, then you are more likely to come to a more satisfying, more sustainable solution by addressing what’s really going on there. It probably won’t be as simple as just getting rid of porn (which isn’t always so simple), but it may improve your relationship in other ways.

It’s an Assumption Problem

Stories abound about people being shocked when they find their romantic partner looking at porn, without ever having talked preemptively about how they each feel about porn and whether this is acceptable within the relationship. Some of these folks feel hurt, betrayed, and deceived. Meanwhile, the discovered partner may feel ashamed, guilty, and/or defensive. It’s probably safe to say that this is a bad situation all around.

But this isn’t a porn problem—it’s a problem of assumptions. One person assumed that their partner wouldn’t look at porn, despite the fact that research clearly tells us that many people do, so the odds are against this assumption. Meanwhile, the partner who was looking at porn also made the unreasonable assumption that their partner wouldn’t mind (or perhaps wouldn’t catch them, but we’ll talk about that below). In both cases, wishful thinking prevented the couple from having a necessary but perhaps difficult conversation. This is hardly unique to porn—couples avoid lots of other difficult topics, too, with similar problems when the inaccurate assumptions are revealed.

The solution then is to actually have those conversations so you can come to an active decision about what to do with porn. For some pointers on how to do that, see my last post, Agreeing about Porn. Preferably these conversations happen before a painful discovery, but it’s still better late than never.

It’s a Negotiation Problem

Once the topic of porn comes up for a couple, whether on purpose or by accident, they need to discuss how porn fits into their relationship and sex life, if at all. The specific agreement they come to doesn’t matter, as long as it is mutually agreed upon and sustainable. (And, by the way, mutually agreed upon tends to be much more sustainable.) The problems come when the agreement isn’t followed, just as it would be a problem if someone knowingly spent beyond the agreed upon budget. Just as that shouldn’t be labelled a money problem, this isn’t a porn problem—it’s a negotiation problem. The couple didn’t negotiate a sustainable agreement.

Bad agreements can happen in two ways. First, one of the people makes an agreement that they know they can’t or won’t keep, but they give in too quickly and the other person walks away thinking that they have a deal. Second, one of the people refuses to compromise and forces an agreement that is unlikely to be kept—it’s not a conversation, it’s a mandate. Obviously, these two are related.

Relationships and sex are hard—it takes a lot of work to negotiate sustainable agreements. Even before porn existed, couples struggled with this. It takes a lot of work to really figure out what we want, understand and empathize with what our partner wants, and then overcome seemingly intractable differences on all sorts of topics, including money and parenting. Porn is no different. It takes maturity, wisdom, and patience to do this well and usually experience that comes from handling it poorly but then striving to do it better.

If an agreement is made and one of the partners decides that they want something different, then the responsible thing to do is to come back to the negotiating table. Changing the rules without telling your partner gives them a justifiable reason to be upset, just as being unwilling to address an issue in a reasonable way makes it tempting to sneak around. If someone repeatedly broke the agreement about the budget, we wouldn’t say they are addicted to spending, but we would want to address why they can’t keep their agreements.

It’s an Acceptance Problem

There is an extremely wide range of activities, dynamics, images, and stimuli that people find potentially arousing. The large diversity of porn offerings is a reflection of that wide range. Unfortunately, some people (too many people) have a hard time accepting what turns them on. Of course, we all also have other, nonsexual parts of ourselves that we sometimes wish were different. So, some people may seek out and enjoy certain kinds of porn that they then later feel bad about, perhaps because they can’t reconcile these desires with their other feelings or with what they have been taught they should feel about sex.

But this isn’t a porn problem—it’s a problem of coming to peace with one’s turn-ons and then following through with what one decides about what to do with those turn-ons. It’s the same as feeling bad about eating veal but then ordering it anyway, to later regret. Just because we feel or want something doesn’t mean that we are required to act on it, but neither does having mixed feelings mean that we shouldn’t. Being an adult means really thinking about and reconciling these competing desires, values, and priorities. This involves sexual matters but also lots of other complicated choices having nothing to do with sex. To reflexively say “porn is bad” avoids this important, and sometimes difficult, self-reflection and the growth that can come with it.

If we are in a relationship, then we also have to deal with the fact that we won’t agree with our partner about everything. A sudden porn discovery is a window into their turn-ons, including the fact that they have sexual fantasies about someone other than their romantic partner. Seeing a partner’s browser history makes mental fantasies tangible and eliminates the plausible deniability of what turns someone on. Some partners have a hard time accepting this new knowledge about their partner (“How can you be into that?!”). But this is unlikely the first and definitely not the last disappointment that adults in relationships need to find a way to overcome.

As with one’s acceptance of one’s own turn-ons, we need to find a way to be OK with our partner’s turn-ons. As for whether those turn-ons get acted on, that is a separate set of discussions. Being in a relationship involves both forsaking some activities as well as forsaking some control of our partner’s activities. We all have the right to say that certain things are deal breakers in our relationship, but our partners also have the right to decide how they want to respond to that line in the sand. The trick is to negotiate out an agreement that meets both partners’ needs which is probably more likely if both partners can first talk openly and honestly, without judgment or criticism, about how they each feel about the topic at hand. Shame and guilt get in the way of fully understanding the situation and thereby make good decisions less likely.

It’s a Bad Choices Problem

People make bad choices sometimes. Some of those bad choices may involve porn, such as repeatedly going against what they agreed to with their partner, spending too much time or money on porn, or viewing porn in risky places (e.g., work). Just as alcohol doesn’t force people to drive drunk, so too porn doesn’t force people to view it. Therefore, if someone is repeatedly making bad choices about porn that endanger themselves, their partner, their relationship, or anyone else, then they need to figure out why they are doing that so that they can make better choices. This may or may not involve abstaining from further porn use. Simply focusing on eliminating the porn will not address the underlying issues—and therefore probably won’t last.

Incidentally, if someone is repeatedly and callously hurting others with their porn use, despite reasonable efforts by their partner to come to some sort of agreement, then that is a jerk problem—they are being selfish and inconsiderate—and probably being a jerk in other ways, too. Similarly, aggressive driving isn’t a car problem, it’s a driver problem. The fact that a small minority of jerks uses porn poorly doesn’t mean that we need to get rid of all porn any more than a small number of road ragers means that we need to get rid of cars.

The small minority of folks who run into serious problems with porn or sex have deeper issues driving that problematic behavior, such as major anxiety or depression, other addictions, significant social problems, personality disorders, etc. The problems with porn or sex are merely a symptom and only one aspect of how their lives are not going well. This is completely different from the vast majority of porn users whose lives and relationships are mostly pretty good.

Better Solutions

It’s easy to demonize porn or to use the label of sex addiction as a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions (by either partner). Porn is neither the new evil nor just harmless fun. The effect that it has on an individual and on a relationship depends on the people involved, how they feel about it, what it means to them, and what they decide to do about it. Porn sometimes forces difficult conversations that involve some serious self-reflection, as well as empathic efforts to understand one’s partner’s feelings. If you can handle those conversations well, you and your partner will have a more honest and intimate relationship which is something that most of us aspire to.

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