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How to Talk with Your Partner about Porn, and Why You Should

This global pandemic leaves no aspect of our lives untouched, and that includes our sex lives. Porn usage during the pandemic has dramatically increased, with Pornhub reporting a sharp increase in traffic. OnlyFans has seen a 75% bump in traffic as well. It’s no wonder I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about how porn usage impacts sexual partners IRL.

I recently surveyed my 50,000-plus audience on Instagram, asking, “How is the pandemic affecting your sexual desire?” About 40% reported that they are “feeling frisky” and about 60% reported an “erotic nosedive.” While this is far from empirical research, what these responses indicate to me is that, when it comes to surviving a global crisis, anything goes! That’s why we need to be curious, not critical, about whatever is happening to your sexuality (or your partner’s) during this time. 

These spikes in porn usage are likely fueled by many factors:

  • If the pandemic is spiking one partner’s libido and tanking the other’s, the frisky partner may be turning to porn as an attempted solution.
  • People who are working from home or newly unemployed have more time on their hands.
  • Stress, fear, and uncertainty leave people craving a range of escape routes from the harshness of reality (sales of alcohol and recreational drug sales are up as well).
  • Single people are likely replacing hookups with masturbation as a sexual outlet. 

Some sex therapists (Kort, 2009) have suggested that the porn issue is thornier for heterosexual couples, so I will opt for heterosexual language in this piece. A typical scenario is a female partner who feels insecure and uneasy about her male partner’s use of porn, but who feels stuck. While she doesn’t want to shame him, she also doesn’t want to sweep her feelings under the rug.

There are two entire life stories, his and hers, that shape the texture and tone for how any couple meets this challenge. My goal is to plant some seeds and provide some potential avenues for how to engage in a conversation about porn with your partner.

Why Is It So Hard to Talk to Your Partner About Porn?

Talking about porn tends to be difficult for two reasons.

1. Talking about sex in general is a common challenge for couples. Researchers have found that in relationships that were over a decade old, partners understood only about 60 percent of what their partner liked sexually and only around 20 percent of what they didn’t like sexually (Miller & Byers, 2004). Being able to talk with each other about sex is tied to all kinds of good stuff like sexual desire, sexual arousal, lubrication, orgasm, erectile function, and less pain (Mallory, Stanton & Handy, 2019). Talking with a partner about sex grows trust, and building trust makes it easier to talk about sex.

2. Our larger cultural conversation about porn tends to get stuck in binaries. Individuals sometimes identify themselves as pro-porn or anti-porn. Dialogue gets framed in simplistic ways: porn is bad / porn is good; porn oppresses women / porn liberates women; porn is addictive / porn isn’t addictive; using porn destroys a relationship / using porn helps a relationship. So it makes a ton of sense that couples get stuck here as well, pointing fingers, blame, and shame. When this happens, both partners walk away feeling judged and unheard.

How to Talk With Your Partner About Porn

Here are four strategies for shifting from criticism to curiosity:

1. Understand the gendered stories that you each bring into the conversation. Research has found that gender role socialization plays out most narrowly and rigidly when it comes to sex. This means that we get stuck in narrow understandings of who we have permission to be (and who we aren’t allowed to be) sexually. I want to name some themes that men and women might bring into the conversation based on gender role socialization.

  • Women’s stories: I want men to hold onto the awareness that their female partner comes into the conversation as someone who has lived in a culture where evidence of objectification and exploitation of women is everywhere. Even if she is not a survivor of sexual trauma herself, to live as a woman is to live trauma-adjacent. It is painful to feel as if her partner is participating in an activity that fuels the objectification of women and violence against women. It is for sure the case that women are consumers of porn as well. She may very well feel both aroused and repulsed by porn which is why your conversation needs to be able to hold space for nuance and paradox. One of the oldest stories in the book is that sex is a “wifely duty”—something that she provides to him. As much as we’d like to think we have evolved out of this story, its echoes linger. Even as she pushes back against this story, it may fuel her belief that if he’s using porn, it means somehow that she’s not doing her job. Having grown up in a culture that sells women the idea that their bodies are problematic and forever-needing-improvement projects, she likely brings body image challenges that she did not ask for, but internalized nonetheless. She may fear that his porn use indicates that he is not happy with her body, and his use of porn use may crank up the voice in her head that says she should try harder to improve her body. She may compare the type of sex she has with her partner to porn sex, but if she emulates what’s on the screen, she risks sacrificing her own pleasure. Finally, she may feel left out that her partner has not discussed his fantasies with her (think: Madonna-whore complex).
  • Men’s stories: I want women to hold onto the awareness that their male partner likely comes into the conversation about porn with very little experience having heartfelt conversations about his sexuality. He has likely felt afraid of being shamed for his sexual desires and that fear is often what underlies her experience of him as defensive and walled off. Further, research has found that boys first view porn around age 13. This conversation may feel threatening because his relationship with porn is likely a longer-standing relationship than the one with his partner. It may be a private space that he has turned to over many years — for self-soothing, escape, exploration. As therapist Terry Real (2002) says, “Men don’t fear intimacy, they fear subjugation.” He may enter the conversation with an expectation that he will lose something, that she will “make” him give something up and he will feel diminished. A man may feel apprehensive about sharing aspects of his sexuality with his female partner because of an internalized misogynist split between “pure” women that you marry and “dirty” women in porn, which reflects a sense that aspects of his own sexuality are palatable and other aspects are dangerous or destructive. Finally, if in this relationship he wants more sexual connection than she does, he may turn to porn in an attempt to solve this problem, protecting his partner from his advances and protecting himself from feeling sad about her declining his advances.

2. Set a collaborative framework. If you come to the conversation with more questions than answers, with a desire to listen to your partner, and with a motivation to understand more deeply the experiences that have shaped their perspective, there is tremendous potential for a conversation about porn to be a gateway to deeper intimacy. Start by each of you telling the other the story of your relationship with pornography. Before you start, you must promise yourself, and your partner that, you will not use what you learn as ammo if/when you hit another bump in the road. Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Who are the people who have influenced your attitudes and beliefs about porn? What did they tell you about it?
  • When did you first see it? How were you exposed to it? What happened? How did you feel?
  • What function does it serve in your life? What are you seeking when you use it? What does it mean to you?
  • How do you feel before, during, and after watching porn?

The intimacy that emerges from this conversation can also open the door to deeper sexual intimacy including beginning to share turn-ons or fantasies. Remember that there is only one goal in this conversation: to understand your partner more deeply. That deeper understanding may loosen the knot around porn. It may organically show you a path of next steps. There may be nothing to solve. Just knowing that you can raise a concern and have it witnessed and validated may be enough to move the concern from the foreground to the background. If not, you are at least in a more collaborative place to then have a conversation about agreements moving forward. 

3. Make agreements that support the relationship. When you approach any sort of problem-solving, I want you to use this question as your platform: How can we keep porn from eroding our connection? Perhaps he agrees to use only erotic materials that are ethical or fair-trade. Perhaps he agrees to a frequency and type of use that feels “good enough” to them both. Perhaps she agrees to let him know when she’s feeling insecure or uneasy so that he can talk to her about how much he enjoys their lovemaking. Perhaps the couple begins to explore mutual turn-ons and explores watching porn together.

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. If you’re finding that you are still stuck, please know that this is a wonderful question to bring to a couples therapist who can hold space for a conversation that honors the depth of one or both partner’s pain. I encourage you to ask a potential therapist about how they approach conversations about porn because you need and deserve a clinician who can hold nuance and context.

Conversations with your partner about porn can be daunting. They can also be transformative.  With patient, curious, and honest dialogue, it is possible to shift feelings about porn use in your relationship from what feels good to you, or what feels good to me, to what feels good to us. 

References

Kort,J. https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/466/depathologizing-porn

Miller, A.S. & Byers, S.E. (2004). Actual and Desired Duration of Foreplay and Intercourse: Discordance and Misperceptions within Heterosexual Couples. Journal of Sex Research, 41(3), 301–309.

Mallory, A.B., Stanton, A.M. & Handy, A.B. (2019). “Couples Sexual Communication and Dimensions of Sexual Function: A Meta-Analysis,” The Journal of Sex Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2019.1568375.  

Real, T (2002). How can I get through to you?

https://www.rt.com/op-ed/487189-covid-19-pandemic-porn-platform-popular/