“After we got married, I found out that he watches an extremely large amount of porn. I found lots of porn on his phone and different social media platforms that he visits. It got to the point were he was watching it in our bed while I was sleeping. I confronted him about it and he promised he would not do it again, yet I caught him two more times after that. I decided to sit down with him and discuss all my feelings and concerns about him watching porn, and told him that I was not sure if I could be in a marriage where porn was such a big part of his life. I told him that the main reason for me feeling this way was because of my experience of abuse as a child. At that moment, he broke down in tears and came clean about a single experience he had at four years old where a family member sexually abused him.”
Despite the increasing worldwide availability and social acceptance of pornography over the past years, we often hear from men and their partners how the use of pornography can become a source of distress and tension. It can be confusing for men (“am I addicted to porn?”) and deeply upsetting for their partners (“am I not good enough?”). This can have a negative affect on one’s wellbeing, can lead to conflict with partners, and can put relationships at risk.
In this article we aim to do the following:
- Discuss general issues associated with problematic use of pornography.
- Identify some of the specific problems that men who have been sexually abused may face.
- Examine how pornography can influence sexual desire and intimacy.
- Look at how problematic use of pornography can effect relationships and partners.
- Introduce some ideas about understanding pornography use.
- Offer a few practical suggestions for those wanting to reduce or stop their use of pornography.
- Briefly discuss some ethical issues related to the production and consumption of pornography.
What is porn, and when is it problematic?
It is easy to get stuck on debating terminology and definitions, such as differences between pornography and erotica, distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard-core’ porn, straight or gay-oriented, ethical and mainstream, and so on. It is not our goal to get into those debates here. For our purposes, we are primarily focused on the influence that pornography may be having on your life or relationship, rather than specific content, labels, types, or meanings.
We are making the assumption that you are reading this page because you are concerned or troubled by either your own use of pornography, or that of someone you are close to. This assumption, that pornography use has become problematic for you or your loved one, frames the discussion that follows. Therefore, there may appear to be an ‘anti-pornography’ bias. Further, the discussion is largely problem-focused in terms of the influence pornography can have. That’s simply a result of our decision to focus solely on ‘problematic’ use, and it doesn’t mean that all use of pornography is problematic. In other words, we are not writing this page for people who feel that pornography is a healthy and wanted part of their sexual life and relationships.
Our intention here is not to shame, guilt–trip or make moral judgements about people’s use of pornography. It is a part of life for many men and their partners. However, it is possible that reading the material that follows might cause some uncomfortable feelings. Some of this may be related to recognising the impacts that using pornography has had on a partner, for example, or related to ethical considerations (see the final section for more on this). What we are looking at here is how common and unquestioned pornography can become, and recognising that this can be a problem in many people’s lives.
On this page we are discussing adult pornography featuring adult performers/actors. The pornography discussed here is, generally speaking, legal and commercially available or accessible online. One final point is that the term ‘child abuse images’ is used in preference to ‘child pornography.’ This is to convey the fact that any sexual act or images involving a child constitutes abuse and is a criminal offence. Living Well’s position is that any suspected child abuse, including child abuse images, is to be reported to child protection and police authorities.
The widespread availability of pornography
Images of people having sex, and sexualised portrayals of people, have been around for much of human history. However it is commonly agreed that pornography is now more readily accessible than ever before, largely due to the internet. A couple of generations ago, a certain degree of effort was required to access porn, such as going out to buy a video or a magazine. Now though, pornographic images and film clips are instantly accessible online. In addition, the range and type of content available is virtually limitless.
Research reports and surveys suggest that many, if not most, adult men view some kind of pornography at some point. For example, one survey found that 97.8% of heterosexual men reported that they had watched pornography, and had done so within the past 6 months (92.2%), past month (82.5%), past week (63.4%), and past 24 hours (26.2%).
By pointing out the widespread nature of pornography use, it is not our intention to suggest that it is therefore not problematic. Rather, this is a reminder that problematic pornography use is not an issue that only affects men who have been sexually abused. Many men who have not been sexually abused watch pornography. This can cause problems and tensions in the lives of people with all kinds of histories and experiences. While the ‘lens’ of understanding the effects of sexual abuse may be helpful, it is not the only lens available. We will discuss some of the more general issues around porn, as well as specific problems that may arise for men who have been sexually abused.
Consider the book and film 50 Shades of Grey, which has prompted public discussion about BDSM practices. (Although many people argue that the film depicts an abusive relationship and does not accurately portray BDSM relationships). While this film is not marketed as pornographic, it does illustrate how sexual practices that were once considered taboo, marginal, or ‘non-vanilla’ can become more acceptable in society. It is possible that the easy availability of a wide range of sexual practices, as depicted in pornography, has a similar effect. A commonly cited example is heterosexual anal sex, which has become a routine aspect of commercial pornography. Some researchers have suggested that this has led to some people (particularly younger men) expecting this to be part of their real life sexual relationships, often leading to conflict with female partners. This conflict is not surprising, given that most women report that anal sex is unenjoyable and often painful, contrary to what is usually depicted in pornographic films.
Is there such a thing as porn addiction?
Some people find the ‘addiction model’ useful for understanding and changing habits related to pornography use. Our view of this debate, in the context of this article, is that it doesn’t really matter. Whether you consider it to be an addiction or not, the issue here is the problematic aspects of the use of pornography, where it is connected to difficulties in your life and relationships.
The usefulness of the addiction model lies in the identification of patterns or cycles that you might be engaging in. The addiction model invites you to consider what ‘purpose’ the behaviour serves for you. Often this is related to the temporary relief of distressing emotional states. For example, using porn to distract yourself from boredom, anxiety or depression. This often has a compulsive feel to it, which can enable men to overlook the fact that they are making choices here.
Some men might also identify that there is a stage of anticipation, imagining how good it will feel when they look at pornography. This stage might be over a period of hours or it might be minutes, and can be associated with a heightened overall sense of physiological arousal (not just sexual arousal). When the man does look at pornography, the connection between pornography and powerful sensations of arousal can be reinforced, especially when he masturbates to orgasm. There is a temporary moment of powerful and pleasurable sensations, which seem far preferable to those difficult emotional states (such as anxiety).
Afterwards, feelings of shame, disgust and failure are common, which starts the pattern all over again – these may be the very feelings the man is trying to get relief from in the first place. For men who have been sexually abused, these feelings may be very familiar. If they are also associated with sexual abuse, the mixture of all these feelings and sensations can seem overwhelming.
One method of responding to problematic use of pornography has been based on the 12-step program model (similar to Alcoholics Anonymous). We are neither for nor against this model, recognising that it has helped some people changed unwanted behaviours, while also recognising there are other ways of understanding problematic pornography use.
For some men who have been sexually abused, these programs can raise some difficult dilemmas. For example, Step 4 is ‘Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves;’ and Step 5 is ‘Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.’ These steps can be confusing in relation to sexual abuse, perhaps setting up an understanding that being subjected to sexual abuse is something one has to ‘confess’ or consider as a moral failing. We would not support such a view of sexual abuse and would invite people involved in 12 step programs to carefully consider these questions, with the understanding that the responsibility for sexual abuse always falls to the perpetrators, not the person abused.
For men who experienced sexual abuse as boys, sexualised behaviour can become a kind of habit to relieve distress. This can tie very easily in to dominant ideas about masculinity. Men who engage in a lot of sexual behaviour are just as likely to be praised as they are to be judged negatively (depending on the type of sex and who he does it with). Thus, men’s excessive sexual behaviour can go on to develop into a learned behaviour without this ever being seen as a cause of concern. This is similar to the way excessive drinking can be viewed as an acceptable part of men’s culture. If these learned sexual behaviours include the use of pornography, it may continue on for a considerable time before the man views it as problematic. Often, this happens when it causes conflict in a relationship.
Some men may view the use of pornography as a relatively safe way to explore sexual feelings and desires. For example, men who feel sexual attraction towards other men but (for a range of often complex reasons) cannot engage openly in relationships with other men, may feel that watching pornography is preferable to going to beats or sex-on-premises venues. However, over time this may morph into a justification for continuing the use of pornography. Another common example may be men who think that by hiding their pornography use secretly, without the knowledge of their partner, they are protecting their partner from something he/she ‘doesn’t need to know about.’ When a partner does find out, the sense of betrayal often experienced suggest that this is not necessarily the most helpful idea.
We know that some sexual offenders use pornography as an ‘abuse tactic.’ They can use pornography, for example, to arouse the person they are abusing, or to pressure someone to engage in the sexual acts depicted. For men who were abused as boys, this can set up a complex association of physiological and emotional responses: arousal, fear, excitement, confusion, shame.
Impacts on relationships
At the same time as pornography is widespread and readily available, there can also be a lot of secrecy and shame attached. Some relationships experts take the view that it is often the secrecy, deception and sense of betrayal that causes as much harm to the relationship as the actual use of pornography itself.
Research with women whose partners use pornography found a range of responses, from indifference to disgust. The impacts of partner’s pornography use as reported by the women included:
- Adverse effects on sex life.
- Negative effects on their relationship.
- Lowered self-esteem.
- Feeling less attractive and desirable.
- Feeling insecure.
More than one-quarter of women viewed it as a kind of affair. These reports are consistent with what we hear from female partners of men. Some research finds that women who use pornography are more likely to do so with a partner, whereas men are more likely to watch alone.
It is interesting to note that use of pornography is one issue that men may feel more comfortable discussing with a male counsellor (even when they may feel more comfortable discussing other emotional issues with a woman).
When one partner is hiding their pornography use, a dynamic of secrecy similar to sexual abuse can be created. There can be a similar mixture of excitement, fear and shame associated with this, and the risk of ‘being caught.’ Careful planning might be part of the excitement, which again can mirror the ways that sexual abuse is kept secret.
It is also important to keep in mind that viewing pornography on a regular basis can shift people’s sexual experience and expectations, and views on what is acceptable and desirable in sexual relationships.
Some men may use pornography as a kind of ‘solution’ to a problem, where he has a greater interest or desire in sex than his partner. Whether this solution ‘works’ depends on a number of factors, including whether this is openly discussed, and the partner’s feelings about it. For many couples this ‘solution’ can create more difficulties than it solves, especially when it is not an open, mutual agreement. For some partners there can be hurt feelings and mistrust, or it may raise questions about their own attractiveness in comparison to the performers. Some people feel disgust that their partner views materials which they find morally or ethically offensive.
Viewing pornography is, generally speaking, not about connection, intimacy and affection. We know that many people’s sexual lives include a range of encounters, and this is not always about intimacy. For many people this is pleasurable and OK; there are apps that exist solely for this purpose. This is a large part of the reason for the existence of sex-on-premises venues, and why people pay for sex workers. (The ethics of paying for sex, and the impacts this can have on relationships, are important issues that we aren’t going into on this page). There is no blanket answer that will work for all relationships; as with any other important issue in a relationship, communication is key.
We also hear from men who are not in relationships that pornography offers a form of sexual experience not otherwise available; it can seem like the best option available. While men generally logically know that the sexual experience offered by pornography is not about intimacy, dominant ideas of masculinity tend to conflate intimacy with sex, and this can result in men feeling empty and emotionally unsatisfied.
It is worth thinking about, then, what it is you want and expect from viewing pornography, and assessing how well it is meeting these expectations. Sexual arousal can and often does exist separately from affection. Some people may feel that pornography fulfils this purpose for them, and that they still have closeness and intimacy in their real life relationships. However we clearly hear from men that pornography cannot substitute for closeness and intimacy, no matter how strong the feelings of sexual arousal.
Can pornography shape or influence sexual behaviour and preferences?
One of the tricky things that can happen is a blurring of boundaries around acceptable sexual behaviour. This is particularly the case where there are overtly humiliating or degrading practices presented as ‘sexual’. Australian researcher Michael Flood cites research stating that over 80% of top-selling mainstream heterosexual pornography includes acts of physical aggression towards women, while almost 50% includes verbal aggression. If these things were done in a non-sexualised context (e.g. name calling, slapping), they would simply be labelled as abusive. Pornography often depicts the performers enjoying these acts (this is essentially what they are paid for- to appear to enjoy whatever is happening). How is it that these behaviours are then presented as an acceptable part of sexual practice? In contrast, in the same research, only 10% of scenes contained positive caring behaviours such as kissing, embracing or laughing. It is a worthwhile question to explore, especially for men who would prefer to have sexual relationships based on the latter kinds of interactions.
While recent research has often been conflicting, there is some evidence to suggest that viewing pornography can influence the viewer’s sexual interests and practices. A 2011 study found that people who watched violent pornographic material were more likely to report that they had done something sexually violent or aggressive. It can also influence attitudes regarding violence and aggression towards women: e.g. researchers found that people who use pornography are more likely to express attitudes that support violence against women; another study found that men who watch violent pornography, or are frequent users of pornography, are more likely to say they would rape a women if they could get away with it. (In both cases, the direction of cause and effect is unclear – men who view hold derogatory views towards women may be more likely to watch pornography in the first place).
Conversely, the kinds of relationships and acts depicted in pornography are often not things that the viewer would want for themselves. Some people argue that this is precisely the point of pornography, and argue that users are aware of the ‘fantasy’ aspect. However it seems that the issue is more complex than this. As noted above, we know that some people have been pressured by their partners to copy sexual practices depicted in pornography. It is also worth remaining mindful that, while the people in the videos may be paid performers, they are actual people experiencing actual aggression and humiliation. It is worth reflecting on whether the acts portrayed in pornography are consistent with your values around how you believe people ought to be treated.
Internet pornography sites use a series of strategies to keep the viewer engaged and stimulated in a way that impacts on sense of time and disconnects men from living an engaged life. For example, pop up banners that encourage the user to click for ‘more exciting’ material. These techniques are similar to those used in poker machines to keep users engaged. Over a period of time the man may seek out more and more extreme sexual material in order to feel the same level of arousal.
An issue that we are aware of for some men who identify as heterosexual, perhaps being in a relationship with a woman, is using pornography depicting sex between men. This is in the context of understanding that confusion around issues of sexual identification and preferences is a source of a lot of distress for many men who were sexually abused by male perpetrators. It is common for both partners in a relationship to feel confused about the man’s use of male-male pornography. For example, the man may see this behaviour as completely separate from his intimate relationship with his partner, while it may raise questions and doubts for her about whether he is truly attracted to her.
When pornography use is problematic
For someone who has experienced sexual abuse, use of internet pornography can feel like a safe sexual experience. It does not involve having to consider, negotiate or deal with another person’s interests or desires. It can be a way of staying in control of a situation. This may even feel like a way of looking after yourself.
However, pornography usage can be problematic, re-enacting an abusive dynamic that disengages men from themselves and opportunities for respectful sexual relationships. There are aspects of sexual abuse which can be potentially replicated: secrecy, shame, confusion, all tied up with sexual arousal.
It is useful to evaluate the effects of pornography usage by considering:
- How does this behaviour influence your sense of well being?
- How does it affect you – before, during, and after?
- How do you feel about engaging in this behaviour? (In the short and long term)
- If you are currently in a relationship, how does your partner feel about you engaging in this behaviour?
- Is it discussed and acknowledged, or is it a secret?
- How does this affect your relationship?
- Does this behaviour bring you closer together, or push you further apart?
- Does it influence you to become involved in uncomfortable, unequal or compulsive sexual activity?
- Do you imagine your sexual life would be different without the use of pornography, or less use?
- Are there sexual acts or practices that you first learned about through pornography, that you might not be interested in otherwise?
- How much time do you spend looking at pornography or thinking about it?
- Is this what you would like to be spending this time doing?
- What would be different if you weren’t using pornography?
- What changes could you make to increase emotional intimacy in your life?
Thinking through the questions might help with working out to what extent the use of pornography is problematic for you.
What can I do?
Some men may want to reduce or try to stop their use of pornography, for the reasons we have outlined. While stopping or reducing any behaviour that has become a habit is difficult, there are extra layers of complexity when dealing with pornography use for a man who has been subjected to sexual abuse. We would always encourage men to access professional support if this is possible.
There may be some simple, practical strategies that you may find useful:
- Put the computer in a ‘public’ area of the house.
- Apply safety controls (filters etc.) and ask someone else to set the passwords.
- Use an older model mobile phone that makes accessing online content more difficult or impossible.
- Put a picture of your partner near your computer, or as a screen saver.
- Pay attention and become familiar with the patterns leading up to pornography use and be aware of the choices you are making. What would you rather be putting your time and energy into right now?
- Learn some techniques that allow you to tolerate distressing or uncomfortable sensations without having to always act on them (e.g. try some mindfulness exercises).
- Take steps to reduce the secrecy and isolation involved. This will be different for different people; for some people it may be possible to check in with a partner, or a close trusted friend; for those involved in a 12 step program may be able talk with their fellowship meeting or sponsor; there are even online communities of men who have recognised the harmful influence pornography has had in their lives.
Consider how you can take personal responsibility. While being open and honest with your partner is important, this is not the same as asking them to monitor your behaviour. Setting up a situation where one person is monitoring the behaviour of another is more like a parent-child relationship, and is generally not a very helpful dynamic in an adult relationship.
Much of the discussion in research and therapy contexts is about the impacts of pornography use on the user. Clearly this is an important area to understand. However, we think it is also important to consider the ethical issues related to the production of pornography. The reality is that pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. In has become a more accepted part of our culture in many ways, and this fact should be part of the conversation. We want to distinguish moral questions (which may be based in religious beliefs) from ethical questions. What we are talking about here is not whether pornography is morally right or wrong in an absolute sense, but what is actually involved in its production, how people are treated and the real-world effects on people’s lives.
Australian researchers Maree Crabbe and David Corlett suggest using the term ‘documented prostitution’ to more accurately describe what is depicted in commercial pornography. They invite us to question the distinction between prostitution and pornography, and they suggest one of the effects of this distinction is to increase viewers’ sense of separation from the human costs of the actual production of pornography- as if it is ‘just there’. Thus many men who would not see a sex worker use pornography without seeing them as related.
Some people have argued that pornography contributes to sexual freedom and liberation, while others argue the exact opposite; that it is a form of exploitation that perpetuates sexual objectification (particularly of women) and rigid gender stereotypes. Crabbe and Corlett’s interviews with men and women in the commercial pornography industry illustrate some of the human costs, including permanent physical injury, impacts on people’s sense of self-worth and emotional disconnection from intimate partners in their everyday relationships. Australian expert on masculinity Professor Bob Pease advises that one of the most important things men can do to support gender equality is to avoid using pornography.
There are also instances where sexual abuse has been filmed and then distributed as pornography. ‘Revenge porn’ (where someone posts online explicit sexual images of an ex-partner without their permission) is one part of this continuum of abuse-as-pornography.
In addition to commercial pornography, there is a growing amount of online material which is not made for commercial profit. Some proponents argue that this removes the ethical issues associated with exploitation for profit. However, Crabbe and Corlett’s research shows that ‘amateur’ websites often instruct people on how to follow particular scripts when making their videos, which challenges the idea that these types of clips are an expression of sexual freedom. Crabbe and Corlett also express concern about the levels of coercion that young women may experience to take part in these videos.
There may not be ‘one true story’ about the pornography industry. While there are people in the industry who speak about their experience in positive terms, it is also true that many others describe their experience in terms of exploitation, degradation and shame.
While much debate on these issues focuses on material featuring women and aimed at heterosexual men, there is also a history of debate about the ethics of material aimed at gay men. It is commonly said that gay-oriented pornography provides gay men (particularly young gay men who may be isolated or living in contexts of homophobia) a way to discover and explore their sexuality which would not otherwise be possible. On the other hand, some analysis of gay-oriented pornography finds that it frequently contains themes of domination and aggression, and often replicates the sexualisation of power dynamics that is found in straight-oriented pornography. In fact one expert suggests that much gay-oriented pornography, rather than being a liberating force, actually reinforces homophobic attitudes.
What we have presented here is by no means exhaustive, and there are many questions about pornography that we haven’t considered. Your own relationship to pornography will be influenced by a whole range of factors- hopefully the material presented here provides a useful starting point for thinking about your own situation, or discussing this with your partner. As always, Living Well encourages people to make use of quality counselling services where there are issues causing distress. We also invite your feedback about this page and welcome your questions and comments.
The Porn Report, co-authored by Alan McKee, Katherine Albury, and Catharine Lumby, is a key reference on pornography use in Australia. However, it has some fairly serious limitations which are documented by Michael Flood: http://www.xyonline.net/content/porn-report-%E2%80%93-critical-assessment
This article published by the Herald Sun contains references to research, and accounts from partners and professionals about the impacts on pornography use on intimate relationships- http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/how-porn-is-wrecking-relationships/2007/05/25/1179601669144.html