Does porn hurt relationships?

An unscientific new survey says it does. But experts argue that it can actually help

Published January 22, 2013 2:00AM (EST)

     (<a href=''>VILevi</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(VILevi via Shutterstock)

Looking for further proof of the damaging effects of porn? Lucky for you, the pre-eminent scientific journal Cosmopolitan magazine has weighed in with a survey purporting to show that porn is ruining sex.

I kid, of course. The glossy surveyed 68 "relationship experts" and found that the majority think X-rated material can harm relationships. The magazine also found that said experts believe porn damages women’s confidence, which is rich coming from a publication that inflames women's insecurities in order to sell them a consumerist wet dream. I’m not going to even address the countless glaring research flaws here -- that would be giving the survey far too much credit -- instead, this seems a good excuse to talk about about how porn can be used to the benefit of relationships.

This isn’t at all to negate the potential for porn to be legitimately damaging. Reasonable people can agree that mainstream porn, as with most popular media, often produces unrealistic aesthetics and expectations -- not to mention poor sex education and instruction, right? That's something worth discussing in a relationship, no doubt. But instead of condemning all erotic material as an enemy to sex, what about taking the more productive route of talking about how porn can actually be good for relationships.

First off, it's important to note that porn "is by no means monolithic," as Carol Queen, Good Vibrations' staff sexologist, puts it to me in an email. "Choosing what to watch can be a great communication exercise by itself. Say one partner wants to watch gonzo and the other wants to see feminist porn; what a useful conversation that might be!" Similarly, Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University and author of "Sex Made Easy," tells me in an email that porn "is so many things" -- from professional to amateur, vanilla to kinky, natural bodies to artificially enhanced. "I'm always a bit wary when I hear people say that 'porn' does anything specific unless they are willing to say what type of porn they mean and under what circumstances," she says.

To the extent that porn can be damaging to relationships, it is, as with most things, often in our refusal to communicate honestly about it with our partners (and that tendency toward shame isn't helped by surveys like this one). It’s easy to make incorrect inferences about a partner’s real-life desires and expectations by secretly reviewing their browser history. It’s also easy to jump to worst-case conclusions about what a partner might think of our own fantasy material of choice. Assumptions build on miscommunications which build on resentments -- and before long you’re having really, truly horrible sex.

Ian Kerner, a sexuality counselor and author of "She Comes First," tells me, "There are a lot of people who would prefer to be somewhat private about their masturbatory habits and that’s to be respected," but he adds that communicating clearly about sexual fantasies can inject novelty and healthy experimentation into a couple’s sex life. Herbenick tells me that porn can help couples "learn how to talk 'dirty'" and "exposes people to any number of things that they try, or not try, as they see fit." Watching porn together is not only a way "to make it easier to become aroused or to experience orgasm" during partnered sex, but also to "open up communication about what they like or don't like or would or would not be into (which can help them draw boundaries about no-go areas as well as 'want to try' areas)."

Kerner also sees porn as a way to deal with a sex drive disparity. "There are cases where couples have mismatched libidos and taking responsibility for your own sexuality is a great way of balancing libido in your relationship," he says. "Masturbation is a completely healthy activity and porn is an easy source of erotic stimuli." It may be too easy for some, and he encourages clients to explore their erotic imagination, but "for the vast majority of men of all ages it’s not an issue," he says.

That isn’t to say that Kerner doesn’t encounter men who feel that they have a porn problem, but he says it’s wrong "to extrapolate their experiences onto all men and see it as some kind of epidemic or paradigm shift in how we’re approaching sex." Contrary to what he identifies as "the worry that men are going to prefer crazy porn sex to real sex," Kerner says "the vast majority of men I speak to would much rather have sex with a live person than with pornography and, if anything, get a little bored of porn."

Using porn as a conversation starter, a mutual turn-on or novel inspiration is one thing; turning to it as the ultimate authority on sex is another. Charlie Glickman, a sexuality educator, compares learning to have sex from porn like learning to drive from action movies. He says the real problem is that people need "better relationship education." He says, "Even before porn was widely available, do you think people in the 50s and 60s were having highly satisfying sex? What they had was largely ignorance," says Glickman. "People have not had satisfying sexual relationships for a lot of reasons for a long, long time."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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