Straight Couples Need To STOP Thinking Porn Is A Threat To Their Relationship

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Did John Gottman really just slut shame America?

The high-profile and research-based marital therapist, John Gottman, recently wrote an open letter labeling porn a threat to couples' intimacy as a follow up to Time Magazine's cover story, “Porn and the Threat to Virility.” 

His words caught my attention because I distinctly remember that in 2003, following his 12-year study on gay and lesbian couples, Dr. Gottman made the ground-breaking statement that heterosexual couples have much to learn from the strength of homosexual relationships.

"Gay and lesbian couples," Gottman said, "Are a lot more mature, more considerate in trying to improve a relationship, and have a greater awareness of equality in a relationship than straight couples." 

He continued, "Straight couples start a conflict discussion in a much more negative place than do gays and lesbian couples. Homosexuals start the same kind of discussions with more humor and affection, are less domineering and show considerably more positive emotions than heterosexual couples."

Given his prior statements, I find it odd his open letter leaves out any reference to the way that gay and lesbian couples view porn, when fact of the matter is — the vast majority of gay men and lesbians do not experience porn as a problem in their relationships. 

Most, if not all, of these discussions on porn as a public health crisis and “addiction” are truly heterosexist.

They speak about straight individuals and couples looking at porn, ignoring gay and lesbian responses to porn, and the lack of problems that exist there.

In fact, Dr. Gottman devotes a large portion of his open letter to referencing a study of the mating habits of male stickleback fish. I'm sure these fish are quite interesting, but I cannot comprehend the logic implied if Dr. Gottman considers this study of fish to bear more weight in discussions of porn than his own research on gay and lesbian human beings!

Here are the 5 ways in which I believe Dr. Gottman most glaring gets it wrong regarding the perceived threats of porn to intimacy:

1. His use of the wording “using” porn, rather than “viewing” porn.  

How we talk about things frames how we think about them. Referring to “using” makes watching porn automatically sound like an addiction, leading to the mistaken conclusion that everyone who watches porn is a potential addict. 

Like most things touted to the general public, there is a huge gray area overlooked around this subject. Some books and research seem to support this view, while there also are many books and research that say the opposite — that porn does not ruin relationships and does not lead to either sexual violence or sexual dysfunction.

2. It is a lack of sexual literacy that causes tension around porn for straight individuals and couples.

Back in 2003, Gottman clearly noted that "the way a discussion starts is critical. If it starts off in a bad way in a heterosexual relationship, we have found that it will become even more negative 96 percent of the time ... You see it over and over in (homosexual couples') discussions, and their partner is receiving the message they are communicating. In turn, their partner is allowing himself or herself to be influenced in a positive way. With married heterosexual couples a discussion is much more of a power struggle with someone being invalidated.”

Most gay male couples have no problem at all with viewing porn, whether together or separately. It is common for gay male couples to openly discuss their porn practices, and in the gay community, viewing porn — kinky and otherwise — is considered normal. There is no shaming of each other around it.

As well, many lesbians talk openly about their enjoyment of viewing both lesbian porn and gay male porn. They often watch it together, and rarely does a lesbian couple come into my office complaining her female partner is watching too much porn.

If heterosexual couples could mirror this type of open dialog from a positive starting position, conversations around sexuality and porn would be transformed from power struggle to truly intimate communication.

3. Even when gay couples have come to me with similar troubles over one partner's viewing of porn, the core issue is never the porn itself.

Perhaps one of the partners has fallen into the trap of comparing himself to the actors in porn, or believes that there is some “normal” way to go about sex. Or perhaps one of the partners has begun watching porn more frequently because intimacy has been lacking within the relationship.

I have never known such problems to be caused by porn itself, and I have never known such problems to be solved by doing away with porn. If one partner is dealing with out-of-control sexual behavior, I might recommend taking a break from porn — but again, porn is not the root problem.

It always goes deeper than that.

If a man watches porn to avoid problems within the relationship, that is a ineffective and unhealthy coping mechanism. Rather than look at the coping mechanism as the source, we must look at the what he is truly avoiding.

Has sex changed for them? Do they each want something different from the marriage? Has he realized new sexual interests that he hasn’t felt comfortable sharing with his wife yet?

There could be so many possible causes for his avoidance. Focusing on porn only further avoids directly addressing the real issues at hand.

4. Within straight couples, all too often there is an assumption that the relationship should forever satisfy the need for outside sexual stimulus for both partners.

Practically speaking, this is never true, though I understand why some people feel this way. (And to be clear, I am speaking about outside stimulus of the senses, not actual sexual activity.)

We know from many studies that men — whether married, single, religious, or culturally forbidden to watch porn — consume porn voraciously. When their female partners discover this, I often see it lead to them coming into my office informing me of lockdown. All devices have been shut down. 

There are fights, shaming, and talk of divorce. All because the heteronormative myth is that once there is marriage or commitment, both partners should be everything to each other, superseding the need for porn.

If that standard is applied equally, women should have no need to watch soap operas, read romantic novels like Fifty Shades of Gray, or even go see romantic movies — their romantic desires should be fulfilled forever by the partnership.

That sounds silly, of course, because it is understood that no matter how much or little a woman gets from her own relationship, she still is drawn to watch and read about others in romantic love, and even to fantasizing about being with the male characters.

If a woman doesn't get enough romance from her partner, she may turn to him and say, “I need and want you to be more like the men in my books and movies.” While men don’t like hearing this, we as a society encourage them to understand her needs and work towards fulfilling them.

She wants him to take all of her, and so does he. She wants to be told she is beautiful and his one and only, and so does he. She wants to be desired and pursued, and so does he.

Yet the opposite does not hold true. When men tell their wives they would like her to try some of the things they've watched in porn, in return they are frequently shunned, shamed, judged and looked at with contempt and disgust.

The only difference between the her needs and his is that is hers revolve around their relationship in emotional and relational ways, while his do so in sexualized ways regarding the erotic part of their relationship.

Either way, no one should be judged or shamed for their needs or how they articulate them.

5. The real public health crisis is the lack of shame-free sexual education.  

If there were more public conversation about this subject — more sexual literacy in our society — we would understand that men and women have different needs, as well as different sexual and romantic fantasies.

It is important that our children receive proper sex education that includes a balanced representation of porn and the wide variety of ways that exist to be sexual. 

Our children must be taught that while sex can be messy, politically incorrect, and taboo on so many levels, it is also wonderful and healthy. 

Porn is not what we would do in real life. Just like in watching movies, it is fantasy.

But is a misleading scare tactic to assert that watching porn leads to infidelity or physical dysfunction. In fact, porn is often watched as way to avoid engaging in infidelity, as it provides an outlet that allows someone to enjoy an act he or she cannot engage in with a current partner.

It's similar to men loving to watch football — they can’t play it, but boy do they enjoy watching it! 

This notion of a porn being a public health crisis only pathologizes men’s natural curiosity and tendencies toward watching porn. It is a distraction.

If people understand what porn is and isn’t, it can actually be a means by which we can explore and discover our own sexuality. Let’s not jump to easy conclusions by saying porn is destroying our relationships and our nation. 

Let’s put our efforts into a deeper understanding of each other’s sexual needs and the very real underlying difficulties so many of us have in relating to our partners.

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