How to Talk to Your Partner About Porn, and Why Everyone Needs to Do It

In light of the Ashley Madison scandal, porn use and infidelity deserve our attention.
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In light of the Ashley Madison scandal, porn use and infidelity deserve our attention.
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Photo Credit: Tom Page

When you’re looking for a man to share your life with, there are so many things to think about—ranging from the mundane to deal breakers. Are we on the same page about wanting children? How will we handle our finances? Whose family will we spend holidays with?

But when it comes to getting on the same page with your partner, there’s one (pretty important) issue you might be forgetting: pornography. In the wake of the recent Ashley Madison scandal, Josh Duggar’s email address was among those in the data dump. Duggar issued a public apology, which originally included (but later removed) a confession to pornography use as part of the habits that led him to an extramarital affair. As Ashley Madison’s marketing team seemed to know—the site frequently advertised on porn sites—the link between the two isn’t that uncommon.

Every second, 28,258 Internet users are watching porn and spending more than $3,000 on it. Per second. Surveys of college-age men show that 93 percent have been exposed to porn before the age of 18. So if you’re thinking that porn hasn’t touched your relationship, you may want to think again.

When I was single, the topic of pornography was part of my screening process with the guys I dated. In fact, it was one of the first issues I brought up with my husband-to-be. I believe that porn damages relationships, dehumanizes sex, and exploits women—women who are often in the sex trade as a result of abuse and/or trafficking and suffer from the harmful aftereffects of someone else’s porn consumption. To me, porn represents the polar opposite of the kind of man I want to spend my life with—one who is faithful to me with his heart and mind, not just his body. And that’s why I make a point to talk about it with my partner.

According to Dawn Hawkins, vice president and executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, conversations such as the one I had with my soon-to-be husband are very important. Hawkins says that porn has a myriad of harmful effects on intimate relationships, including one that has been exposed recently by the Ashley Madison hack: infidelity.

The link between porn and infidelity is not just something that antiporn advocates claim or that Ashley Madison apparently exploits. It’s a well-established fact of social science. Porn use is associated with a wide range of negative sexual behaviors and attitudes that significantly harm men, women, and especially intimate relationships. According to research compiled by Mary Anne Layden, Ph.D., director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, adults who use porn are more likely than those who don’t to: rate sex partners as less attractive, be less satisfied with their partner’s sexual performance, desire sex without emotional involvement, try to get their partners to act out sex acts seen in porn, go to prostitutes, and, yes, among married porn users, have extramarital affairs.

Other studies have also linked porn use to unhappy marriages and divorce. One 2014 study of 20,000 adults who had ever been married found that those who had watched X-rated films were more likely to report being unhappy in their marriages, more likely to have had extramarital affairs, and more likely to be divorced. An earlier study by Dr. Jill Manning, who testified about the harms of porn in 2005 before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, found that an “obsessive interest in Internet porn sites” by one partner was to blame for the split in 56 percent of divorce cases.

So what is it about porn that damages healthy sexual intimacy and leads some users to cheat?

“Viewing porn involves bonding with images and sexual acts, instead of with a real person,” Hawkins says. “That can drive a wedge into any intimate relationship.”

Hawkins also points to research that shows that prolonged porn use leads to many things, including boredom with “softer” porn and a desire for more degrading and violent depictions of sex; the objectification of women, who are viewed as sexual objects that desire sex “all the time” and enjoy sexual violence; a distorted view of sexual reality, including believing that certain sexual behaviors such as sex with animals and group sex are widely practiced; a desire to act out the behaviors depicted in porn; and sexual addiction.

In light of the corrosive effects of porn on healthy relationships, the mainstreaming of porn throughout our society is a cause for concern. As more married men are being exposed for their use of Ashley Madison’s services, perhaps our national conversation should extend beyond who cheated t0 consider whether the proliferation of pornography might be driving the demand for what Ashley Madison is selling. A study by Cambridge University scientists showed that brain scans of avid pornography viewers were not unlike those of drug addicts. Porn is a serious issue and should be treated as such, but even with someone you trust, it’s not an easy conversation to have.

Hawkins advises single women to bring up the issue of porn with their boyfriends early on in the relationship, and she encourages married women to have an ongoing discussion about porn with their husbands. Keep in mind, it’s not just our boyfriends who struggle with porn. Although less prevalent among women, porn use and addiction is a problem that many of our girlfriends face, too. Hawkins offers the following tips for how to address the topic, beginning with what not to say.

Don’t make him feel like you are judging him.

This conversation won’t go well if your significant other feels blamed or ashamed. Instead, keep the conversation open and honest. For example, Hawkins advises women not to say, “Do you have a problem with porn?” because this puts a guy on the defensive. Instead, ask, “When was the last time you used porn, what was the situation, and how did you react?”

Give him a chance to explain himself before jumping to conclusions.

Because of the proliferation of Internet porn, many men and women today have been exposed to porn from an early age, and some have possibly been using porn since grade school. Don’t assume that your boyfriend knows about all the harms of porn. And don’t assume that his porn use hasn’t been a struggle for him. It’s hard for men to protect themselves from the lure of porn, so hear him out, and be respectful of what he has to say.

Be clear about your views on porn when it comes to your life and relationship.

You don’t have to be harsh or unloving in order to make your stance known. While it’s important to let your guy know that you understand the struggle to avoid porn, leave no room for confusion when you explain how you feel about porn and what that means for you in the context of a relationship. Before you bring the issue up, be sure you take time to think through why you feel the way you do about porn and how you would feel if your significant other used porn.

This means educating yourself about the harms of porn beforehand, and then you can use the conversation as an opportunity to teach your husband or boyfriend. “Maybe your guy doesn’t realize that porn is harmful to intimate relationships or that women are often forced or coerced into participation in porn,” Hawkins says.

Check in every now and then.

Even if your husband or boyfriend shares your values about porn, Hawkins advises checking in with each other every once in a while, just to make sure everything is OK.

“Porn thrives on secrecy, and the nature of porn is to leave people feeling ashamed and alone,” Hawkins says. “We need to provide an open environment for communicating with our loved ones about it, so they don’t retreat and try to deal with a porn problem by themselves.” One way to check in with your boyfriend or husband without coming across as accusatory or suspicious is to ask something like, “Is it ever hard for you to resist porn when we are apart?” or “What are some ways we could work together to protect our relationship from porn?” This gives your man an opportunity to reach out to you for support if he is struggling with porn or to assure you that he is OK.

What if your partner thinks porn is no big deal?

Hawkins says that while porn use is a red flag in any relationship, “it should not necessarily be a deal breaker” because most people today have been exposed to porn in some way and because people can change if they are educated about the harms and have support.

“That’s why it is so important to let your boyfriend know early on in a relationship how you feel about porn and what your boundaries are regarding it,” Hawkins says. “If a guy is not respectful of your views and your boundaries or willing to change if he has been using porn, then you need to rethink that relationship.”

Even though I let my husband know before we got married how I felt about porn and the men who use it, I have to admit that talking with him about the issue is no easier after thirteen years of marriage than it was back then. I know he shares my values about porn and its harms, but sometimes it is a struggle for me to broach the subject, and it’s just easier to ignore the topic altogether and hope it goes away on its own.

But if the Ashley Madison hack has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that none of us can afford to ignore the problem of porn and its negative effects, not if we value healthy intimacy and hope to build marriages and families that last. No matter how difficult it may be for us as married or single women to have conversations about porn with the men we love, we need to be talking about the harms of porn and why it has no place in healthy relationships or a healthy society.