This is What We Talk About When We Talk to Our Partner About Porn


There’s this place I’d really like to visit – maybe you’ve read about it? It shows up in lots of articles about porn use. You know, the ones that say that in spite of how much studies say porn can damage relationships, it’s actually a great sex aid, and can be Spanish fly for a relationship, a magical nirvana where watching a few clips is all it takes to inject novelty and fun into your tired old samey-same. Porn can be a great teacher, too, we hear: it teaches us about sex, shows us how to talk dirty and try new, naughty things we’d never thought to try before, and even set good boundaries about what we’re willing to do and not do.

Used correctly, it’s the Living Out Loud of your sex life (or are all allusions to new, hot sexy lives legally required to reference Fifty Shades of Grey?). The problem is, does this place actually exist? If it does, we all need a much better map to get there.

Let’s say we agree with the premise, as this Slate piece asking if porn hurts relationships points out, that “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.”

OK, let’s. How would we start talking about that? A sexologist quoted in the piece says, “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!”

That does, indeed, sound like a useful conversation for a couple enrolled in graduate studies-level Advanced Porn Watching, but it assumes a hell of a lot here, namely, that the only issue is which type of porn an eager couple might choose from the buffet of options out there. That both of them are totally cool with it and into doing it, and are ready to dive right into the muck. Because otherwise, that could be the beginning of a very long conversation/debate that might not ever get around to the great big feminist-gonzo get-off.

Although I have no doubt plenty of these couples exist for whom deciding what porn to watch is as simple as figuring out which Korean joint to grab dinner from, those couples are likely not the norm. So what about the rest of us? What if only one person is into the idea and the other person isn’t? What if you’ve always treated porn use (or the absence of it) as a totally private issue that’s none of your business? What if one person tries to broach the subject and the other person is a jerk about it? And a million other possible variables.

Porn may be ubiquitous, but it still isn’t easy to talk about in relationships. Talking about porn means talking about masturbation, which is talking about a private fantasy life, which is not the sort of thing most of us are taught to get chatty about, especially women. But also men! If everyone could talk about their kinks and what they want sexually in a totally open, honest, nonjudgmental way, Dan Savage would be out of a job! Or at least, one of his jobs.

But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t all like to have more open, honest, nonjudgmental conversations about everything, especially our sexual urges. You know, except for the people who actually wouldn’t want that. Either way, here are some of the various roadblocks to having that open-porn-door convo, in my (hetero) view:

The problem is him: Dudes can be weird about their porn, and ultra-weird about talking about it. One minute they’re sheepish or snickery, the next they deny they even use it, the next they’re entitled. I can’t say I blame them, per se, at least not in the theoretical sense. Porn is complicated. It’s about private acts that involve masturbatory habits formed over years, and under who-knows-what circumstances. If you think about it, the average dude has grown up spending a lot of time with his private stash (digital or otherwise) and cultural mixed-messages of entitlement vs. shame, then shows up in a relationship with an actual other person and is suddenly now expected to divulge the weird and wonderful world of exactly which thing inserted into where makes him get off the hardest? It would take a pretty enlightened, confident person to talk primitive urges with confidence and ease.

So part of the porn convo, if it’s so great and we should all be rushing to use it, could be about how men can be freer to discuss this supposedly fun thing that would help all of us better satisfy our urges. A language to approach it. A way to understand the issue from the female point of view, so as to have a roadmap.

The problem is her: Chicks can be weird about porn, and ultra-weird about talking about it. One minute they are totally into the idea and open about it, and the next they are insecure and judgmental, or angry. It’s an understatement to say porn can breed insecurity for women, which brings bias to the subject. Especially early in relationships, where intimacy and communication are still finding their way. Feminism can also mean a woman brings the theoretical to the table as well, so that porn-talk isn’t just a question of her own and her partner’s desires and sexual urges and ways in which she wants to satisfy or be a part of them, it might also be a question of whether she’s ever settled for herself if porn is ultimately a freeing or damaging thing for the women (and men) who participate in it, or the ways it affects her and other women’s self-image.

The problem is porn: Porn, no matter how ubiquitous, hasn’t exactly become the democracy of pleasure for everyone it likes to think it is. It’s still pretty male-centric. Yes, that has changed dramatically. But yes, it’s also still catering overwhelmingly to dudes, which any basic search for free stuff (the ultimate democracy?) will confirm. It’s also pretty unrealistic, in spite of its spread-eagle realism. This doesn’t mean that sausage factory can’t be a turn-on for women, it’s just that in principle, it looks and feels like it isn’t catering to women, because it isn’t. If porn really felt like the free-for-all it claims to be, it might be easier to bring both sexes and all persuasions to this let’s-all-get-off table, because it might be genuinely appealing to all adults. Also, hello, what looks good and what feels good are two entirely different things, which is totally the sort of thing a chick would say.

The problem is cultural: Then again, we do live in America, whose Puritanical roots are showing no matter how many times we bleach (that asshole). Beyond the person and the political is a deep, spiraling well of shame (or immaturity).

The problem is your family of origin: Anyone else grow up in a conservative region of the country like the South where every sexual impulse is stifled before it’s even uttered? Anyone grow up with all women with virtually no everyday exposure to men to see this stuff as utterly mundane? Anyone grow up in a super religious household? Etc.?

The problem is all of us: Or rather, the problem is communication. Says the article:

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.

Of course, it’s important to remember that in spite of how ever-present and all-orgasmic porn is, it’s still just one tool among many tools out there that could improve your relationship and your sex life. It could also backfire, or do nothing. Because the real reason you aren’t having life-affirmingly progressive sex could be due to a lot of things. Back at Slate, sex-educator Charlie Glickman adds:

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.”

Which reminds us: Porn might help us all get off, but it won’t solve our relationship blueballs.

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