The answer depends on the people involved and their feelings about porn and each other.
Pornography, in and of itself, is a form of entertainment. Yes, it has very naked people, and some of those people can perform astounding feats of sex the likes of which ye have never seen! But for many people, porn is similar to books, TV, movies, sports or hobbies. It’s a fun, pleasurable pastime - something they might enjoy with a partner or on their own.
For others folks, pornography is decidedly not fun. They may feel embarrassed or ashamed about looking at porn. Some people try to hide their porn use from their partners. Some people feel betrayed if they discover their partner has been looking at porn or worry that a partner is using pornography because there’s something lacking in their sexual relationship. Lying to a partner about pornography, or consuming pornography to the point of neglecting a relationship can make sexual and emotional intimacy difficult. Occasionally people do end relationships because of issues related to pornography.
I asked Dr. Lily Zehner, a Denver-based therapist who specializes in sex, intimacy and relationships.
“It all depends on how a person relates to pornography individually and within the relationship,” says Zehner, “if the people in a relationship are OK with the use of it, it can be a positive part of that relationship. On the flipside, if they aren’t comfortable with it, it can become a problem for the relationship. The key is to continually communicate and check in with one another to determine if it is something that needs to be addressed.”
Porn addiction is an issue that’s had a lot of play in the media lately. While there’s still more research to be done, preliminary studies indicate that the way the brain reacts to sexually explicit imagery is significantly different from a typical addictive response to something like illicit drugs. Dr. Zehner agrees that porn is not, in the strictest sense, addictive. “Currently we don’t have enough studies validating that it is. The [pornography addiction] diagnosis isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 for this reason.”
Dr. Zehner goes on to explain that although pornography may not be addictive in the strictest sense of the word, it can still cause problems for some partners, “In my view, the more important question is whether those in a relationship perceive pornography to be causing a problem and to explore the reasons why this may be the case by focusing on the particular dynamics of that relationship. Pornography can become a problem when it is perceived by one or more partners to be a distraction from important needs within the relationship.
As therapist Jim Thomas explains in a scenario: say your partner begins to love baseball. They play baseball, they talk about baseball, they watch baseball, and essentially they spend all of their free time on baseball. This doesn’t allow for time to connect with them and this can be where a problem arises. If pornography use has become a way to cope with or avoid other aspects of the relationship that are being neglected, then I would encourage getting support from a knowledgeable sex therapist."
Whether you want pornography to be a part of your relationship or not, Dr. Zehner advocates open, honest communication between partners: “If you like pornography, it can be helpful to communicate that to your partner. If you would like to incorporate it into your sexual play, it can be helpful to communicate this and have a discussion to allow everyone involved the space to share thoughts, feelings, and willingness (or unwillingness) to incorporate it. It may also be helpful to negotiate and set boundaries [link to yes, no, maybe] together.
For example, asking the following questions might be a start:
Is pornography only to be used together or can it be used individually?
Are there kinds of pornography that are off limits or is it all fair game?
However, some relationships have implicit agreements and viewing pornography might be one, meaning individuals may not feel the need to share whether or not they are viewing pornography and this works for them. It all comes down to the relationship and what works for them.”
Ultimately it’s up to each of us to how we feel about pornography. If it is something we want to enjoy within our relationship, it’s important to speak honestly about pornography, to share our thoughts and feelings, and to encourage our partners to do the same. When it comes to pornography in relationships, it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong, but about finding the options that work for everyone.