THE BLOG
04/27/2016 06:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Porn Is Not a Public Health Crisis for Gay Men: Then Why Is It for Straight People?

The high-profile and research-based marital therapist, John Gottman, wrote an open letter in April identifying porn usage as a threat to couple's intimacy following April's Time Magazine cover story, "Porn and the Threat to Virility." Dr. Gottman has jumped on the bandwagon since the Utah State Senate declared porn to be a public health crisis.

His words caught my attention because Dr. Gottman once wrote after a ten-year study on gay and lesbian couple, that straight people could learn a lot from gay people. I think this is one area that confirms this analysis because most gay men and lesbians do not experience porn as a problem in their relationships. This is glaringly missing from his open letter, so I thought I would share my own thoughts about this.

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First, his use of the word "using" porn rather than "viewing" porn caught my attention. How we talk about things frames how we think about things. Referring to it as "using" makes it sound like an addiction, and that everyone watching porn is a potential addict. Unfortunately, many people see it as such. However, one size does not fit all, although some books and various research seems to support this view. However, like most things touted to the general public, there is a lot of gray area overlooked around this subject. There also are many books and research that say the opposite, that porn does not ruin relationships, and leads neither to sexual violence nor sexual problems.

What I mostly find in my practice with heterosexual couples is that it is not the porn itself that is the problem, rather the reaction to it by both the partner who views porn, and/or the spouse. More specifically, it is the lack of sexual literacy that troubles individuals and couples. Most, if not all, of these discussions on porn as a public health crisis and "addiction" are heterosexist, meaning they speak about straight individuals and couples looking at porn, and ignore the phenomenon of gay men and lesbians looking at porn, and the lack of problems that exist there.

For example, I know that most gay male couples have no problem at all with viewing porn. It is common with gay male couples to openly discuss their porn practices, and even view it together. In the gay community, viewing porn -- kinky and otherwise -- is okay. There is no shaming of each other around it. Many lesbians openly talk about viewing both lesbian porn and gay male porn. They often watch it together, and rarely does a lesbian couple come into my office complaining that her female partner is watching too much porn.

This is not to say that gay couples haven't come to me with some of the same troubles over viewing of porn, but it is not common. However, it never about the porn itself, but always about some other issue. Perhaps it is because one of the partners has fallen into the trap of comparing himself to the porn, and believing that there is some "normal" way to go about sex, or because intimacy is lacking in the relationship. And so I have never known such problems to be solved by doing away with the porn. If one partner is dealing with out-of-control sexual behavior, then I might recommend taking a break from the porn, but again, porn is not the problem. It goes deeper than that. For instance, if men are watching porn to avoid the relationship, that is a problem, so we look at the source of the avoidance. Has sex changed for them? Are they in a marriage where they want something different? Has he developed new sexual turn-ons that he hasn't been able to tell his wife yet?

Let's try some other comparisons: In the straight community, all too often there is the assumption, especially by women, that once the couple is together, there should be no need to view porn, that the relationship will forever banish the need for outside sexual stimulus. Practically speaking, this is never true, though I understand why women think this way. There is no understanding of male sexuality in our culture, only misconceptions and negative judgments. We know from many studies that men -- whether married, single, religious or culturally forbidden to watch porn -- consume porn voraciously. When their partners discover this, too often it leads to them coming into my office informing me of lockdown, shutting down all the devices, fights, shaming, even divorce, 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.

But think about this. If that standard is applied equally, women should have no need to, say, lock themselves in the bathroom and read romantic novels by candlelight, or read Fifty Shades of Gray, or go to a romantic movie. Their romantic desires should have been fulfilled forever by the partnership. But it is understood that no matter how much or little she is getting, she still is drawn to watching and reading about others in romantic love, and even fantasizing about being with the male character in the book or movie. If she is not getting enough romance from her partner she often turns to him and says, "I need and want you to be more like the men in my books and movies." While men don't like hearing this, they try to understand her need and know they have to work toward this because it will fulfill her.

The other way around is not true. When men turn to their partners and tell them they would like her to engage in some of the things they are watching in porn they are shunned, shamed, judged and often looked at with contempt and disgust. And yet I would argue that what he is asking is similar to what she is asking, only in a different form. 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. The difference is that she articulates this through emotional and relational ways, and he does so in sexualized ways in the erotic part of their relationship. No one should be judged or shamed about how they articulate their needs. If there were a more public conversation about this subject, more sexual literacy in our society, we would understand that men and women have different needs, different sexual and romantic fantasies.

Thus, the real public health crisis is a lack of sexual education. A step in the right direction could be having a conversation about gay men and lesbians who watch porn and are not in crisis over it. It would be better if all children in schools could receive a proper sex education that included balanced representation of porn and all the ways that exist to be sexual that are not primarily and only heterosexual. There is no sex education in schools for gay boys, and so they have to turn to porn to get it. Discovering gay pornography is almost a rite of passage for young gay men. For sexually fluid men, or sexually repressed men, watching porn can begin to connect them to who they really are sexually.

Sex is messy, politically incorrect, taboo on so many levels. Porn is not what we would do in real life. Just like in watching movies, it is fantasy. Straight people need to learn what porn means to men. Men objectify more than women, who are more relational. And it is a scare tactic to say that watching porn leads to infidelity, as some have said. In fact, it is often way of not engaging in infidelity, an outlet that allows them to vicariously enjoy an act that they cannot do, like watching football--they can't play it but boy to they enjoy watching it. Some may say, "see what porn did to you?" but my belief is that they are discovering something already alive within them, and can begin to move toward more authentic sexuality.

This notion of a porn being a public health crisis pathologizes men's natural curiosity and tendencies toward watching porn, and I believe it is a distraction. Actually, as long as people understand what it is and isn't, porn can be a means by which we can explore and discover our own sexuality. So let's not jump to the easy conclusion that the vast viewing of porn is destroying our relationships and our nation. Instead, let's put our efforts into a deeper understanding of each other's sexual needs, and what it says about our culture and the underlying difficulties in relating to our partners.

1. Prause, N., Fong, T. The Science and Politics of Addiction Research, in New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Pornography, and the Law. (2015). Praeger, Santa Barbara, CA.

2. Hald, G., Malamuth, N. Self-Perceived Effect of Pornography Consumption. Arch Sex Behav (2008) 37:614-625.

3. Prause N, Pfaus J. Viewing sexual stimuli associated with greater sexual responsiveness, not erectile dysfunction. Sex Med (2015) doi:10.1002/sm2.58. [Epub ahead of print].

4. Malamuth, N., Addison, T., Koss, M. Pornography and sexual aggression: Are there reliable effects and can we understand them? Annu Rev Sex Rs (2000) p. 79.