Using Pornography as a Rorschach for Men and Women

Porn itself is not the issue unless we are addressing underage porn, which this article is not about in any way. Rather, the actual issue is different viewers' relationship to porn and how it shapes their desires and expectations.
05/17/2013 05:37 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

The New York Times announced that Routledge, the company which publishes Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, has announced that starting in 2014, they will begin publishing a new journal titled Porn Studies. According to Routledge's Announcement (which you can read at here), the
journal "will be the first dedicated, international, peer-reviewed services designated as pornographic and their cultural, economic, historical, institutional, legal and social contexts."

I think it is timely and important to have something like this journal reviewing porn's effects --both positive and negative. But I do hope the journal's board are more balanced and also included researchers who also see more damaging pornography's effects.

Porn itself is not the issue unless we are addressing underage porn, which this article is not about in any way. Rather, the actual issue is different viewers' relationship to porn and how it shapes their desires and expectations.

I wrote an article titled, "Depathologizing Porn" in which I asked therapists to consider how pornography can be of value.

I pointed out that porn can be very useful for many people, at the same time as it causes problems for others. I have seen porn be a help for clients with kinky fantasies and desires and fetishes, for those who are coming to terms with coming out and finding their place in the GLBTQ community. I've seen porn preserve marriages where one partner had a higher sex drive or a sexual fetish that the other didn't share, and as a relief or safety valve for individuals who enjoy fantasizing about sexual activities they would never do with a partner in real life.

Someone once said, and I agree, that pornography is much like a Rorschach blot. That is, whatever opinions you hold about it probably says more about you than it says about the porn in question. People who feel okay with it probably have a pretty healthy integration of their own sexuality; for them, porn has not become addictive and therefore is something they can enjoy occasionally, but not compulsively.

For those who outright despise it, I would suggest that they are really loathing some aspect of their own sexuality. For those who remain silent on the issue, they probably enjoy porn privately, but feel guilty or shameful about doing so. Or perhaps they are addicted to it and sadly, may even use it as a replacement for intimacy and connection with others.

Women's romance novels used to be called "chick lit." A new term for the genre is "cliterature," reflecting the shift in emphasis. If women are getting off on books like the Twilight series and Shades of Grey -- where the protagonists are protected by an older (if immortal) man's desire, or allowed to explore and expand their own sexual boundaries. I say, good for them.

A male partner can't be -- or do -- everything for women, and these books are filling a genuine need. But so far, I don't see an equal concern for how romance movies and novels may be misleading to women and ultimately damaging relationships where women expect men to behave in a certain way. Both romance novels and porn have their legitimate roles to play in enriching relationships, but each can also interfere and do real damage.

It's vital to keep in mind that it isn't what people may be viewing that's worrisome; rather, it's their relationship to what they are doing that typically creates problems. The attitude that sales of porn should be halted and removed from the public access only causes more problems for clients and couples. It blocks the full understanding of male sexuality and what men enjoy. It fosters more problems in marriages where one half of a couple has decided what is morally right and wrong and feels empowered to dictate what the other partner "should" enjoy.

Negative responses based on morals and values, and the fear and shame they perpetuate, is exactly why we need a respectable journal like Routledge's Porn Studies to shed light on what is actually going on.

Increasingly, on the positive side, plenty of porn is made in which no women or children are hurt, psychologically or otherwise. Increasingly, porn is being created and directed by women, for women. And of course, there's plenty of gay male porn that doesn't involve woman at all.

I do know that porn impacts men and women very differently. But discussions about the ethics and economics -- the business end of porn -- and its social impact are very different from examining how you personally feel about sex. For instance, if you could magically delete every porn scene from a film or video -- but knew perfectly well that those acts had still been performed off camera, in private, among consenting actors -- would those activities still leave you feeling uncomfortable? If so, that is more indicative of your personal attitudes about sex itself. I regret if that sounds confrontational, but all pornography really serves as a mirror of what we, the beholders, openly or unconsciously enjoy.

But there remains a huge discussion still to be had about the actors and actresses who perform in porn films and their reasons for choosing that profession (some healthy, some not). It's difficult for some critics to distinguish between porn and porn actors, which reflects the touchy debate over the difference between sex work and prostitution. We also need a better understanding of the social impacts of sexualized imagery, which range far outside of the realm of porn into advertising, media, culture, entertainment, and nearly every aspect of life.

There are plenty of healthy ways to enhance sex lives, relationships, and marriages and porn is one that can be effective in the long term. But it may not be of value to you personally, and as a therapist, you have a right to share your beliefs to your clients so that they do the same. If porn seems to be an issue, I explore why it's become an issue.

Sometimes the objection comes from the partner or the spouse. That doesn't mean that the one should stop using porn just to make the other one happy. It should start a conversation that doesn't demand an end with only one solution, simply just because half the couple -- or the therapist -- doesn't like the alternative.

Demonizing sex and porn never works well, partly because rigid/black-white thinking actually fuels a desire for the "forbidden fruit," including porn. But even while porn has been a damaging problem for sex addicts, others have found it enjoyable, supportive and helpful in understanding and expanding their own repertoire.

As with so many other areas of that offer a variety of choices, the "proper" and healthy use of porn lies in being a responsible adult -- the same goal that both therapists and clients are striving to achieve.