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Guest Blog: What Do Professionals Need to Know About Porn?

by Dr. Marty Klein

“What do you suppose would happen if the whole country were flooded with free porn?”

What sounded like a crazy idea in the 1980s became a reality just a few years later. We now know exactly what would happen.

In the year 2000, broadband internet brought free, high-definition pornography into virtually every home in America. Still reeling from the world-changing invention of the internet, America was unprepared for 24/7 porn.

This led to a predictable cascade of problems, which are still with us: consumers having trouble regulating their use. Couples arguing about it. People misunderstanding its fundamental fictions. Parents worried about what their kids are learning from it.

Of course, professionals are expected to pick up the pieces: Marriage counselors, child psychologists, mediators, clergy, physicians. Sometimes, unfortunately, law enforcement. And all are trying to do so without the training, models, tools, or support they need.

In a country deeply conflicted about sexuality, the new supersized version of porn triggered another one of America’s periodic moral panics. Remember comic books, early rock ‘n’ roll, satanic ritual abuse, snuff films? All were the focus of intense public concern, none were ultimately dangerous, and some didn’t even exist. Nevertheless, moral entrepreneurs and anti-sex activists saw 24/7 porn as an opportunity to frighten and anger people—while enriching and empowering themselves.

Predictably, there are now many popular myths about porn that are simply not true—but which are incredibly sticky, difficult to dislodge or even discuss honestly. Here are some common myths, along with some helpful facts.

* Myth: Most porn is violent or misogynist.

There’s no lack of people claiming that most or all porn is violent, deviant, and woman-hating.

And it’s not hard to find such imagery. But it’s a tiny fraction of the universe of porn out there. True, a tiny fraction of a huge number is a big number. But let’s remember that most porn isn’t violent, and that most people don’t want to watch violent porn.

What most porn consumers watch is friendly, smiling people doing friendly, sexy things together. This is the porn that is most readily available. Much of it follows a familiar formula: undress, oral sex, intercourse. Gladly undress, delighted to have oral sex, satisfied with intercourse. Realistic? Not especially. Violent? Definitely not.

And yet moral entrepreneurs like Concerned Women of America, anti-sex-work activists like Melissa Farley, and academic bullies like Gail Dines deliberately spread lies every week about the content of porn. They’re saying that 50 million American husbands, brothers, and sons are consuming images of sexual savagery every week. Does that sound like the guy you know?

* Myth: Fantasy is a reflection of desire, and predicts behavior

Everyone knows that fantasy has very little predictive value in life—except when the subject is sexuality. We all fantasize about strangling our boss, yet no one fears they’ll actually do it. We all fantasize about selling all our stuff and moving to Tahiti, yet no one fears doing it. But when someone enjoys fantasizing about threesomes, or sex in public, or being sexually coerced by a regiment of Marines, too many people are frightened that this could somehow “lead” to the real activity.

Pornography is a compendium of human fantasy. Not desire—fantasy. Not behavior—fantasy. Humans like consuming sexual images of the forbidden, the risky, the scary, the chaotic, the dirty, the glamorous.

When activists criticize the content of porn as perverse or deviant, their surprise is disingenuous. Exactly what would anyone expect to be the content of porn—the wholesome, the clean, the safe, the predictable? That’s what fantasy is designed to escape from. That’s what most people already have in their sex lives. And if the scary and risky is too, well, scary and risky, fantasy is a perfect place to vicariously “experience” it.

That’s why it’s short-sighted to refer to “gay porn” and “straight porn”—there’s just porn. True, there’s porn depicting same-gender sex and porn depicting other-gender sex (although there’s a lot of porn featuring both). But it’s all just imagery that people find exciting.

Every week someone comes into my office worried that they’re watching the “wrong” kind of porn, or worried about the “meaning” of the porn they enjoy. “I’m straight, why do I enjoy watching gay sex?” “I’m a feminist woman, why do I like watching women being tied up?”

We are a kinky species, aren’t we? With all due respect to those Freudians who think dreams have meaning, fantasies have very little meaning for most people. We’re stimulated by what stimulates us. Sometimes that changes over time, sometimes not.

Even St. Augustine thanked God for not making him responsible for the content of his dreams. We don’t have a record about how he felt about his fantasies.

* Myth: Porn causes people to abandon their sexual relationships

Here’s a story I never hear: “I used to enjoy eating, then I watched a bunch of cooking shows, and now I’ve lost interest in eating.” Similarly, no one leaves a vibrant sexual relationship with an actual person for the pleasures of masturbating to images. That would make no sense.

What does exist is many, many people struggling with sexual dissatisfaction. Maybe the problem involves boredom and routine. Maybe it’s the accumulation of years of hurt and resentment. Maybe it’s a dramatic gap in sexual preferences, or levels of desire. Maybe it’s alcohol or one person being really selfish.

And did I mention boredom and routine?

Many, many people experience the collapse of their sexual relationship. And especially in long-term relationships where both are committed to staying, very few people want to discuss this collapse. Most people would much rather argue about porn than talk honestly about sex.

People rarely complain about their mate’s porn watching when they’re enjoying a healthy sexual relationship. Very few people in rich sexual relationships fear that porn will steal their mate away—because they know exactly what their real-life sexual relationship offers.

But when the sex has collapsed, it’s easy for someone to point to Demon Porn as the “reason” things have gone bad—that porn “stole” their mate.

No real sexual relationship offers the perfection, the total control, the infinite variety, or the level of fantasy that masturbation to porn does. But that’s all pretty weak stuff compared to the touch of another human, the anticipation of a kiss, the look in someone’s eyes while we’re climaxing. When real sex lacks those, masturbation to porn looks like a reasonable second choice. But it’s rarely someone’s first choice if other things are available.

All professionals who deal with porn-related complaints need to look beyond the porn component and explore what else is going on in the situation. The porn use can be distracting to us—but we need the self-discipline to look for the context of the porn use, and the wider sexual ecology of the person or couple in front of us. Only then can we be truly helpful in this age of PornPanic.

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For more about pornography, PornPanic, and Porn Literacy, see Dr. Klein’s new book, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic With Honest Talk About Sex.

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Dr. Marty Klein is a Certified Sex Therapist, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, and Policy Analyst. The award-winning author of 7 books, he is named by Wikipedia as a key figure in America’s controversy about sex addiction.