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Porn - the elephant in the bedroom

Globe and Mail
July 12, 2007

Do you have a reptile brain?

Or an angel brain?

That's how I describe what determines your enjoyment of pornography.

Pornography, and how it affects emotional intimacy, is the great unspoken issue of modern marriage.

It's the elephant in the bed.

Every sex therapist I spoke to said that in the Internet age it is a problem in many romantic relationships. But it is easily fixed, they advise. It's a matter of educating one (often, but not always, the woman) that she should be more broadminded and understand that her spouse's habit of masturbating to cyberporn is not tantamount to infidelity.

"Porn is only a representation of someone else," says David McKenzie, a relationship counsellor and sex therapist in Vancouver. "It's not the same as a spouse having an affair. We impose on that representation, on that image, our fantasies, our desires. It's really having sex with ourselves. It's safe."

But that's not what a lot of researchers have found.

Masturbation is normal. No argument there. One man I know said that he will always have a relationship with Mary Fist no matter who he is in love with. And - insert mock astonishment here - women masturbate, too. It's their faithful relationship with Joe Digit.

But is there a difference when you find your spouse using porn to satisfy himself or herself? For many, it is like that scene in Little Children, when Kate Winslet's character enters her husband's home office to find him masturbating to the computer. He was a bit of a cold fish, anyway, but that made the old creep-o-meter twitch off the scale. It was a huge turnoff and an affront.

Raymond Bergner, a professor of psychology at Illinois State University, co-authored a series of studies for the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy in 2002 and 2003 that looked at the impact on women of their romantic partners' use of Internet pornography.

"I do see cyberporn as a very significant issue in marriage and divorce," he says. Thirty per cent of the women surveyed had very negative reactions to their partners' use of it. "They viewed it as infidelity. They attached all sorts of negative meaning to it: that they didn't measure up, that they had been replaced, that they were being rejected," Dr. Bergner explains. The other 70 per cent said they were not thrilled by it, but they accepted that this is what men do, he reports. "I didn't have anybody say, 'This is good for us.'

"Cyberporn can throw an otherwise contented and sexually satisfying relationship into trouble. It means everything is in question," he says.

That's what happened to Joan Sewell, author of I'd Rather Eat Chocolate: Learning to Love My Low Libido. "I always dated creeps," she tells me. "And when I met Kip [her husband], he was so nice, so intelligent, so caring. He was a very, very good guy. So when I discovered the porn that he had, it was like getting punched in the stomach. I thought I was going to throw up."

Her marriage was in jeopardy. He wanted more sex than she was willing to have, and the ensuing discussion (and her book) delved into a no-holds-barred examination of intimacy. "I asked him, and he said that porn was a supplement to our sex life and it was also partly a vengeful 'screw you' thing. There are other women out there, and they want it."

In the end, Ms. Sewell accepted his use of porn. It was an outlet that reduced the amount of sex he needed from her. But she put limits on it. "If he started going to strip clubs or looking at teenage girls, there would be a blowout."

Most marriage and sex therapists only identify a problem when porn becomes an addiction. "Addiction, no matter what it involves, can be the precursor to ending a relationship," says Deborah Mecklinger, a Toronto marriage counsellor. "The addiction is the issue, not what the person is addicted to."

That said, she believes "the space porn takes up in marriage" can be problematic as well. Secrecy is bad: "It's not about the porn; it's about the fact that it was kept secret."

It's not healthy if porn replaces sex between partners, she adds. Otherwise, people should loosen up. "Sex is about love, but it's also about erotica, fantasy and, let's be honest, sex long term with one partner is about energy and effort. So if someone can make lust more effortless [with porn], what's wrong with that?"

Still, a blanket prescription to lose inhibitions doesn't take into account the emotional suffering that some spouses feel.

Jennifer Schneider, a U.S. doctor, popular expert guest on Oprahandother talk shows, and author of eight books (the latest, co-authored with Robert Weiss, is Untangling the Web: Breaking Free from Sex, Porn and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age), believes that the shame people feel prevents them from talking to others.

"A woman who finds that her husband is masturbating to the computer screen is not going to tell her friends about it. She feels this is only happening to her." Worse, one spouse often turns the blame on the distressed other, saying he or she is too prudish. And many feel cyberporn is an unwelcome intrusion upon the sanctity of the home, Dr. Schneider adds.

While studies show that men are heavier users of porn than women are, distress over a partner's cybersex habit is not exclusive to women, Dr. Schneider says. "I began to doubt my masculinity," a man in one of her studies reported. "At first, we had more sex than ever as I desperately tried to prove myself. Then the sex with her made me sick - I'd get strong pictures in my head of what she did and lusted after, and I'd feel repelled and bad ... I used to see sex as a very intimate and loving thing."

Which brings me back to angels and reptiles.

Pornography is not bad, but whenever I have watched it, I feel like one of those rats in a science lab. Sure, the sex corner of my brain can be made to light up. Give me stimulation, I get stimulated. Duh. It's like asking me to respond to an advertisement for Manolo Blahniks. Do I feel desire? Sure. But it's so uncreative. Someone is telling me what to think. That's what I call the reptile brain.

The angel brain, on the other hand, is that part of us I think of as beautifully human. It's where desire springs from higher human thought; where sexual intimacy happens through real connection, love, honesty, respect.

I can use my reptile brain, and I do. Lust is pretty basic. And hey, sometimes, that reptile is part angel, too. Human sexuality is a complex beast. But if I have a choice, and I do, I prefer to stick with the wings, with that which has a capacity for beauty and, if you're lucky, transcendence.

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