Porn, Sex And Marriage: What's OK, And What Isn't?

Email a Friend
<em><strong>Dear Sugar Radio | <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/dearsugar/podcast">Subscribe</a></strong></em>

Warning: Today's post deals with sexual content and may not be appropriate for all audiences.

Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today they're delving into the adult topics of pornography and masturbation. A man says he masturbates regularly while watching pornography but still maintains a healthy sexual relationship with his wife. But he is still "troubled" by the notion that the porn industry is exploitative of performers, and questions whether it is morally acceptable to fantasize about women other than his wife.

To help in their discussion of these topics, the Sugars are joined by Wendy Maltz, sex therapist and co-author of The Porn Trap.


Dear Sugars,

Is it bad to masturbate to online porn? I am a happily married man in my mid-50s, and have been married for 15 years to a wonderful woman. We have a satisfying sex life, having sex approximately once every week.

However, I go online to masturbate to porn about three times a week. I work from home and find that I become sexually turned on during the working day. I look at masturbation as a healthy release. Viewing online porn allows me to accomplish the "task" more quickly and get back to work.

That other purveyor of personal wisdom, Dr. Phil, advises that watching porn is an immoral betrayal of a marital partner and says the women in porn videos are likely to have been abused as children and are being exploited. I have a teenage daughter and avoid videos of young girls, preferring age-appropriate subjects in the so-called "mature" category. I also avoid watching porn up to 24 hours before I am likely to have a date with my wife in order to be able to enjoy and contribute to our sex together.

My wife knows that I look at porn. While we don't discuss it, she doesn't feel that it is a betrayal of her. I look at viewing porn as an extension of masturbation, which I believe is healthy and a necessary release, one that is as private as going to the bathroom. If not for porn, I would still masturbate. I doubt Dr. Phil believes that masturbation is immoral. Is masturbating while fantasizing about someone besides my wife immoral? Assuming that online porn is the problem, is it possible that you can make distinctions?

I know that many of the women on porn sites are probably psychologically damaged in some way, and that the pornography industry may be contributing to that damage. On the other hand, is it possible that accepting money for video sex is not always exploitative? Is it possible that some of the women who perform in online sex videos do it out of a healthy appreciation of sex?

Signed,

Troubled by Porn

Steve Almond: I could have written this letter, and I felt a great sense of sympathy for this guy who's trying to figure out the same questions I struggle with when I bother to even struggle with them: Am I complicit in something that is very clearly against my moral code? In what ways? And what are my other alternatives?

I think he is in a productive state of bewilderment, and I think most of the men of conscience who consume porn in one way or another are either suppressing this set of questions or are struggling with them. The porn industry is like football or like meat or like fossil fuels — it's essentially exploitative. But because I have a libido that operates differently than my wife's, I get horny and I want relief. I lament that I no longer sit there and do the imaginative work of masturbating without porn. There are a lot of people who aren't even grappling with the ways in which pornography is an ethical concern because, frankly, people don't want porn served with a side dish of ethics.

Wendy Maltz: I have a lot of respect for the man who wrote this letter. He's really thinking about his relationship to porn and trying to figure it out. He doesn't have the secrecy and shame element going on that a lot of people have with porn. But there's something happening — he's starting to question it. I can't say if his porn use in particular is a good thing or a bad thing. It's so personal. People have ask themselves, "What does porn mean to me? What is it doing to me? Where's it taking me?"

Cheryl Strayed: What do you mean when you say "Where's it taking me?" Do you mean to suggest that, in some ways, his porn use could be robbing his marriage of a sort of intimacy that it might have if he didn't use it?

Wendy: Porn is a very powerful product. It's like nothing we've ever seen before. There's a conditioning process associated with porn. It can become a stronger habit. Our sexual arousal response gets patterned to particular cues, and those cues can be the images in porn or they can be the smell of a lover's neck. Images are very powerful, so porn could be affecting the intimacy he has with his wife in ways he's not even aware of. He says porn is not an issue in his marriage, but he and his wife aren't really talking about its place in their relationship either.

Steve: There's a kind of "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy when it comes to porn in relationships. Pornography, predominantly for men, is a little secret cavern — it's a place we go, even if we're in happy, deeply communicative relationships, as it seems this guy is.

Cheryl: Part of my response to this letter is that there's nothing wrong. This guy wants to have an orgasm about four times a week. Presumably, if his wife wanted to have sex more, she would be making advances towards him. And he has a different sex drive than she does, and so he just takes care of himself. He doesn't need to tell his wife. There is such thing as privacy, even when you're married to somebody. Wendy, is this inherently a bad setup, or are you thinking, well clearly, because he's asking these questions, he's not entirely comfortable with it?

Wendy: From a clinical perspective, we're not talking about someone who is disassociated or who uses porn in lieu of sex, but there's something going on for him — he signed his letter "Troubled by Porn." One of the things that I wonder about is, why does he use porn a lot while he's working? Is sexual release a way of dealing with stress for him? Maybe he's not feeling as productive or as recognized in his field as he'd like to be? Has porn become a way that he self-soothes? And if so, is that at the expense of learning other ways to take care of himself — reaching out to a real person or going for a run?

The other thing is his age. Being a man in his mid-50s, it can take a little longer to get sexually aroused. The erections aren't as firm. Sex can become a little bit more laborious in terms of functioning, but under usual circumstances, that's offset by really good communication with a partner you've been with for years.

Cheryl: Or by a sense of humor — that sex doesn't have to be a performance. It doesn't always have to equal orgasm. It's a sensual exchange of pleasure and communication.

Wendy: And there's this wonderful growth that a couple can have. I've been married for nearly 40 years now, but I had a rough beginning as a sexual person. I've now experienced what it's like to be in a long-term relationship where you don't have a heavy influence of porn and where you can really work with your partner and learn with your partner and grow with your partner sexually. I think a lot of couples are missing out on that growth.

Steve: Troubled by Porn, you've reached a moment where you have to ask yourself, "What is the meaning of porn for me? And if I'm unsettled, do I need to start having the difficult, but necessary, discussion with my wife to say, 'I feel greater desire and I want it to be toward you. I want to find a better balance between my porn use and our sex life together.' "

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more about how porn can affect relationships.

Have a question for the Sugars? Email dearsugarradio@gmail.com and it may be answered on a future episode.

You can also listen to Dear Sugar Radio on iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite podcast app.

Copyright 2016 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.