Does Porn Have a Place in a Healthy Relationship? A Sexpert Weighs In

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Is it okay if my partner watches porn? What if I feel threatened by porn? Here’s how porn can affect intimacy and relationship satisfaction and success in long-term couples.

Fifteen years ago, as I watched the season one finale of One Tree Hill, I observed one thing: watching porn while in a relationship can be hurtful to your partner. One of the main characters, Haley, uses her boyfriend’s computer to do some research for school and accidentally discovers the porn he had been watching. After Haley confronts her boyfriend (Nathan) about his porn searches, he responds, “That’s just, well, I just stumbled on that, so it’s no big deal.” 

“What about the other half a dozen sites you stumbled on and bookmarked? Nathan, it’s hard enough for me to compete with all the girls at school. What, now I have to be a porn star?” 

Later on in the episode, Nathan explains that watching porn is “just a fantasy and it’d be nice if a guy could get a little privacy in his own apartment.”

In response to Nathan, Haley says, “I gave you my heart. That’s all that I can give. And if that’s not enough for you, then I’m not enough for you.”

Wow. As a teen drama, this storyline was, of course, quite dramatic. However, this scenario is actually rather common in real life. Certified sex therapist and licensed marriage and family therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D. wrote in 2017 about how women email him on a weekly basis expressing the betrayal they feel as a result of their [male] partner watching porn.

To alleviate these concerns, I spoke with intimacy coach Alisha Fisher to answer the most common questions people have when it comes to the positive and negative impacts of porn on a romantic relationship.

Q

Some people feel the need to keep their interest in porn/porn watching hidden from their partner. What do you think might be the reason behind this rather than being open about it?

A

I believe that this secrecy comes down to two mutually reinforcing structures: sex education (sex ed), and our societal/social expectations. In many countries, there is an apprehensiveness (as I have witnessed in Canada) towards openly talking about healthy relationships, boundaries, consent, and any questions surrounding any kind of intimate connection. Everything we learn in sex ed is taught to us in a very serious, and private matter, “Don’t laugh or you will go to the office.” I believe this hinders our ability to communicate effectively about our sexual needs, not only with other people, but even ourselves. So, through education, we learn about the serious side of the spectrum but fail to account for the plethora of other discussions about sex ed. Sex ed needs to become more comprehensive to talk about the nuances of healthy relationships, and consent from both a non-sexual and sexual perspective. It needs to be a space of laughter and learning, not seriousness and abstinence.

On the other hand, we have our social influences. We learn from a very young age, the importance of upholding your gender-roles, and that if we don’t live up to those gendered expectations, it leads into a continuum of harm onto others and ourselves. Boys are to be dominant, women are to be subordinate, and all others of the (non)gender spectrum are to be outcasted and ostracized. These socialized roles ultimately impact our connections later in life. With the combination of sex ed teaching us sex just magically happens, and our social world saying some genders are to magically take on these lead/following sexual roles, we simply become lost in the vast world of communicating about our sexual and intimate connections. So, it makes sense that we don’t talk about our wants, needs, desires, and even porn consumption because we are scared to step outside of the social and educational box! Some will ask, “should we talk about porn in our relationships?” and research has shown a lot of benefits to doing so. When people in a relationship talk about their pornography use, science has shown that they are more open about sexual discussions and reported more closeness in their relationship [Kohut, Balzarini, Fisher & Campbell, 2018].

Q

Does porn affect the way a person views their partner? Does it mean they aren’t attracted to them or is it truly just fantasy?

A

There are a variety of impacts that one can experience from watching porn. We are all unique human beings that can experience a situation very differently from another. For some, porn may consume their lives, for others, it’s just a great way to relax. For the average person, I would suggest that porn does not affect their view of their partner(s) as much as the news, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, or Tik Tok does! Don’t get me wrong, we can be attracted to, or even inspired by other human beings, but that doesn’t mean it will change how we view our partner(s). My bottom line is, if we see something in porn that shocked, inspired, or sparked a curiosity within us, bring that into the relationship, and talk about your experience with your partner. Maybe they will have some answers that could spark a new way to connect.

I would suggest that porn does not affect their view of their partner(s) as much as the news, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, or Tik Tok does!

Q

How does one get through the feeling that they have to compete with the people their partner sees in porn?

A

There are potentially two sides of context here, one being about gaining back your partner’s attention from watching porn, which is a bigger issue. The second one being about a sense of insecurity of not being enough for your partner. In both contexts, an open conversation about how you are personally impacted by their porn use is needed.

​For the first concern, I would suggest that there needs to be a discussion with your partner about their porn use impacting your relationship, but I would say that you would need to first work at responding to people’s experiences using open body language, empathy, and a non-judgmental response. This will all come into play when you are ready to have a discussion with your partner about their pornography use. For this difficult conversation, using “I” language really helps with identifying your personal impacts of this behavior. Saying things like, “You never listen to me,” “You are always watching porn,” can be viewed as aggressive and unrealistic, and yield a defensive response. But, statements like, “I feel hurt/disappointed/left out when you spend time watching porn instead of us spending time being together,” can yield an open and more reflective response. The conversation should lead to unpacking why your partner is watching porn and how they feel about it.

​For the second concern, this is a great opportunity to discuss your partner’s porn use. Again, stepping back from our judgments and just being curious about who your partner is watching and why. Ask open-ended questions like, “Oh, I’ve seen you watch this before! What do you like about them [or this action]?” Once you create a space of open discussion, then I’d suggest bringing your concerns into the space: “Hey, I notice you watch a lot of blondes and I’m a brunette… I feel insecure that you are more attracted to them than me…” The porn industry, just like the movie industry, is all about taking the viewer to a fantasy world, so take this as an opportunity to educate yourself (either about porn or your partner’s fantasy world) and have some fun with it. Unfortunately, we are not superheroes with these out-of-this-world superpowers, but we can go out, buy a wig and have some fun with a bit of some fantasy roleplay. Ultimately, if your partner has chosen you as someone they love and want to be with, take time to reflect on that, and how important you are to them.

Q

What are the most important findings you’ve discovered about porn consumption and its correlation with relationship satisfaction?

A

The most difficult aspect of studying pornography and pornography consumption is the definition of the operational variables (how the researchers define things) varying from study to study. This can lead to a lot of confusion for both the non- and scientific communities to get a full understanding of the impacts of pornography.

One of my favorite studies was completed by the researchers Taylor Kohut, William A. Fisher, and Lorne Campbell, out of Ontario, Canada. They, as well, wanted to investigate the impact that porn was having on intimate relationships. So, they went straight to the couples themselves and asked about their experiences using pornography within relationships, and perceived effects of pornography use. What they found was that “no negative effects” was the most commonly reported impact of pornography use, followed by positive perceived effects, and then negative effects were reported with considerably less frequency. The researchers themselves noted that there is a lot more systematic attention that needs to be paid to the impacts of porn and its use, but what I love about this study is the simplistic notion of asking the people themselves, what they genuinely think about this impacting their relationship. Overall, I believe that the world of pornography is changing and growing at a very rapid pace. Yes, we still see the skinny, white-abled bodies plastered in many of the categorical representations on Pornhub, but there is a demand for more inclusion of all kinds of body types and alternative lifestyle connections. Just look at the searches that defined each year on Pornhub’s Year in Review, where terms like ‘popular with women,’ ‘tattooed women,’ ‘Romantic,’ ‘trans’ and ‘transgender,’ ‘outdoor,’ etc., have been demanded in the last two years.

All in all, with anything concerning relationships, open and honest communication is the best policy. Within moderation, porn can be used as a tool for boosting satisfaction, creativity and overall enhancement of your love life. For tangible tips on how to incorporate porn in your sex life, check out Part 2: 5 Tips for Watching Porn With Your Partner to Boost Intimacy.

Tatyannah King

Tatyannah King

Tatyannah graduated from UNC-Greensboro in 2018. She is now a grad student at Widener University, studying social work and human sexuality She is also a sex blogger, travel enthusiast and educational presenter with the Center for Positive Sexuality. To stay up to date with her future workshops and presentations about sexuality, follow her on Instagram @taty_k_king.

Remember how
amazing your
sex ed was way
back when?​

...oh wait, neither do we.