How p*rn can damage a good relationship
By psychologist Angie Willcocks
If you’re offended by talk about sex, this month’s column might not be for you because I’m discussing p*rnography.
Let me start by saying that what people do in the bedroom is up to them. As long as everything is consensual, I have no interest or concern in what people get up to. I know that some couples choose to use p*rnography as part of their lovemaking, and that’s obviously their business. They’re not the people who come and see me about p*rn as a problem.
What I am increasingly seeing in my practice is p*rn use damaging couples and individuals. This is an issue for some couples where one partner does fly-in, fly-out (FIFO), but it’s also an issue for 9-5 workers.
If you’re reading this and thinking 'p*rn use is nothing new' you’re sort of right, but also wrong. The argument that p*rnographic material has been around since the Dark Ages doesn’t really hold water because the way people use p*rn these days is different than at any time in the past. There is one big reason for this: smart phones and tablets.
Until quite recently, most of us were first exposed to p*rn by finding a Playboy magazine in dad’s shed or underneath mum and dad’s bed. As far as I can remember, Playboy magazines, (and other mags like them) were full of naughty stories about sex, pictures of breasts and vaginas, and the occasional cartoon or picture of simulated sex.
The next step up from the magazines would have been seeing actual sex in videos or DVDs, which would have usually happened in mid to late teen years. For this to happen, the DVD or video would have to be identified, located, and then smuggled out by a brave kid. Then a video or DVD player would have to be found for the viewing, usually with a room full of other teenagers.
Adults who wanted to look at p*rn would have had to hire, borrow or buy the videos or DVDs.
"One in eight Google searches is for p*rn"
Nowadays, it is much easier for anyone to access p*rn, and some research shows that the average age that kids first see p*rn is 11. All it takes is a smart phone or tablet with internet access and all sorts of p*rnographic clips can be accessed. And I’m not just talking about a woman in her knickers with her boobs out either. All sorts of sexual scenarios are just a click of a button away. I recently read that one in eight Google searches is for p*rn!
Of course, internet p*rn is not so new. Since the late 1990s, p*rn could be accessed on computers. But this was still limited, because work and home computers were more often than not shared, and employers (and wives) could relatively easily check what people had been looking at.
Since smart phones and tablets have become more popular (from about 2008) p*rn has become much easier to access. Also, smart phones and tablets are generally designed and used by just one person, so privacy is easier. Now p*rn can be looked at whenever and wherever you have your phone or tablet. It’s the availability of p*rn that has led to the high levels of addiction (yes, p*rn addiction) that psychologists all around the world are now seeing.
Men are much more likely to develop a p*rn addiction. While both men and women use p*rn, men are much more likely than women to regularly view p*rn, to use it alone, and to use it with the intention of masturbating and ejaculating (actually the research also shows that men watch p*rn together in same-sex groups, but that’s another matter!).
Almost all p*rn is aimed at men. There is an argument that men are more turned on by visual images than women, and that’s why p*rn is made for men and why men like p*rn. I personally think this a silly and outdated argument, given what we now know about how human brains work. Our brains change according to what they are regularly exposed to and brains definitely change with regular exposure to highly sexualised images.
You might be wondering why all of this matters – surely people’s use of p*rn is their own business and doesn’t have to be a problem, right? Well this isn’t necessarily the case. Research shows that regular use of p*rn use can lead to all sorts of problems for the individual, such as anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, risky behaviours and problems with sexual performance (erectile dysfunction or delayed ejaculation).
Regular p*rn use also damages relationships, leads to less intimacy and less sexual satisfaction for both partners in a relationship. The female partner of a regular p*rn user can be negatively affected in lots of different ways. Firstly, if she discovers her partner’s use of p*rn, she can view it as a form of infidelity, and feel betrayed, hurt and depressed.
Women in this situation can develop serious and consuming concerns about not being good enough, and not looking how her partner wants her to look. This can lead to anxiety, poor body image, dieting and even to plastic surgery. It’s no coincidence that the demand for a procedure called ‘Labiaplasty’ (plastic surgery to change the look of the vagina) has dramatically increased in the past few years.
There is also research showing that female partners of regular p*rn users are more likely to ‘consent’ to sexual practices that they don’t actually want to do in an effort to keep their partners happy and interested. Obviously, all of this can lead to (or at least contribute to) disconnection and dissatisfaction in close relationships.
The ready availability of p*rn, the nature of it, and the way our human brains work means that what starts as occasional use of p*rn can soon turn into a problem.
P*rn is like a drug. A serious amount of feel-good chemicals get released when we orgasm, and this pleasure can quickly become part of a cycle of addiction. This can happen quicker than most of us would think, and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of the relationship the man is in.
P*rn use has nothing to do with whether or not the guy loves his partner. I have talked to lovely men, who deeply love their partner, who have found themselves caught in a trap of using p*rn that they are deeply ashamed of and desperately want to change. Change is possible, but it takes a lot of work, usually with a skilled psychologist or counsellor.
Like most things in life, prevention is better than cure when it comes to p*rn use. So if you’re not a user, don’t start. If you are a user, its worthwhile giving yourself a regular check to make sure your use is not getting out of hand. Here are some signs that your p*rn use is getting (or already is) out of hand:
- Thinking about p*rn and sexual fantasies more and more of the time, and feeling unable to stop or control the thoughts;
- Worrying about others finding out; keeping your p*rn use a secret;
- Withdrawing from relationships;
- Using p*rn and masturbation for relaxation and/or stress relief;
- Feeling compelled to look at p*rn even when you don’t really want to, or have told yourself you’re not going to do it anymore;
- Thinking about, or planning when you will next be able to watch p*rn;
- Finding yourself looking at women as ‘objects’ rather than people (seeing them as body parts like legs, lips, breasts rather than a whole person);
- Viewing p*rn more and more often (you might be surprised to learn that using porn more than once or twice a month is considered "borderline addiction"*);
- Viewing p*rn in what others would consider inappropriate places, such as in the work toilets or on public transport;
- Finding that what used to turn you on doesn’t anymore (in real life or in p*rn);
- Experiencing problems with erection with a partner;
- Experiencing problems with ejaculation with a partner (taking a long time to reach orgasm, and needing to 'run through' pornographic images in your head to find one to arouse you enough to come);
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms like irritability, frustration and even sleeplessness when you try not to watch p*rn;
- Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness about how to stop.
If you're concerned about your use of p*rn, or that of your partner, it’s worthwhile getting some help as soon as possible. Visit the Find a Psychologist site (www.psychology.org.au/findapsychologist) or have a chat to a trusted GP.
*Research by Dr Kevin Skinner.
To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.