Porn Addict or Selfish Bastard? Life Is More Complicated Than That

I’m seeing an epidemic of “porn addiction” in my office. Not of porn addiction, but of “porn addiction.”

Here’s how it looks: Wife/girlfriend somehow assumes that husband/boyfriend does not watch porn (guess that’s what she means by “he’s one in a million”). One day, his porn watching comes to her attention (he leaves something on the screen, she searches his website history, he gets an email or bill from some friendly porn site, etc.).

She freaks.

She decides what his porn watching “means”:
* He doesn’t care for her
* He’s been faking sexual desire or enjoyment
* He’d rather be with other women (or men, or kangaroos, or whatever he’s been watching)
* He’s a pervert
* He’s unfaithful

Needless to say, these interpretations make his porn watching her business. And frequently, she decides she has the moral high ground from which to dictate what his problem is, the fact that he must get it fixed, and what the treatment needs to be. With slight variations, a new version of this case walks into my office almost every week now.

In a different world, Mr. Porn Consumer would turn to Outraged Wife/Girlfriend and say “Wow, I can see that you’re really upset about what I’m watching. Let’s talk about it and see what we can do.” In the real world, however, most men are so loaded down with shame about their sexuality that the second their partner attacks them for watching porn, they collapse and allow their partner to seize control of the relationship.

She then drags him into my office so I can fix the poor guy. I’m supposed to turn him into a non-perverted, non-selfish, non-hiding, aroused-by-her-and-only-her ex-porn consumer.

I understand that some guys really have a problem with porn (I see these guys more than most therapists): some watch way too much, some have abandoned their partners emotionally, some think porn depicts real life (yeah, like the NBA depicts your local gym). But most guys who watch porn just, well, watch porn. And of course they hide it from their partner—because they assume their partner will hit the roof if she finds out.

While some women don’t, too many do. And these days they have a choice: they can decide their man is a selfish bastard, or they can give him the dignity of a medical problem—“porn addiction” (as a bonus, she acquires the dignity of suffering with a partner who’s ill). A lot of guys like the disease option, too. If a wife claims that porn use is infidelity, if a girlfriend claims that porn use means he isn’t attracted to her, a disease is a good place to hide. It’s like a high school dropout being busted for car theft—and choosing to join the army instead of going to jail.

How much of the woman’s pain is really about him masturbating (the reason he uses porn, of course)? A lot of women insist that “as long as I’m sexually available to him, he has no reason to masturbate.” When pressed on this, they say he has no right—“he shouldn’t take his sexuality outside the relationship,” as if they’re jealous of his right hand.

If a woman has complaints about a guy’s behavior—he calls her the wrong name or daydreams during sex, never wants to talk about anything, checks his phone during dinner—those are legitimate grievances that need addressing. Couples therapy is a great place to do that. But if her complaint is simply that he uses porn, which she finds disgusting or confusing, that doesn’t give her the power to ban his hobby, or force him to defend it.

You can get a guy to promise to give up porn, and some guys actually will. You can even get a guy to promise to give up masturbating. A few actually will. The rest will do what they did when they were 14—they’ll do it in secret, feel bad about it, and hope they won’t get caught. And so a life of lying about sex continues. You can imagine what that will do to the couple’s closeness.

Sadly, some women will continue to blame the porn, rather than examine how they’ve used coercion to undermine intimacy.

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