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Is Porn A Relationship Dealbreaker?

My mother and many of her second-wave feminist peers view pornography as an institutional ill that is degrading to women and damaging to developing sexuality. She believes that the camera-ready angles, waxed and plastic body parts and pervasive depiction of extreme acts as “normal” distort human sexuality and give young porn-viewers a whole bunch of false and dangerous expectations.

My mom is a smart lady, and she’s not wrong. While I agree that some porn (okay, most of it) fits the bill she describes as damaging, I don’t find the filming and viewing of sex acts as objectively offensive. In other words, I think that porn is not inherently problematic, but its content often includes problematic ideas and attitudes. I also believe when viewed as entertainment, porn can be a positive element in the repertoire of adult sexuality,

Porn should be entertaining and arousing. It should make us want to get naked with our partners, to be confidant when trying new things, to revel in the millions of ways that humans have figured out how to be sexual. It should not make us insecure about our bodies or abilities.

It’s a touchy subject (just ask the people I tried to talk to for this article), and everybody’s got their own ideas about what’s acceptable, especially in relationships. On one end of the spectrum is 25-year-old Amelia [Not me, obvs! -- Editor], who recently got engaged. “My partner and I have discussed it and both agree that since we’re in a very committed relationship, neither of us should watch porn. While the idea of my partner watching porn bothers me a good bit, it would really be hiding it that would bug me a lot more.”

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Kim, in a committed long-term relationship, feels that individual sexuality is important, as long as partners come first. “I think it’s healthy for two people in a relationship to maintain at least minimal individual sex lives, rather than becoming entirely dependent on each other for pleasure. If I’m not around, I expect him to take care of himself. So long as when I am around he prefers me to the porn, I’m good.”

Some couples are comfortable using the huge variety of available porn as inspiration. Gretchen wrote about finding beauty in the kinds of images and videos her boyfriend showed her, “Seeing how pretty it could be– black and white, just a glimpse of parts of the body, men and women who look normal and beautiful and still imperfect– made me feel so much more comfortable with him using it, and also much more like it was a source of ideas for things we could do together.”

Three couples, three different attitudes, and thus the problem with answering a macro-level relationship question like, “Is pornography cheating?” It depends on how you define “cheating,” and that depends on whom you ask. Sociologist Judith Stacey was recently quoted in the New York Times, “Intimate partners should decide the vows you want to make. Work out terms of what your commitments are, and be on same page.” Although Stacey was speaking about fidelity, her approach applies to the role of porn in relationships as well. What is fun and exciting for one couple is potentially hurtful for another. Some people think that being in a relationship means directing all of one’s sexual energy towards your partner, while other couples believe that incorporating other media (or even people) can only add to their satisfaction.

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There isn’t one right answer here, and to say that what works for me works for everyone would be the height of arrogance. The most important thing is that the two people in a relationship agree to boundaries, and then respect them. Whether your neighbors or parents or friends find your boundaries antiquated or scandalous is ultimately irrelevant.

So what about me? As a single 20-something actively dating, I haven’t been required to spell out my boundaries in quite some time. But if someone were to ask, I know where I’d want to draw my lines. As long as what you like to watch is legal and includes only consenting adults, I respect your right to enjoy it. I should not expect you to like what I like, and you should not expect me to like what you like. That being said, an open and honest dialogue about preferences, proclivities and fetishes is what makes a healthy sex life so much fun.

Porn should be entertaining and arousing. It should make us want to get naked with our partners, to be confidant when trying new things, to revel in the millions of ways that humans have figured out how to be sexual. It should not make us insecure about our bodies or abilities.

As adults, we can, and must, separate performance from intimacy. If either partner feels insecure about their size, shape, hair, flexibility, endurance, or any of the supernatural feats on screen, we need to remind each other that what we’re watching is an elaborately staged reenactment. If the pleasure of real, skin-on-skin sex is being drowned out by porn-inspired insecurity, then perhaps it’s time to unplug and reorient our expectations.

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If you’d rather watch porn than be intimate with me, that’s a dealbreaker. If your porn habits interfere with your social life, your professional life, or your ability to be a productive member of society, that’s a problem, too. If you are dissatisfied with our relationship because I don’t behave like someone you saw on the internet, it is time to seriously recalibrate your sense of reality (and time for me to dump you).

This is a two-way street, after all, and your opinions matter. It’s not just about what I want from my partner, but what he wants from me. What if he requested I refrain from watching a particular genre of porn, or a particular sexual act? I’m not sure how I’d respond, but our responsibility to each other is to discuss these preferences honestly, and agree to terms that leave us both happy. If we find that our desires don’t line up, we need to find some mutually enjoyable middle ground, agree on compromises, or reconsider our relationship.

I’d hope that my hypothetical new boyfriend and I could sit down together like adults, discuss what we think is healthy for our relationship, establish guidelines, and abide by them. I think we owe each other that much.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project Magazine.

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