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Men, Women, and Understanding Pornography

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We have had several females state their intention to end their relationship with their male partner and at least one woman has asked if she should break her engagement and impending marriage over the pornography controversy. We need to ask if this angry approach is good for either men or women over the topic of viewing internet pornography. Would it not be better to try and understand what is happening here between males and females and, through that understanding, develop better ways to cope with this problem?

Part of the reason why women are so angry about internet pornography is that it takes their men away from the family and from themselves.

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How can a father be engaged in fathering his children if he is locked in his office at home spending countless hours viewing porno sites on the internet? More than just viewing porn, these men are also masturbating. It goes without saying that masturbation occurs in isolation, at least under these circumstances, and the wife or partner is not involved in this solo activity.

Why does this occur? Why do otherwise good fathers and husbands engage in this self-isolating sexual behavior when they have a willing sexual partner available? Why do so many men view porn in private and keep it secret from their wives, even from those wives who are willing partners in jointly viewing pornography as a "turn on" preceding foreplay and intercourse? Let us see if we can figure out some answers instead of engaging in condemnation.

Why Do Men View Pornography? One of the reasons why men who are married, engaged to be married, or have a girl friend with whom they are sexually active, engage in the viewing of pornography in secret has to do with an emotion we recently visited called shame. As has been stated in other weblog entries on this site, shame has to do with deep feelings of self-disapproval.

Shameful feelings of self condemnation can be extremely harsh, especially when it is perceived that a deeply valued belief about what is and is not socially acceptable has been violated. This is why shame is such a painful experience. The individual who feels shame engages in total self condemnation, whether other people are aware of it or not.

Shame is much more powerful than guilt because feeling guilty is connected with a single act or behavior of which the person disapproves. There is no condemnation. Instead, there is awareness that some law or code has been violated in a single instance. Shame is much more global in nature than guilt. It involves a complete judgment of the entire self as negative. The experience of shame is humiliating and includes feeling a sense of disgust and mortification about the self.

Both men and women experience feelings of shame around sexual issues but for different reasons. For women, feelings of shame often have to do with body image issues. Women compare themselves to other women and fear that they are not thin enough, shapely enough, or large breasted enough to fit the stereotypical view of what is defined as a beautiful woman.

In addition to body image issues, women struggle with what is and is not acceptable about being sexual when you are female.

To this day there remains the double standard that for men it is permissible to be sexual but for women sexuality represents being immoral and sinful. Yet, once married, women are expected to be sexual and erotic for their husbands. These conflicted feelings are often less intense today, in the wake of the women's liberation movement, but they still persist.

For men, shame issues are directly related to sexual performance, and definitions of masculinity. For the male, part of sexual performance has to do with getting and maintaining an erection. This is such a visible aspect of masculinity and is so very obvious that any males who doubt their masculinity struggle with the question of whether their erection is large enough to attract and satisfy women.

The man wonders if he is aroused enough. Second, he has to be able to ejaculate. The male cannot "fake" an orgasm.

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There is just no pretending; He either ejaculates or he does not. If he fails to ejaculate he feels less like a real man. If he fails to get and maintain an erection he feels less like a real man. If the male ejaculates before he enters the woman he feels less like a real man and if he ejaculates too soon after entering the woman and thus, deprives the woman of her orgasm, he feels like a failure. None of this is mean to imply that the men who watch pornography have these problems.

It does imply that many men fear that these things could happen. In addition to issues of performance for the male is the issue of genital size and appearance. Beginning with adolescence it is common for boys to compare penis size with one another. Some groups of boys even engage in ejaculation contests to test whose ejaculatory jet is the strongest and can reach the furthest.

Some even engage in urinary contests to see whose urinary stream can reach the furthest. All of these are tests of masculinity for these adolescent men. Many boys become interested in weight lifting magazines with photos of muscular men whom they wish to emulate as a way of demonstrating their masculine prowess.

Then, there is the issue of fantasy life. According to Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst and researcher on sexual issues and pornography, the role of pornography is to serve as the reverse of life events that occurred during childhood. Children who were abused, targets of corporal punishment at the hands of parents, or who were otherwise mistreated gain joy out of pornography by identifying themselves with the sadist in these photos and movies.

In other words, they become the masters and the women become the slaves. Similarly, men who were intimidated by women as teens are able to reverse that feeling of intimidation they once felt and still may feel through the use of porn. Men are in complete charge and have complete power in the pornographic version of human fantasies, the complete reverse of their reality as children and the reverse of how they may feel as adult men.

Therefore, they identify with doing things through viewing the pornographic material that they may be too ashamed to do with their wives in real life. This sense of embarrassment and shame about these fantasies is why so many men keep their pornographic interests secret, as one patient reported to me.

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He spent hours at bookstores, looking for magazines featuring muscular men. Every minute, he was on the Internet, seeking images of body builders to store on his computer, then masturbate to these images.

He even surfed the Net at work and in parking lots, even though he worried about getting caught-and that this habit prevented him from finding having a good, solid relationship. Enjoying images of body builders is a normal turn-on. But in John's case, it had become compulsive.

When we explored his childhood, he recalled his mother criticizing his alcoholic father for "not being much of a man," because he couldn't hold jobs and bills went unpaid. In arguments with his critical and emasculating wife-who treated John the same way-he never fought back.

John recalled her laughing about how "poorly endowed" his father was. This never left his mind. At the school locker room, he was teased constantly for being smaller than the other boys. John knew he was within normal limits but, comparatively, was smaller than his classmates.

Also John's father was not around very much. He worked many hours and when he was not working he would be out drinking. John felt that his father just did not want to be home with his mother. Through therapy he discovered his feelings of loss that his father was not around more for him leaving him with this castrating emasculating mother.

This all matched up with how his father allowed his wife to treat him, never protecting him from her verbal abuse. In John's mind, body builders were "real men.

He tried to stop using pornography. We agreed that he might be a sexual addict. Most men don't need to examine their past history, when their sexual behavior isn't interfering with their lives. John, struggling with sexual compulsion, was forced to examine his sexual fantasies in order to decode his acting-out.

He began to recognize that his compulsive interest in bodybuilders was his attempt to get closer to a stronger father figure, since his own had been weak and impotent. This helped us both understand why his bodybuilding men had to be straight or bisexual-being that his father was a heterosexual man in relationship with a woman. During his therapy, John complained that I wasn't giving him enough time. If he wanted more time with me, he'd make attempts to call me and not want to pay.

He'd get upset when I charged him for longer sessions, or not lower my fee if he came more than once a week. He also said I should work out more and that I was out of shape for a gay man. I listened for the themes and the negative transference here and pointed out how John was projecting his father's "lack of time" for him onto me.

At first these interpretations angered him. He thought I was defending myself and minimizing his needs-more of the negative transference. Through the therapy, I allowed for the negative transference toward me as a therapeutic tool. To help him more, I ultimately placed him in a gay men's group therapy in addition to his individual therapy.

Current research shows that the best intervention for sexual addiction is individual, group and step meetings. Relational healing is what is needed for this intimacy disorder. At one SAA meeting there was a gay body builder and John began to "fall in love" with him. This went against John's template of being interested only in straight or bisexual bodybuilders. Here was an opportunity to heal some of his compulsion and challenge his belief that he couldn't be attracted to gay men.

Unfortunately, John's distraction by this particular group member kept him from engaging with the other group members or using the meetings effectively.

But this mirrored what he did in life. His preoccupation with pornographic images prevented him from developing healthy relationships. This was pointed out to him at the meetings, and he was challenged to either use the meetings the way they are intended, or be asked to leave the group. John was forced to make a decision. Would he let himself do the work he needed to and not let a "bodybuilder" distract him? Through both the feelings he had toward this group member and me, he began to recognize that in fact they were transference of his feelings toward his father.

While at first this felt shameful, he ultimately realized it was his shame of being neglected by a father who wasn't there for him. I encouraged him to go to his father and make attempts at connecting with him. I told him it didn't matter what his father did with these repair attempts, because John was healing himself by going to his original source of pain and dealing with his feelings. We role-played various ways, with group members playing the role of John's "as if" father.

With the group's help and support, he was willing to do this. Ultimately, his father wasn't able-or interested-to talk about John's feelings and validate them. At first, this was devastating. John came back to individual and group therapy, crying and angry about his father's responses. But in group, he was less and less preoccupied with the bodybuilder and stopped asking for more time with me. His compulsion to act out sexually subsided.

He went for longer and longer periods without using porn. Ultimately he met another man and began dating. While his interest in porn was still there, it no longer ruled his life.

Some men actually have aversions to gay sex and gay porn. They are either asexual or, as Patrick Carnes calls it, sexually anorexic. They show little to no interest in sex, and if the subject is addressed, it is repulsive to them. At times they have sexual binges but afterward, they are disgusted. Tony was a year-old gay man who came to see me, struggling with being gay.

He was in a five-year sexless relationship with another man, and bothered by the lack of sex and intimacy with his partner. He was sexual with himself occasionally and used pornography while masturbating, but afterward would feel ashamed and disgusted with himself.

He came from a strong religious Catholic family who never accepted his being gay. His sister forbade him from seeing his nephews as long as he was in a "homosexual relationship.

He had difficulty self-identifying as gay. He was able to see that being sexual with himself or his partner would go against his family's messages. I placed Tony in my gay men's group to help him with his internal homophobic feelings. In dealing with his sexual anorexia, I asked that he bring in some of his porn that he had at home. My thoughts were to begin a pathway of him bringing what and who he was from underground.

At first, Tony was vehemently against this It took approximately one year of exploring and talking about this before he was willing to do it. He worried that I was trying to "get off" on his stash of porn, or that the group would do the same.

I checked out if the group would support him and witness his sexuality. It was important that no one make fun of him or judge him harshly rather to witness and establish a "rite of passage" into what he enjoyed sexually.

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Everyone agreed, and we created a "sacred space" around it to ritualize it. Shaking, sweating, riddled with anxiety, Tony brought in his porn magazines and showed us what turned him on the most. This was his work for a while, as he came in and showed us the images he enjoyed. He hadn't told his partner that he even had porn. I recommended that he do so. This took another six months. With Tony, I believe we were dealing with an intimacy disorder.

He couldn't be "witnessed" as gay in his family. The closer he was to his partner, the more obvious his gay orientation would be, separating him from his family even more. Tony was really less afraid of being gay than of what his family thought of him. I encouraged Tony to stand up to his family about who he was as a gay man. He admitted he wasn't up for any of that! This would involve a high level of separation anxiety. Thus his sexuality remained stunted, and his relationship to his partner asexual.

At times, prescribing gay pornography to a client has been counterproductive. Josh, 35 years old, had been partnered for 5 years-and was addicted to Internet chat rooms where he would contact and ultimately meet other gay men. His boss threatened to fire him after catching him in a chat room online at work.

A dedicated employee, he still found himself unable to stop putting his job at risk; and his partner also pressured him to get help. With me, Josh was glad to have identified his problem as sexual addiction. But after some time in group therapy, individual therapy and Sex Addicts Anonymous, he found himself unable to get aroused or stay erect with his partner.

He couldn't talk about his sexual fantasies with the group his partner or me. He also had a stash of pornography that involved bondage. I encouraged him to talk about his fantasies and interests with his partner, show him his pornography, to look at it together, and bring it into their sex play.

These suggestions angered him. He felt I was going against the SAA program and viewed pornography as one of his boundaries. I told him I don't think porn has to be a boundary for everyone. I honored that that was how he saw it, but challenged his thinking. Could it be helpful in being sexual again with his partner?

I was trying to normalize it for him. Instead, it alienated him. I like Sex Addicts Anonymous's philosophy that what's a sexual boundary for one person may not be for another.

But Josh didn't, and felt that anything sexual outside the context of his relationship was counterproductive and shameful to him. Even after I stopped suggesting he bring his pornography into the bedroom with his partner, Josh became increasingly angry with me. Ultimately, he found another therapist and transferred out of group and individual with me.

One of the gay male community's best features is our free expression of sexuality. X-rated videos and DVDs are seen as a normal if not mandatory! This isn't just a gay issue, but a "guy" issue-whether gay, bi-attractional or heterosexual, men are men. If straight guys were more honest, they would talk openly about the porn they enjoy and share their favorite sexual fantasies.

Many gay men feel a healthy entitlement to their sexuality-as do men in general, in our society. It is part of our conditioning. As males, we're granted much more permission to be sexual than women are. But that our sexuality can be an obstacle and get in our way if we have a sense of entitlement at the expense of our partners. But before it can be identified as a problem, something to heal, one has to ask: Is it interfering in my life?

Marty and Sam came to me about Marty's use of pornography. Sam believed that Marty was a sex addict and in denial. He felt Marty was comparing him to the images he looked at, even though Marty never made verbal comparisons. Marty insisted he didn't have a sexual addiction and wouldn't stop buying and viewing his porn. He felt the problem was that Sam was a prude. Throughout his childhood, Sam's father had many extramarital affairs, and Sam found his pornography around the house.

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Marty, on the other hand, came from a very religious household that never talked at all about sex and sexuality. Just because someone views pornography, he doesn't instantly have a problem. But I do believe that if one partner is bothered by the other's viewing porn, then there's a problem in the relationship, and I tell the couple so.

In Sam and Marty's case, since Sam had a problem with Marty's porn use, they both had a problem. What a couple wants to do around sexuality or anything else, for that matter isn't for me to judge. I have opinions, will share them with my clients, but in the end, I promote couples-as I did with Marty and Sam-to talk openly and honestly to one another about what they both want in their relationship. To problems like this, a cookie-cutter approach isn't appropriate for all couples.

I take into account both partners, their backgrounds, and try to get both to see how that's contributing to the problem. Sam might have been over-reacting to Marty's porn due to his own father's sexual behavior. Marty might have taken a stand against Sam's because when he grew up, sexuality wasn't addressed or allowed. Through Sam, he may have been rebelling against his family. In therapy with them, I told them both my thoughts. I also did a thorough evaluation of Marty's sexual past.

Was he acting out past sexual abuse? Was this really sexual addiction? Some feminists hold that objectifying others isn't healthy, but I think using porn recreationally can be a healthy outlet. It's safe, fun, and adds sexual excitement. The stimulation of viewing sexual images can prevent cheating outside the relationship. Some partners, like Sam, see the looking at porn as a form of cheating, in itself.

But again, this is a case-by-case assessment, as for some couples, pornography can be used as an emotional and psychological exit from the relationship. For Sam and Marty, I didn't think this was the case. There was no indication that Marty was abusing porn or letting it take away from their relationship.

Even Sam agreed that Marty was available, present and receptive to his sexual advances and activities. With Sam, I explored the growth opportunity to allow Marty the ability to look at porn and to trust that this wouldn't send him off to cheat, like Sam's father.

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This was a chance for him to soothe himself, without needing Marty to calm him with compliance. I also helped Sam see the advantage of having a partner be honest and open about his using porn, and how many other couples sneak and hide this behavior, like his father. Again, I invited Sam and Marty to view the porn together.

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Both were uncomfortable with that idea, Sam more than Marty, and so decided against it. By the end of treatment, Sam was getting used to Marty's pornographic use, and assuring himself that Marty was not his father. If the use became out of control, he'd address it then.

Marty was willing to cut down his use-even though the frequency and amount were low to start with. Some or more of this is controversial, I know. But as therapists, we're still pioneers in how to deal and what to do with sexuality. Pornography is exploding on the Internet these days, and isn't going away. People with intimacy disorders are inclined to go online and get a distorted view of what sexuality is.

To me, the key to me is exploring with the client what it means to him. It's also about asking him to provide every detail of what he's looking at and for me, as therapist, to listen with a nonsexual ear.

When a client talks about what kind of porn he looks at, I'm listening not so much to the data as I'm thinking about what it represents for him. I strongly believe that sexual behavior and fantasy are an extension of our inner core-windows into another facet of who we are.

Whatever gives you the greatest pleasure sexually is information about you. It's telling a story-not necessarily on a conscious level.