Men, Women, and Understanding Pornography
Judging from the multitude of responses we have gotten from my essay about internet pornography , pornography is an issue that plagues many relationships. Most of the comments we've received are from women who feel devalued and disrespected by the fact that their husbands, boyfriends and fiancées look at internet pornography. Many of the women who have written in have expressed feeling betrayed when they discover their men have looked at pornography. They have expressed the belief that they are not attractive enough, or desirable enough, or sexy enough. Some of these female writers report that they even view some internet porn along with their partner and feel especially angry that their partner will sneak away to view porn websites in isolation. The comments express outrage, hurt, puzzlement, and confusion about what goes on with their men.
There are many noteworthy things to say about the responses we have gotten so far on this issue of pornography but three questions stand out in my mind at this moment:
1. By far, the largest number of emails have come from angry and disappointed women.
2. Men view pornography in secret and in isolation from their female partners. Why do men engage in viewing pornography both in secrete and in isolation?
3. How can we help men and women understand one another so as to better avoid the bitterness and anger that easily comes between them on this issue?
1. Understanding vs. Rage:
Clearly, many women are enraged by pornography and direct their wrath at their men. 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. 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. Yet, why? 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.
2. 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. 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.
Stoller also writes about the concept that pornography has a fetishistic aspect to it. A sexual fetish involves having a sexual reaction to a non-human object or a part of a human being's body. Such an erotic arousal might occur in relation to such things as shoes, underwear, feet, etc. In my opinion, pornography can be categorized as a fetish in that images are being viewed that are not alive or do not involve interacting with an entire human being. This is part of what is referred to as the objectification of women through pornography. In other words, in the pornography, the female body is viewed as a commodity, as a thing rather as a human being.
The next big step that Stoller takes in his writing is to state that the fetish object, which is not a full human being and is not real, can be treated with cruelty and violence. The men who view pornography have no wish to harm either their wives or other women. However, they imagine harm to or at least control over a pornographic object through the fantasy world of pornography
This separation of fantasy life reversing what happened during childhood is part of what is known in Freudian psychoanalytic circles as the "Madonna-Whore Complex." This complex refers to the wish in all men that their wives are pure and innocent with regard to raising their children and interacting with friends and neighbors. The purity part of the continuum encompasses the "Madonna," or the virginal and sexually innocent girl. However, the same man wishes his wife to act like a "whore" in the bedroom, performing all the wished-for sexual acts that excite and please him.
The problem for some men is that they cannot reconcile the fact that their wives; the mothers of their children can fill the wished for sexual fantasy of the "whore." For these men, the Oedipal conflict takes over in which there is too much guilt associated with the role of "mother" to allow them to continue to see their wives as sexual partners. In other words, a split takes place in which their wife and the mother of their children can no longer be viewed as the "whore" but only as the "Madonna." This type of split includes viewing pornography in private because they do not want to admit to having such fantasies about their wives and may even believe that these wives would never approve of such erotic and "prohibited" fantasies. Therefore, the pornography must be viewed in privacy and solitude. If you doubt the power of the Oedipal conflict that boys feel in relation to their mothers, I need only point to the major fist fights and near riots that break out in high schools across America if one boy should happen to use a particular curse phrase in regard to the other boy's mother. Simply to state the term "Mother-F***er" (use your imagination to fill in the missing letters) to another boy can start a major battle between groups of adolescent boys. In the therapy office I have worked with a few men over the years that simply lose their libidinal feelings towards their wives once they become mothers.
For all of these reasons and more, many men retreat into the secret and private world of pornography and masturbation. This is even true of some men who engage in full heterosexual contact with their wives and still retreat into that secret world of masturbation. In the fantasy world of pornography there is no shame and there are no performance issues.
3. How can partners get along in the face of pornography use?
It is important that both men and women begin to understand and become sensitive to the delicate shame issues experienced by each with regard to their sexuality. Women come to believe that they are not pleasing their men and that is why their male partners turn to pornography. The root of this thinking is often related to the negative body images that women hold of themselves. Women who are heavy believe they are ugly. Women who are thin believe they are heavy and ugly. Women who are thin do not believe they are thin enough and insist they are ugly. Even today, in a world in which women are much more sexually liberated than ever before, some women fear that being sexual is immoral for a woman. As a result, they hold back from orgasm or from letting go and losing control in the orgiastic experience. They do not do this deliberately. Rather, the failure to orgasm is the result of deep and built in prohibitions.
Many men conclude that their women are not interested in sex or not in some of the ways they wish to pursue sexuality. They fear and doubt their ability to perform adequately and retreat into a world of isolation and sexual fantasy free of issues of performance and shame.
To the extent that both men and women can better understand where their partners are coming from with regard to pornography use and shame issues, they will be in a better position to start breaking down their mutual shame feelings and become closer. To the extent that partners do not make efforts to understand one another, attacks upon one another become more likely and the potential for intimacy within the all-important relationship decreases or fails entirely.
According to Stoller's research, the luckiest couples are those who can learn to abandon themselves to their sexual fantasies and strivings with one another without inhibition and anxiety. These couples can view pornography together, if they wish to, and can be free with one another without being inhibited by feelings of doubt about appearance or guilt that stems from unresolved issues of childhood. There is a normal part of foreplay when willing partners engage in pinching, biting, slapping, or spanking, and many other erotic activities in order to heighten the anticipated pleasure of intercourse. The key phrase here is "willing partners". How that phrase comes to be defined within a given couple will determine whether that couple can be open and honest with one another or not.
What are your opinions?
Editor's Note (10-18-10): We have just published a new article by Dr. Brian Thompson on Treatment for Problematic Internet Pornography Viewing. In this piece, he looks at research done by Dr. Twohig, which led to the first experimental study of treatment for pornography viewing. I encourage you to check that out for some interesting links on the research done and what the results of Dr. Twohig's study were.