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The Porn Ultimatum: Should Couples Use It Or Not?

The Internet has changed our sex lives, whether we like it or not.

23/05/2016 1:24 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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"There's no way they're real, Kevin!"

There are usually two questions at the centre of any debate about porn: does it influence behaviour, and if so, is that good or bad?

Depictions of erotic acts and explicit nudity go back to the earliest times of human history. Sometimes these images had religious meaning, other times it seems they were simply a celebration of the most basic human activity. Historically, the term pornography has referred to sexual material that was considered obscene, beyond the bounds of acceptable moral standards, and in many cultures subjected to strict religious or government regulation.

Not so long ago (that is, in my lifetime), pornography referred to 'men's' magazines devoted to bare-breasted women and clear shots of female genitals, and movies containing limited nudity with heterosexual simulated sex.

Currently, we tend to have a less judgemental view of porn, which now refers to the explicit depiction of a vast range of diverse sexual activities that is freely available, particularly on the internet, some of which is illegal but mostly not.

However, before we become excited that our society is either going to hell in a handbasket or attaining desired heights of sexual liberation, depending on your point of view, most of the stuff on the net has not been invented by modern, free thinking sexual explorers: it has always been practised by someone somewhere on this planet (barring activities that require electronic or mechanical equipment). The difference now is the easy access to information about this variety, providing a supermarket of choice for people who, in the past, would never have heard of anything other than 'vanilla' sex.

And this is where the question of influence comes in. Take a moment to consider how sexual ideas and values are spread through a society. How did you learn about sex? How did you discover the variety of sexual activities that are now considered mainstream? Oral sex, for example, is now a routine part of many couples' sex life, but this wasn't the case when I began practicing as a sex therapist 40 years ago.

Two things changed, each influencing the other to get us where we are today. The first was the rapid development of the mass media, allowing for the easy spread of sexual information through society. The second was the loosening of the religion-based belief that sex should only be for procreation, whereby activities such as oral sex were considered immoral and depraved.

We know that exposure to new ideas influences attitudes and behaviours, and when these new ideas are viewed as progressive, mature, satisfying, and so on, people begin to adopt them even though we may prefer to believe we are too smart to be manipulated in this way. Why do you think companies pay so much for advertising?

The internet provides not only easy access to new sexual ideas, but a powerful way of reinforcing them: by the association with sexual arousal and orgasm, either with masturbation while viewing the sites or using the images in fantasy later during solo or partnered sex.

So, question number two: is this a good or bad thing? Actually, both and neither.

The good is that using erotic material can expand an individual or couple's sexual horizons, adding a pleasurable layer to their intimate relationship. Both men and women may find using erotica during foreplay helps get them switch off from their daily routine and aid arousal. The key here is to find the material that both enjoy -- watching someone else's top pick may be a turn off for the partner.

The neither is that there is a large group of people who aren't that interested in porn; it may be exciting to view it sometimes, and to try some of those things occasionally, but life is busy and the couple are satisfied enough with their own sex life, as tame as that might be for others.

The bad is that some people, mostly men but an increasing number of women, become fascinated by the imagery they are regularly viewing it, going back to it time and time again at the expense of other activities or time with their partner. Sometimes this develops into addiction where the person becomes dependent on porn to cope with negative feelings such as boredom, anxiety, depression, and so on. While this is a controversial term, substitute "alcohol" for "porn" and you can see why it is used.

More commonly, what I see in my practice is the person whose repetitive viewing of one type of sexual activity has led to a restriction of what he finds arousing. Regular arousal and orgasm only to those particular images means that he now requires that type of activity or touch to be able to turn on, or he needs his partner to behave or respond in the way he has seen online. This is fine if his partner gets the same thrill from these specific things, but, if not, can lead to major relationship problems, especially if he accuses her of being inhibited or selfish for not giving him what he needs.

In some cases, it can get to the stage where the person gets a better sexual hit with porn than with partnered sex, leading to withdrawal from shared intimacy. Relationship problems escalate when the partners disagree about the use of porn, made worse when porn use is kept secret so that lack of trust becomes the issue.

Mostly, though, occasional adult use of very explicit and varied sexual material is not problematic. By contrast, the increasingly younger age at which children and teenagers are accessing internet porn is a major worry. Without the benefit of maturity and real world adult experience, there is likely to be an increase in the group suffering the bad effects from regular exposure to porn.

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