Is Porn Use Always Unhealthy?

Posted on March 14, 2013

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In my last post, I discussed the neuroscience and the relationship damage resulting from pornography addiction.  Even though pornography can be highly addictive, not everyone who views pornography is an addict.  Some couples even report enjoying pornography together as part of their sex life.  This raises the question, “Is porn use inherently unhealthy?”  In answering this, I will try to avoid the obvious moral discussion.  Many of my readers may feel that this is an elephant in the room that is being ignored.  My reason for ignoring that is to look primarily at the relationship and mental health implications.

Let’s begin by asking conversely, “How does porn use figure into a healthy life plan?”  When we work with someone who is addicted, part of the process is to develop a sobriety plan.  The three circle sobriety plan I use in my work (adapted from Carnes, 2010) looks like a target.  The center of the target is the abstinence list.  These are the behaviors that would constitute a relapse into addiction.  These are the things that one is trying to avoid.  As the center of the target, this is the smallest in area.  The things one is trying to stop doing are important, but they are a smaller part of the overall plan.  If someone who is addicted could have stopped these behaviors just by resolving not to do them, they would have done so already, so there needs to be more to the plan.  The next ring on the target is the boundaries list.  These are the boundaries that one is putting in place so that one does not end up lapsing back into the abstinence list.  Addiction is sometimes described as a profound boundary failure.  The boundaries protect in two ways.  First, they put obstacles in the way of falling back into the addictive behavior.  Second, they are a warning mechanism.  When one is bumping up against the boundaries, it is an indication that one is in danger of slipping.  It is time to look at what is happening before a relapse can happen.  The third ring and the biggest area on the target in the healthy life plan.  The healthy life plan involves setting goals in numerous areas for the purpose of caring for one’s self.  Areas include nurturing, comfort, spirituality, sensuality, passion, sex with spouse, self-image, and partnership.  The idea here is that the biggest part of sobriety is not making a list of what not to do, but learning to nurture and care for one’s self.  Sometimes an addict will want to hang on to a particular behavior that appears to be more of a gray area.  To figure out if this is a good idea it is reasonable to ask, “How does this fit into the healthy life plan?”  Generally, it becomes obvious that it doesn’t.

So how does porn use fit into a healthy life plan?  Does it promote intimacy?  In the present vernacular, intimacy is sometimes used interchangeably with intercourse.  We speak of a couple being “sexually intimate.”  Emotional intimacy goes beyond this.  In an earlier post, I discussed intimacy as “into me see.”  This is the state of being emotionally open, vulnerable, and connected to your partner, allowing your partner to see into you, the gift of knowing and being known.  Sex is about pleasure and intimacy.  It is an attachment behavior.  Your brain is designed to release the hormone, oxytocin, into brain which causes you to attach (i.e. bond) to your partner.  Our brains are designed for sex to be relational.  Porn makes it about performance.  Porn sets a standard for physical perfection that neither you nor your partner will be able to maintain over a lifetime together.  Porn also can expose one to unhealthy sexual acts.  Does porn promote mental health?  There is a sense in which porn use is voyeurism.  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-TR) lists as a diagnostic criterion for voyeurism “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act of observing an unsuspecting person who is naked, in the process of disrobing, or engaging in sexual activity.”  Though one could argue the point that those acting or modeling for pornography are not “unsuspecting,” the reality is, you are watching someone else having sex (or looking at a stranger and imagining having sex with that person).  You have no relationship with the person in the video or photo.  It is a breakdown (or arrested development) of the courtship process (which is a topic unto itself).  On the opposite end of this non-relationship are the actors and models engaging in a form of exhibitionism (another mental illness diagnosis).

Just as not everyone who uses cocaine recreationally becomes an addict, not everyone who views pornography becomes addicted.  At the same time it would be difficult to make a case of how drug use fit into a healthy life plan.  Similarly, it would be difficult to make a case of how porn use even for a couple could promote greater intimacy or even greater long term sexual satisfaction.  If the idea of giving up pornography is distressing, that may be indicative that it is already a problem.  Is porn always unhealthy?  Well, how does it fit into your healthy life plan?

 

Reference

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Fourth Ed., Text Revision. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

Carnes, P. (2010). Facing the shadow. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.

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