A largely untold story in the ongoing debate about pornography is the fact that a growing number of women are very distressed by their partner's porn use. A number of persistent themes are emerging in research, on internet support sites (for women), in therapists' offices, in the accounts of divorce lawyers, and anecdotally. This paints a clear picture of women's distress, and provides an additional argument for the harms of pornography.
Bettina Arndt has missed the mark in her recent article Porn is not a dirty word. While she does a good job at elucidating what many men think and feel about pornography – the fantasy of compliant women, the justifications for deception, the guilt over finding their real partners inadequate, and the ubiquitous sense of entitlement to women's bodies – she does a very poor job at illuminating what is going on for many women who are the partners of users.
Arndt fails to question men's entitlement to porn, or the deleterious impact this has on a growing number of women; instead, she explicitly reinforces men's right to gratification – if not from wives, then from the sex industry. Her justification falls back on an antiquated stereotype that somehow men "need" more sex and women are obliged to give it or suffer the consequences.
Arndt draws attention to the so-called libido deficit of women, the purported mismatch among couples, and men's abiding sense of sexual frustration in marriage. At no point does she cite (or even show awareness of) sociological research on long-term heterosexual couples that indicates whymany women withdraw from sex – unequal domestic loads, a chronic lack of leisure time and sleep after children are born, resentment over the double-shift, a lack of "foreplay", poor body image, and a sense of emotional disconnect from men who remain persistently unempathic – rather, she paints a picture of long suffering husbands who turn to porn in a valiant effort to avoid hassling their wives.
Here's a more challenging thought: it may in fact be men who are running from sex – sex that is conducted in the context of respectful, egalitarian relationships with women who know what they want, and enjoy intimacy and orgasm every bit as much as they do. This might require stopping and listening to women, creating a foundation of respectful and reciprocal intimacy, and sharing an equal load of the domestic work and childcare. In other words, we have to ask what kind of sex women are less interested in, and the context within which their interest diminishes, before accepting the "women want less sex" thesis.
Before examining this thorny issue, however, I'd like to turn to women's suffering because this is the biggest hole in Arndt's argument. She completely elides a substantial and growing body of evidence regarding the emotional harms of pornography for the female partners of users. What does this evidence show? It shows that many women, especially those who are in long-term committed relationships, are deeply aggrieved by their partner's porn use and, upon discovery, suffer all the symptoms associated with ruptured attachment and a loss of trust.
As Arndt notes, many married men view porn in secret and therefore lead a double life. This is a critical point, and one noted in the research literature; if a man's viewing is open (and agreed to), if a couple watch or make porn together, as in the growing DIY market, this does not constitute a threat to the relationship. Likewise, as Arndt also notes, if the viewing is not accompanied by masturbation, it is less threatening.
However, this is not what is going on in an increasing number of cases. As Jill C Manning, a clinical psychologist and sex addiction expert notes, "This mutual scenario ... is not the predominant experience coming forth in today's cultural milieu or clinical settings". Most married men who are viewing porn, especially the hard-core stuff, are doing so in secret and maintaining this duplicity in the knowledge that porn is distressing to their partners.
This point is clearly illustrated by one of Arndt's research participants, who after lamenting his wife's putative sexual disinterest goes on to recount the following scenario:
... So when she's asleep I turn to porn where all these young women appear to be totally enthusiastic about pleasing the man. I know it's all acting and they are only doing it for money and that it's not fair to expect my wife to be like these porn actresses, but in my fantasy world this is what I love and get off on. I'll do it for up to an hour, slowly, going from video to video on my laptop, while my wife is sound asleep. I can take as long as I want and get lost in my own world.
Another user who, by his wife's account, considers foreplay "girly crap", states how much more convenient porn is where "there is an endless supply of beautiful women, all doing stuff most of us guys can only dream of." As her interviewees readily acknowledge, in "pornland" the women are on tap, make no demands, exist solely to please men, engage in a wide variety of sexual practices "ordinary women" don't seem to like, and can be switched off at will. Paradise! Except that this is deeply threatening to, and destabilising for, an increasing number of real women who find themselves unable to compete with the sexed-up Stepford Wives on screen.
Arndt writes of these experiences as if they pose no moral or emotional problems, even as she notes that the partner of this man, Zoe, whom she characterises as "a volatile woman", cites porn as integral to the decline and break-up of their relationship. Here we see the knock-on effect of porn use as it seeps into the user's relationship and damages its sexual and emotional core. While this doesn't happen in all relationships where men watch porn, it is happening in a substantial number of cases.