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Porn hurts women, so say the partners of users

By Petra Bueskens - posted Tuesday, 1 May 2012

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.

Arndt's own examples are consistent with a growing body of research in marital and family therapy which concentrates not simply on the individual impacts of porn consumption (that is, its effects on users) but also on the "systemic" impacts; that is, its effects on the people around the user and, in particular, on his – it is usually men consuming – partner and children. This moves the discussion beyond intractable (though important) questions such as: "Will it turn him into a rapist?" or "Are his attitudes towards women becoming more callous and sexist?" to the everyday relational context of users. How, in particular, does secret use by one member of a couple affect the other – before, during and after discovery?

One of the most counter-intuitive findings of this research is that heavy porn consumption tends to diminish a couple's sex life – principally by shifting men's sexual focus away from their partners, and into a fantasy world of endless erotic possibilities. Many partners are consequently left feeling sexually and emotionally abandoned and devalued. Arndt dismisses this finding out of hand, but it has been noted by over a dozen studies, especially in relation to the partners of "heavy" users.

Another key finding is that pornography consumption is much more problematic in long-term committed relationships than in casual ones. For example, survey research conducted by Bridges, Bergner, and Hesson-McInnis (2003) found married women to be significantly more distressed by a partner's online pornography consumption than women in dating relationships. Moreover, the distress increased according to the perceived frequency of use. This research, notes Manning, "is significant because it supports the assertion that married women generally are distressed by their husbands' use of sexually explicit materialand that this may threaten the stability of the marital bond."

In other words, casual use in casual relationships is the least problematic for women, on the proviso that this use is not concealed. However, heavy use, especially heavy secretive use in a committed relationship, can wreak havoc, and not uncommonly results in separation and divorce. Fundamentally, women experience their partner's secret porn use as infidelity. As one woman in a recent study by Zitzman and Butler (2009) put it, it's "like he's had a million affairs".

The visceral appeal of internet porn, especially with the advent of high speed internet connections and high definition images, has, at least in some cases, trumped real women. In her now classic article The Porn Myth well-known feminist writer Naomi Wolf made this connection (in apparent opposition to Andrea Dworkin who had cautioned that porn would greatly exacerbate rape culture). "For most of human history," writes Wolf, "erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images' power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women."

Wolf is right, however, she may have been rash to assume she had trumped Dworkin's portentous insight. Arguably, men's widespread patronage of the sex-industry, including porn, and increasingly "teen porn" and, more disturbingly, "kiddy porn" (what is in fact the filmed sexual assault of children) is itself a form of rape culture. While the women who are men's equals might be struggling for sexual recognition, those who are structured as their inferiors are struggling to keep up with the demand (or, more properly, the businesses that exploit them are struggling to keep up with demand).

The porn industry is gigantic – its profits are larger than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, and Apple combined (yes, that's right, combined), with worldwide profits currently posited at US 100 billion dollars. The stripping industry has doubled in the last decade; global sex-trafficking in women and children, usually from poor countries is booming; and, with the legalization of prostitution in many places, both the legal and illegal industries have boomed. In any given week, 60,000 men visit brothels in Victoria alone. While porn is turning men off women, as Wolf rightly notes, it is Dworkin who forewarned the underbelly.

Research both on users and, as we have seen, the partners of users, indicates two main trends associated with heavy porn consumption: men either begin to ignore their partners sexually (having substituted cybersex for relational sex); or they want to act out porn sex with their partners. Not surprisingly, the partner's of users typically describe feeling objectified or used. As one woman in a 2002 study by Bergner and Bridges described, "I am no longer a sexual person or partner to him, but a sexual object. He is not really with me, not really making love to me … He seems to be thinking about something or someone else-likely those porn women … He is just using me as a warm body."

Anti-porn activist and researcher, Gail Dinessimilarly observes (what therapists are seeing on a more regular basis) that young men are increasingly wanting their girlfriends to behave like "porn stars":

... the more porn men watch, the more they want to play out porn sex in the real world. They become bored with their sex partners because they don't look or act like the women in porn. What troubles many of these men most is that they need to pull up the porn images in their head in order to have an orgasm with their partner. They replay porn scenes in their minds, or think about having sex with their favourite porn star when they are with their partners.

There is now a growing body of anecdotal and clinical evidence to support this assertion. However, Dines, like Wolf, concentrates on the impact of Internet porn on young people. But, as Manning notes, research has not yet caught up with the demographic profile of users, or the extent to which pornography is reshaping sexuality and relationships across the board. It is not just vulnerable teenagers, or men in their early twenties, whose sexuality is being re-shaped by porn, it is men and women of all ages. Indeed, current Internet Filter Review statistics show that in the U.S. the 35-44 year old age group consumes the most pornography (defined as those users who pay for porn), followed by the 45-54 and 55 + age groups. Hard-core porn is mainstream and men of all ages, classes and cultures are watching it, which is impacting how they see women and sex. It is also affecting how women see themselves.

Research findings on the partners of users reveals a vernacular distress that exists in tension with both liberal apologist and feminist analyses of porn, since the primary concern of women who are the partners of users is not the political economy of the sex-industry, "freedom of speech", or the relative "agency" of sex-workers, but their own primal feelings of sadness, loss, jealousy and betrayal. What we see in these accounts is a discourse of suffering and abandonment that speaks of ruptured attachment and damaged self-esteem.

The primary concern here shifts from production to consumption or, more properly, the knock-on effects of consumption on the women in relationship with users. If we accept that the overwhelming majority of long-term relationships, and perhaps all marriages, are premised on exclusivity, trust, sexual fidelity, and intimacy, then regular porn use by partnered men - specifically, evaluating, selecting and masturbating over other women - is inherently threatening to couple bonds. When this changes the baseline of expectation for what women (should) look like and do, we are in trouble as a society, not only in our individual relationships.

Returning to Arndt and her key point that men are turning to porn because their wives wont "put out", we might ask whether men's endemic porn use is not rather a retreat from (and substitute for) real women – a shoring up of masculinity and male sex right - in a context where real women have made significant advances, including with regards their sexual autonomy. Are porn stars - and sex-workers generally - the new wives who must put out and shut-up? We might also ask, since we seem to think it is fine to question women's "low libido", why it is that men want - and in some cases expect - constant sexual access to women?

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This article is part of a longer article submitted to Arena journal entitled “Pornography, Male Sex-Right and the Grieving Wife”, a version of which appeared in Arena Magazine this week.

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About the Author

Petra Bueskens is a Lecturer in Social Sciences at the Australian College of Applied Psychology. Prior to this she lectured in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and Deakin University (2002-2009). Since 2009 she has been working as a Psychotherapist in private practice. She is the editor of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Journal of Australia and the founder of PPMD Therapy. Her research interests include motherhood, feminism, sexuality, social theory, psychotherapy and psychoanalytic theory and practice. She has published articles on all these subjects in both scholarly and popular fora. Her edited book Motherhood and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives was published by Demeter Press in 2014.

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