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How does porn affect a relationship? This author looked for answers Add to ...

‘I was nothing like the girls on screen.’

That’s 35-year-old Emily Southwood, author of the new memoir Prude: Lessons I Learned When My Fiancé Filmed Porn. Southwood, a Halifax-born writer, presumed herself sexually open-minded, but found out otherwise when her then-fiancé, Robbie, began shooting a reality-television series about the porn industry in Los Angeles. The experience left Southwood wild-eyed with jealousy and questioning her relationship, the ethics of her partner’s vocation and her own values: “I was clinging to a rickety fence – an old, feminist notion of what was degrading – in a forceful tide,” she writes.

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Prude is a close-up look at how pervasive and unspoken porn is in the intimate lives of adults, a plot line that also dominates the new film Don Jon, starring Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Its eponymous lead is unreserved about why some men prefer porn to their partners: more positions, less work. “You have more sex with that thing than you do with me,” Don Jon’s girlfriend laments, pointing at his laptop. Cindy Gallop, the brains behind the Make Love Not Porn project, hailed Don Jon as the mainstream’s first honest look at how online porn may be complicating adult relationships.

Where are the lines drawn for porn and monogamy, and how do the plentiful offerings on Pornhub affect real-life expectations? Southwood spoke to The Globe and Mail from Montreal, where she lives with her husband – who’s now a cinematographer on the far less fraught Food Network series Eat St. – and their infant son.

There’s a lot of debate about kids coming of age watching porn. But we don’t talk as often about how porn plays out between adults.

It’s really easy to avoid ever talking about porn because it’s such a contentious topic, it can lead to a fight. In my relationship, we ended up talking about it much more directly. It benefited us, even though I was very reticent. The experience of his show forced me to confront the topic and I also gave myself emotional permission to go check it out on my own.

Did your sex life change once your boyfriend started working in the industry?

It didn’t change the way we had sex but it changed the way we talked about these things. It made us talk about different types of sex. But there were times when I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not cutting it here,’ and, ‘I need to step it up in the bedroom.’ I tackle that in a humorous way in the book but it did hurt my feelings to think that I didn’t measure up.

You had jealous meltdowns about how all this in-person porn would shape his expectations of you.

Perceived expectations, yes. I like to make fun of the cheesiness of porn but of course he was off filming really attractive people having sex so that was intimidating. I took things way too literally, the fantasy elements. Talking through those expectations that was the really beneficial thing.

Your own attitude toward porn was conflicted: You’d watch a clip and find it both degrading and erotic. Is that a typical response for women?

It is among my girlfriends, this mixed-bag reaction. Some of porn can be exciting, interesting and titillating. But it takes just one moment for something to strike you the wrong way and leave you feeling judgmental of the people producing it or acting in it.

You’d watch with your partner as a bonding exercise. Do lots of women do that, versus solitary viewing?

I know some women who are huge porn fans who watch a lot of it on their own and never, ever watch it with partners. Other friends only watch it with a boyfriend or husband. My husband and I had some fun times with it but also times that devolved into awkward discussions when he was into something that I questioned. Mostly we have our own separate relationships with porn at this point.

Can porn help a couple’s sex life?

Absolutely, as long as you’re ultimately connecting with the person in the room and not completely reliant on it, or wishing they were someone else, doing something else. We all lead pretty stressful and busy lives. Porn works and it’s a turn on in the moment if you’re not feeling easily into it for whatever reason.

You now think porn is a “consequence-free way to exercise our sexual urges.” What about porn addiction? This is divorce fodder.

What I meant is that you’re not sleeping with the neighbour or the co-worker. It’s having a virtual experience, but that too can be damaging to a relationship. Viewing porn casually is a very different thing from having a porn addiction. Frequency is a huge factor as is choosing to watch porn over interacting with your spouse or partner.

What most surprised you about porn stars, your husband’s new colleagues?

I was happily surprised to have him come home and report how professional and consensual a lot of it was. It’s a business and porn is a product. I’d forget that the women performing these acts had given their written consent to do so. Do people sometimes sell their bodies as a last resort? Of course they do; it can be exploitive. For me it was about not putting myself in the position of deciding that for them.

Is no act degrading to you any more?

I’m at a place where I can accept that people have myriad different fantasies that aren’t mine. But I’m not one to find a really forceful Sasha Grey scene the thing for me.

But so many of the mainstream offerings are ‘rough.’ Do you find that problematic?

There are some sites that I think are abominable; there’s one in particular that has images of strangulation. In my own life, I’ve chosen not to seek that type of thing out. It’s something that will come more into play when I’m thinking about my son being exposed to porn.

When the time comes, how will you talk to your son about porn?

This whole experience has given us a better chance at being able to be a lot more frank. There’s no question in my mind that he’s going to see a lot of porn. I’d rather be the type of mom who’s pre-emptive: “You know that this is fantasy. Just ask your dad how that goes down in person.” It will be awkward.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

 

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