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Question

I want to watch porn as part of my sex life, but I am concerned that it will make me less interested in my partner. Does watching porn create unrealistic expectations about sex?

Answer

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As a couples' sex therapist (as well as a sex researcher), this is a common concern I hear from clients. And given the widespread, nearly universal access to pornography online, this is a valid and important question.

Some sexual-health experts draw causal links between pornography use and erectile dysfunction and/or men's loss of sexual desire for their partners.

Some research suggests that some excessive viewers of pornography may, over time, habituate to the porn, meaning that it takes more "intense" porn to elicit arousal. Some individuals may experience sexual difficulties (e.g., erectile difficulties, low or absent sexual desire) when they engage in their typical sexual activities. Other experts attribute women's negative judgments about their bodies to the unrealistic (and sometimes cosmetically altered) depictions of bodies in porn. When everyone reaches an orgasm in porn (and often simultaneously and even multiply), it conveys a message that unless our sex looks and feels like what is on screen, we are abnormal, inhibited or missing out.

But as expert sexuality blogger David J. Ley noted, "Blaming porn for male's decreased interest in intimacy, marriage, or the increase in open relationships ignores the complex social causal factors at play in these large shifts." In other words, pointing the finger at porn for men's sexual dysfunction ignores the usually complex issues that give rise to their sexual problems, and eschews important opportunities for intervention.

It turns out that Canadian sex researchers are very interested in the scientific study of porn. University of Western Ontario researchers Taylor Kohut, William Fisher and Lorne Campbell asked 430 Canadians about the potential effects of their solitary as well as partnered pornography use. The most common response by participants was "no negative effects." Interestingly, many reported positive effects of pornography viewing on sexual communication with their partners by increasing openness and honesty. Far fewer of the subjects reported negative effects of porn, such as a decrease in their desire for sex with their partner. Overall, the researchers found that the positive effects of pornography outnumbered the negative ones. And this was as true for women as it was for men, and regardless of one's sexual orientation. So here is what I hope you will take away:

  • Viewing pornography is not guaranteed to damage your relationship. In fact, several studies show that when partners view pornography together it may enhance their communication about sensitive topics, and increase their comfort around sexuality.
  • Some couples enjoy exploring the rich array of pornography and erotica together. It provokes conversations about preferences, turn-ons and, importantly, turn-offs! Many of my clients prefer “female friendly” erotica, such as the work produced by Erika Lust.
  • If you experience sexual difficulties and you watch pornography, these may or may not be related. It is important that you be assessed by a mental-health care provider with expertise in sexuality. In most cases, there are a variety of other factors, aside from the pornography viewing, that are contributing to the sexual difficulties.

Lori Brotto, a registered psychologist, is a professor of gynecology at the University of British Columbia and executive director of the Women's Health Research Institute of BC. You can follow her on Twitter @DrLoriBrotto.

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