Are You a Controlling Shrew if You Don’t Want Your Partner Using Porn?

In the discussion about porn, Hugo Schwyzer wants Oscar and Ophelia to get the same amount of respect.

The now-infamous Newsweek report on men who buy sex has drawn the predictably tremendous response throughout the blogosphere. The best take-down of the report’s methodology and conclusions came from the always excellent Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon. I recommend reading the original Newsweek piece and Clark-Flory’s response together.

But the conversation soon switched to the great evergreen of pornography use. I wrote a short response here (which got picked up at Jezebel). In the comments section below the GMP version, I got into a friendly argument with one the magazine’s editors, Aaron Gouveia—which begat a post of its own here: A Vehement Disagreement about Porn.

Leaving aside the issue of whether pornography is degrading or empowering, putting on a shelf the question of whether its use is compatible with feminism, pressing the pause button on the debate about whether its casual use will invariably turn compulsive, there’s a basic query that has come up again and again: what right, if any, does someone have to ask for a “porn-free” sexual relationship?

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We all come into sexual relationships with our “stuff”—our physical libidos, our private histories, our most enduring fantasies, our painful memories. Our sexuality is shaped by a constellation of factors: biology, faith, experience, will, fantasy, and more. Our sexuality belongs to us; as the authors of The Ethical Slut so famously put it, “the fundamental sexual unit is one person.” That makes good sense.

But when we come into any kind of sexual relationship, as so many of us will do or would like to do , we have to balance our own desires with those of another. We don’t get to do whatever we want. To pick a stereotypical heterosexual dynamic, the fact that a dude wants to come on his girlfriend’s face doesn’t mean she has to let him do so. We’re responsible for naming our wants, and responsible for self-soothing when those wants aren’t reciprocated by a partner. And the basic rule is simple: my right not to have something done to me that I don’t want done trumps your right to do to me what you’d like to do. To say otherwise is to give tacit approval to rape.

So far, so good. But what about when the differing desires refer to what gets done in solitude? Let’s say a guy wants to use porn in private. His girlfriend, for any number of reasons, doesn’t want him masturbating to images of other women. They fight and argue; he lies and then gets caught. He feels shamed and angry; she feels hurt and furious. (And though I’ve picked a stereotypically heterosexual example I know that the sexes in this situation could easily be reversed. Women look at porn too, and some straight women look at it more often than their male partners. This can also be an issue for same-sex couples.)

So how do dilemmas like this get resolved? Most discussions around this issue come in two unhelpful varieties. One camp says “porn is bad and addictive”, the other says “it’s perfectly normal and everyone uses it and you’re a prude to be bothered by your partner’s use thereof.” Lots of heat gets generated, very little light.

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The key point that needs to be made is that the non-porn-using partner’s desire to have a sexual relationship that is porn-free is as legitimate (no more, no less) as the porn-using partner’s desire to use it. The fact that so many men (and some women) claim that they can masturbate to internet porn without it impacting their relationship doesn’t mean that their partners are obligated to share that same perspective. Oscar may believe that what he does in private doesn’t affect the sex he has with Ophelia—but Ophelia may notice a real difference. We need to give equal credence to her feeling that it does impact the relationship as we do to Oscar’s insistence that it doesn’t.

What happens in these debates is that very few people give equal weight to both Ophelia and Oscar. Most folks pick one side and pathologize the other. The “pro-porn” camp will shame the Ophelias of the world by saying “you’re just insecure” or “you’ve got unrealistic attitudes about men and monogamy.” Worse, they suggest she just needs to “stop being so uptight” and “loosen up.” Meanwhile, the anti-porn camp tells Oscar that porn is invariably exploiting women, that he’s a “perv and a creep”, that all porn use is just another form of adultery.

I’m agnostic—really, I am—about pornography. The issue isn’t whether it’s good or bad, the issue is what right any of us have to challenge our partners’ attitudes towards porn. And what has made me angry in the recent debates is that those who long for a sexual relationship in which porn use (even in private) is not an option are being pathologized as controlling and unreasonable. That’s not helpful, and it’s not fair.

Oscar has the perfect right to look at porn in private. But Ophelia has the equally perfect right to say “I don’t want to be in a relationship with a man who uses porn because I believe porn is exploitative to women and furthermore, I notice it impacts our sex life together.” Her fantasy of a porn-free relationship should carry no less weight in negotiation than his desire to continue to use it. If he’s not a pervert for getting off to images of “barely legal” teens in a threesome, then she’s not a jealous shrew for wanting to be with a man who only wants her. Why does his fantasy get to be harmless, while hers is dismissed as “controlling and unrealistic”?

All enduring relationships are, by definition, sacrificial. We give things up for our partners all the time. That’s as true for the polyamorous as it is for the monogamous. In our sexual lives as in every other area, we all have to do the delicate dance of staying true to ourselves while honoring the needs, desires, and boundaries of the people we love. What makes that so difficult is that what might seem harmless and healthy to one person may seem toxic and ugly to another; that’s not infrequently the case in battles over one partner’s porn use. In those battles, the temptation to dismiss the other’s feelings as unreasonable, selfish, or controlling is overwhelming. Its a temptation we do well to resist.

—Photo hansol/Flickr

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. Henry Vandenburgh says:

    This is now being done to death.

  2. Perhaps Henry but unfornately its an issue that needs to be addressed. I’ve been chiming in in those other threads about its fine if someone doesn’t want to engage in that behavior but engagin in that behavior doesn’t translate into having no respect for women.

    How do you reconcile two forces that really cannot coexist in the long run?

    • Danny, if I enjoyed watching men called names and used for their money and masculinity, degraded for their money and masculinity, how many men do you think would think I respected men in general? Would consider me a stable good partner?

      • Well, yeah, Erin, I would. My wife enjoys seeing men degraded by women. She’s made men bleed with a whip, with a great big smile on her face.

        If I thought she actually believed, on any level, that men were inferior to women, and that all men should literally be used by all woman for their own pleasure, regardless of the interests of the men, then yeah, I would have run like hell. But that’s not the case at all.

        I know full well that those are just some of her sexual tastes, nothing more. She absolutely respects men in general, and is absolutely a “stable, good partner.”

  3. Your gender profiling doesn’t work in the real world where women use porn and couples use it together.

  4. if a woman has strong beliefs about porn being degrading and so on, she should find a man that agrees. If a man wants porn or whatever kink in his life, he should find a woman that suits him.

  5. If someone demands that their partner not watch the new Harry Potter film, because they (wrongly) fear that their partner has a crush on one of the actors (or something), is that a demand to be taken as seriously as the desire to watch Harry Potter? In the absence of any evidence that such a crush exists and/or has a detrimental effect on one or more of the partners in the relationship, I don’t think so. So why should a request to stop using porn prima facie be taken seriously? Sometime’s it’s legit, and sometimes it’s just insecurity. Call a spade a spade.

    • You’re comparing a non-sexual product that people aren’t masturbating to to a highly sexual product that people are masturbating to. Clearly the sexual aspect changes the game. That’s just common sense.

  6. Is a woman obligated to inform her husband and get his permission prior to masturbates while reading a novel thinking about the male lead? What if it just happens, unplanned? Is she obligated to tell him? Does she have to inform him that there are sexual acts described in the novel, and if he doesn’t want her reading it, is she obligated to cease and desist? Same is true of her thoughts while they are together. If she’s thinking of someone else, is that wrong and is she obligated to inform him and get his permission? If she policies his viewing activities, he has the right to police her’s (reading, viewing, and thinking/fantasizing) as well. Is this really what we want?

  7. “You’re comparing a non-sexual product that people aren’t masturbating to to a highly sexual product that people are masturbating to.”

    This is the crux of the issue, I think. Pretty much everyone agrees that it would be unreasonable, for example, to insist that you have your boundaries and perspectives that must be respected, therefore your partner must not read Harry Potter or watch sports. People disagree in that many consider it clearly, obviously, a different matter when we’re looking at a “sexual product that people are masturbating to.”

    To me, the fact that porn is a sexual product that is being masturbated to is irrelevant; it’s still literally true that one partner is trying to regulate the thought-life of their partner.

    http://gretachristina.typepad.com/greta_christinas_weblog/2010/05/can-watching-porn-be-cheating.html

  8. As Bill Maher said, porn is turning men into cootch potatoes, ha! I’m moving to Europe, where people actually want to fuck, like, for real and shit. Too many gorgeous women are dickless, b/c American men are too lazy to hunt pussy and would rather wank to a box.

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