In a healthy relationship, partners need to respect each other’s desires to keep certain fantasies and feelings private.
Almost all American men have used porn to get off at some point in their lives. Most of those men have hidden it from their female partners. I haven’t been an exception to that rule. That’s why I’ve taken a special interest in The Good Men Project’s important, honest, useful, running debate about pornography—especially the “vehement disagreement” between Hugo Schwyzer and Aaron Gouveia about how honest heterosexual partners should be about porn use.
Neither guy is anti-porn. But Hugo came down on the side of absolute honesty and open negotiation, implying that the woman gets to dictate the terms of her man’s porn use; Aaron argues that jerking off to pictures of strange women is basically harmless to our marriages (unless it becomes an addiction) and doesn’t warrant disclosure or negotiation.
I’d like to reframe the debate as being about the lines of privacy in marriage—and in doing so, argue that both guys have a point.
Few things are more private than our sexual desires—and porn is reification, an externalization, of our inmost fantasies. It constitutes evidence, documentation, of things that most of us try to keep hidden. That’s not all we hide, of course. We keep certain opinions to ourselves, and we are silent about certain experiences, such as with violence or humiliation—incidents which shape us more than porn ever could, which sometimes (if sexual in nature) influence our choice of porn, as we reenact traumas in fantasy. Our choice of porn says something about us, sure, but what it says can be easily misunderstood: many women fantasize about rape… that doesn’t mean that want to be raped in real life. In our fantasies, we set the terms, and we control the images. That’s the source of their power.
Do our spouses have a right to access those images? Many participants in this debate, including Hugo, are saying yes, absolutely—we should divulge porn use and we should reveal the contents of the porn, and our partners should have a vote in what we’re looking at. His position is of a piece with the way most Americans view marriage and sex: as a society, we’re are pretty uncomfortable with the idea that our loved ones might cultivate a secret world, sexual and otherwise, that has nothing to do with us—even if we realize, at least on an intellectual level, that this is inevitable and necessary.
The reality is that most of us harbor fantasies, desires, dreams, and experiences that we hide away from the people we love, whose discovery we deeply fear—often because we fear losing their love. In the context of this discussion about porn, some of these secrets are sexual, and some are emotional. Some are embarrassing and harmless (e.g., pictures of MILFs in panties), and some are genuinely dangerous (e.g., child porn). Crucially, some of these are fantasies that we would never, in a million years, want to enact in real life. Some are echoes of sexual violence. At the root of this kind of secrecy is the fear that our most secret selves are unlovable, that beneath the skin we are ugly.
But do these dark and not-so-dark fantasies reveal us for what we really are? Do our ugliest selves define us in a way that our most beautiful selves cannot? In discussing porn, we tend to reduce men (in this instance) to their worst acts, both real and imagined—as Hugo put it, since the Newsweek story about widespread male participation in the sex industry broke, women have been asking him: “Are men really like this?” Or as a friend of mine put it, “Did I marry a masturbator?” It’s implicit in this question that near-universal porn-viewing reveals the essence of men, and that essence is sordid, narcissistic, misogynistic, and predatory. It implies that the loving acts of fathers and husbands are essentially performances, a public mask men don in between visits to prostitutes and porn sites.
I’d argue that, in most cases, this is very far from the truth. In fact, I think a father singing his daughter to sleep every single night is vastly more revealing of who he is than ten desperate minutes of masturbation in front of a computer just before he goes to bed. The first is a daily act of love, for someone who counts on him to be there; the second is often a momentary byproduct of loneliness and exhaustion, a coping mechanism for a life that might seem like a never-ending grind of professional and domestic duties—or just an aimless horniness that he needs to scratch like an itch. Porn does not automatically negate a man’s love for his family or the part of him that is capable of love, though of course, it certainly doesn’t help those qualities to grow. The truth is that not all porn is the same, and people, both men and women, use porn in different ways, for different reasons. Generalizations—including my own—are not helpful.
But in these discussions, we tend to treat all secrets, and all sexual imagery, with equal suspicion, as though flirting were the same as cheating, or looking at grown women in panties were equivalent to looking at children; we paint all sexual activity outside of marriage, no matter how solitary or playful or desperate or loving or casual, with the same nervously broad brush. At worst, we retreat to a self-righteous moral absolutism (which sometimes comes in a feminist guise as well as a conservative one) that does more harm to our relationships than porn ever will. In this instance, morality conceals another fear—this time the fear of seeing something in our spouses that we do not recognize, something unknown. We demand to know, to know everything… or else. This is the flip side of the fear that we are ultimately unlovable.
I’m not going to tell anyone to stop being afraid. I understand these worries because I share them, and I know they can’t just be wished away. Instead I’d like to suggest that in marriage, disclosure and transparency are important—but we must also recognize the genuine doubts and anxieties that hold our spouses back from being completely honest with us. In fact, I’d go further and argue that to make our confessions compulsory robs them of their power. It’s the struggle to reach the point of confession that defines us, not the split-second catharsis of confession all by itself. To put it another way, truth is a road we build as we travel, not a destination. We don’t have to tell everybody everything all at once.
Ultimately, I did tell my wife about my personal history with porn, and I’m glad that I did. I think you should consider doing the same. In that sense, I agree with Hugo when he argues that honesty is the best policy; that’s obviously the case. But I think Aaron is correct in arguing for a sense of proportion, perspective, and privacy.
I might not like my spouse’s secrets—I might hate them, I might do foolish things in response to them—but it’s not always about me. My life with my wife is a Venn diagram, not a box. Partially this wished-for ignorance is about my own emotional self-protection. But it’s also about respecting her space and her journey as a human being. It’s about giving her some privacy and allowing her to have a life apart from me. There are some things that we must face alone before we can face them together with another person. The important thing is that we are there for each other when we are ready.
Note that I’m not tackling related issues, like differences in social power between men and women that shape the porn industry, or the working conditions of the industry. I’m not talking about the ways that porn can shape sexual desire. Those are subjects for other pieces. I’m also not talking about girlfriends and boyfriends whose commitment to each other is still tentative and conditional.
Instead I am focusing on the lines of privacy in a heterosexual marriage, that theoretically lifetime partnership. And those lines, I’d like to suggest, will shift as the years go by. Porn is probably the least important aspect of this discussion, though it serves as a usefully concrete case study. Marriages can and do survive a spouse looking at pictures of naked bodies, and then lying about it. It’s the resistance to seeing our spouses struggle and grow and change that poses the greatest threat to marriages. It’s the refusal to see each other whole—to see the good as well as the bad, the two sides always at war with each other inside every person—that rips husbands and wives apart.
In the end, we can’t measure our marriages against some abstract idea of perfection, of utopian aspiration, of truthfulness as a ledger that we must keep. Because we as individuals never stop changing, life-long marriage is always about discovery and re-discovery, risk and failure, and forgiveness and patience. Instead of running from challenges, change and secrets, let’s welcome the moments in which our spouses become strangers to us—and strive to see the good in those strangers. Those are the moments in which renewal becomes possible.
—Photo I Don’t Know, Maybe./Flickr