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Is Porn Ruining Your Sex Life?

Dr. Olson,

I’m sexually attracted to my wife, and she is a very sexual person, but sometimes we don’t have sex for a while because I have been watching porn, masturbated, and can’t be sexual with her. She thinks I’m addicted to porn and interprets my sexual contentment as not finding her attractive. I guess I’ve been neglecting her needs by giving myself an orgasm. There are so many different angles to sexuality, and it is challenging to match two people’s unique drives.

You are not alone in this. A recent report in the Washington Post suggests that adults in the United States are having less sex, and the number of people who reported having no sex at all in the past year reached an all-time high in 2018.

Full disclosure: While I’d like to say that my interest in porn has been purely scientific, the fact is sometimes I enjoy porn. Let’s set aside the issues of whether lust, masturbation, and porn are sinful and look only at the behavior.

Some of the common explanations for less partner-oriented sex are related to an aging population and high numbers of unattached people, but a report in the New York Times, which is more relevant to you, attributes a lot of the changes in sexual practice to technology. Not only are people spending more time on social media and playing video games, they are watching porn instead of interacting with each other in the real world.

Passionate sex in a new relationship has a shelf life of about one year. Sex may be good but after a few years, it becomes predictable and lacking in the excitement and surprise of a new relationship. With internet porn, novelty—and perhaps a bit of kink—are always just one click away.

Viewing porn is endlessly complicated and very personal, but masturbation and porn can be healthy.

When Is Porn Healthy?

Watching porn has many benefits:

  • Relieving stress when no partner is available
  • Reducing anxiety and improving sleep
  • Helping to relax at the end of a busy day or spice up a boring evening
  • Invigorating a couple’s sex life
  • Facilitating learning about your own and your partner’s likes and dislikes, leading to more satisfying sex lives and healthier attitudes toward sex and the opposite gender
  • Allowing you to experience fantasized sexual practices that one’s partner may not share

So that’s the good news. Discussions of sexuality are always complex and have no easy answers. Like most things we enjoy, the key is moderation.

When Is Porn Not so Healthy?

Watching porn can create some negative situations as well:

  • The ubiquitous nature of porn allows easy access to those who may lack the maturity to differentiate between sex as a performance and an expression of emotional intimacy.
  • Porn can become an irresistible urge that may not align with one’s wishes and values, causing problems with shame and guilt. (I prefer the term compulsive sexuality rather than sexual addiction.)
  • Masturbation and porn may lead to problems with erectile function and delayed ejaculation.
  • Porn may be a way to avoid dealing with conflict in a relationship.
  • Porn may create false expectations of what is normal sexual pleasure; “extreme” sex may seem to be the norm.
  • Porn may play into negative self-images and body images.
  • Virtual sex can replace actual sex as one’s preferred sexual activity. Orgasms lead to a refractory time when erections and ejaculation are difficult, if not impossible.

It seems clear from your questions that your wife is feeling left out of your sex life. She may feel unattractive to you. She may compare herself unfavorably with the bodies of the porn stars in the videos. She may be turned off by some of the sexual practices you enjoy watching. Her self-esteem may take an additional hit if she has tried using sex toys, sexy clothing, or alternative sexual practices, and you have still not responded to her seductive attempts.

My Suggestions

I have a few suggested topics you can talk with her about:

  • Does your wife know that you love her? Tell her and be very specific about what you love about her. Focus only on the positives.
  • You must begin a conversation with her. Frame it in the context of wanting to improve the physical intimacy in your relationship; ignore any discussion about how she’s not satisfying your needs.
  • Respect that sexual intimacy in a relationship must be mutually satisfying, not a one-way street.
  • What sacrifices are you willing to make to honor your relationship with her? This likely includes limiting your time on the internet. Although masturbation can be healthy, if you do it frequently and perhaps compulsively, it will damage your relationship because your partner may feel neglected, deficient, or undesirable.
  • If she agrees, watch porn together and discuss what areas are of mutual interest and which are off-limits for one or the other of you. A therapist might help you to negotiate some of these discussions.
  • If your interests in porn are predominantly same-gender, this may be a much more difficult conversation, and you may need to speak to an individual therapist to explore this.
  • Your spouse may also need an individual counselor to deal with her anger and frustration.

Marriage is a partnership, and sex should be an expression of the mutual love you have for one another. But love and sexual desire are also dynamic. The intensity of your desires and loving will vary from time to time, and this variation will not necessarily coincide with the variations your partner also experiences.

Is this a sexual issue, or are there greater issues of conflict between the two of you that are being ignored? Even without sex, relationships are complicated. Sometimes sexual difficulty is not the issue but a symptom of greater problems in the relationship.

Porn is easy and conflict-free. You are in control of all the variables. You don’t have to negotiate, compromise, or consider your partner’s feelings. That imaginary idealized sexual partner is just one more click away. And if that ideal changes tomorrow, it’s just another click.

But virtual sex lacks the warmth of a body and soul next to you in bed.

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