Review: Journal of Porn Studies 1/25/17

JOURNAL OF PORN STUDIES                    
Download citation http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23268743.2016.1272825
Pages 1-3 | Published online: 25 Jan 2017

His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s Pornpanic With Honest Talk About Sex
By Pamela Finnerty

The question ‘What would happen if America was flooded with free high quality porn?’ (p. 6) is answered by one of the most prominent writers in the world of sex therapy today. Klein’s His Porn, Her Pain details how the internet’s explosion into American homes and the easy availability of pornography has overwhelmed the unprepared (which includes almost everybody) in a society that has ‘significant difficulties regarding sexuality’ (p. 7).

Klein traces the history of how ‘every new technology has been adapted for sexual purposes’ which ‘provokes even more anxiety about the strange new technology, and so these cycles of technological innovation are almost always followed by outrage and fear’ (p. 6). He describes how ‘introducing the option of unlimited, free, high-quality, highly varied pornography’ into a ‘volatile mix of ignorance, fear, anger, sexual dissatisfaction, curiosity and sexual cravings’ (p. 15) created a perfect storm of completely predictable results. The principal factor that Klein identifies is what he describes as a ‘PornPanic’ promoted by moral guardians, self-appointed or otherwise: ‘That mess … that PornPanic … is still with us’ and ‘drives public policy, influences parenting, supplies the media’s narratives, and encourages millions of marital quarrels every year’ (p. 16).

Klein separates fact from fiction as he chronicles the manufacture of this PornPanic which shapes the cultural narrative about sex in general, and pornography in particular. Claims made by the anti-porn activists are systematically rebutted. For example, he cites research which indicates that porn addiction and sex addiction do not actually meet the criteria for true addiction. Key changes in physical function, symptoms of withdrawal and continuing use when the activity is no longer pleasurable do not occur and thus, Klein argues, it is hard to take this claim seriously.

The assertion that ‘Neuroscience proves that watching porn can damage the brain (especially in the young) and even cause porn addiction’ is countered with reports that similar changes are seen in the brains of ‘people cuddling puppies, enjoying sunsets and watching porn. Neuroscientists do not claim that watching porn does anything, this is the work of activists citing ambiguous reports of neuroscientists, which lay people aren’t trained to evaluate’ (p. 30).

Armed with conviction and no real data, activists have shifted the narrative from ‘porn is immoral’ to ‘porn is dangerous … to everyone’ (p. 26). Klein systematically and forcefully debunks one myth after another, citing research where there is any, and gives numerous examples of activists overlooking facts in the interest of promoting their agenda as they stand in the way of funding actual research on the effects of pornography.

The manipulation of the narrative, particularly the public danger model, has a number of adverse effects:

It gives concerned sweethearts a new, worrisome explanation for their mate’s behavior, while it gives angry wives and girlfriends justification for saying their partners are doing something wrong (as opposed to ‘I don’t like it’). It encourages parents to worry rather than talk to their kids. (p. 31)

Klein cites data demonstrating that the rates of rape, divorce, suicide and child sexual exploitation have all actually decreased since porn flooded America, while acknowledging that some people do indeed have trouble managing their porn use. Most critically, it is often not the porn itself that is the problem, but another issue in a relationship. Partners who will not or cannot moderate their behaviour are the focus of the therapy, not the porn.

Klein’s descriptions of therapeutic interventions with couples who present with issues about porn provide invaluable information and strategies for therapists:

I don’t tell couples that porn is good, and I don’t even say watching it is OK. But I do ask what kind of relationship they want … one in which people make demands and tell each other how it’s going to be, or a more collaborative arrangement in which two people work together to resolve their difficulties. (p. 102)

The issues in the couple are often not about the porn itself, but about other grievances and power dynamics. Porn should be treated like any other conflict ‘because it’s treating porn conflicts differently than any other conflicts that sucks a couple into trouble in the first place. If therapists duplicate that mistake in their treatment there’s a limit to how helpful they can be’ (p. 102).

Consequently this book provides a valuable contribution to the field, drawing on the knowledge and skill of a therapist in this highly charged environment surrounding sex in general, and porn in particular. The manipulation of the narrative as well as the facts, not the myths, about porn equips the therapist to address underlying power struggles and vulnerabilities, and the often veiled pain and fears that bring the couple to the therapist’s office.

‘When couples argue about whether someone did or didn’t do something wrong by watching porn, I have to ask about the couple’s contract. Did the porn consumer break an agreement he made to not watch porn?’ (p. 100). Couples often have not made contracts with one another, having decided to live together or get married without discussing enough of the details. When they agree to monogamy they do not clarify what this means, and pornography becomes a vague and undiscussed arena. Most of the difficulties associated with porn are about ‘anger, power and poor communication … lack of respect or empathy’ (p. 101). As with other conflicts about factors such as money or parenting, porn conflicts can be dealt with productively when people keep mutual goals to the forefront and do not allow the porn to be a distraction. With this book in their hands, therapists will be better equipped to help couples who present with porn as their problem. Disentangling the porn issue from the alarmist narrative and treating porn as just another presenting problem can open the door to exploring the underlying feelings and needs and relationship dynamics that need to be addressed.

When the problem is actually about sex rather than porn, as it so often is, it often can be worked out and people can be helped to talk honestly about sex. The wide-ranging case examples chart the disentangling of porn use from a myriad of other sexual issues. For example, asking the aggrieved partner about a specific complaint, and then discussing the complaint without an assumption that we know the cause; it might or might not be related to the porn. Klein chronicles the unfolding of the therapy in case after case, clearly providing a map to uncover the unspoken. In one case it might be ‘Other than watching porn, what is he doing or not doing sexually, or in your relationship, that you dislike?’ (p. 104). The approach of de-emphasizing the porn aspect of the situation and focusing on the lived experience of people, particularly their pain, requires the establishment of a collaborative space, which may take extensive work with the couple. But then that requires talking about sex honestly, which often is very painful:

You can talk about porn for a thousand years … but that’s not the same as talking about ‘I don’t enjoy sex with you,’ ‘I’m still really hurt about what you said about my body five years ago’ or ‘You don’t seem to be thinking about me when we make love  … ’ (pp. 105–106)

Couples would rather talk about porn than sexual difficulties, and unfortunately many therapists share their hesitation: ‘Today’s PornPanic gives people the perfect excuse for not talking about sex … by encouraging women to make demands about porn, and encouraging porn consumers to feel guilty, broken or defiant’ (pp. 105–106). Focusing on pornography as the problem can stand in the way of understanding the particulars of the two people and the dynamics of the couple in which porn use has become the presenting problem. Because the point of sex is to feel glad to be alive, and the job of the couple is to figure out how to create sex that they enjoy, how is the porn use complaint the driver to seek help in finding the way towards healing what is not working in the erotic alliance? For some couples, pornography, which is fantasy, can be a part of the human sexual imaginative process and a contributor to one’s sexual vitality.

Klein’s His Porn, Her Pain is destined to become a key player in the social research and change the process in which the actual effects of internet pornography – as one of the many aspects of our suddenly ‘wired’ world – become integrated into our lives and culture. His wise counsel of reason, research and deeper understanding of exactly what is going on can substantially contribute to the successful navigation of this vast resource.