What College Kids Want to Know About Porn

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Last night I spoke to about 300 students at Ohlone College in Northern California. The topic was Pornography 2016: PornPanic, Public Health, & Porn Literacy.

It went just fine, and as always, I was eager to hear people’s questions. Here are some that everyone seemed interested in, along with a short version of my answers.

“There’s certain stuff my boyfriend sees in porn that he wants to try. I don’t really want to do it, but he says everyone does. What should I do?”

To start with, the question isn’t what should I do; it’s what should we (you and him) do. And that difference is what this question is really about. It sounds like your boyfriend doesn’t understand that porn is made up, with lots of editing and off-screen discussion and preparation. Even more importantly, it’s made by professionals who are hired to do a job. Most can decide which things they want to do, and say so clearly.

Urging someone to do what they see in porn is like urging someone to do what they see in Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Deepwater Horizon. It’s just not realistic.

I don’t know why your boyfriend would want to contaminate your sexual relationship by urging you to do something that you don’t want to do, even if 99% of people do that thing. You don’t need my permission to say ‘no, thanks,’ but by all means, say that if you want to. Then discuss your more general concerns about the power structure of the relationship.

“I have a friend who watches too much porn. He wants to know why he can’t stop.”

Ah, the old “I have a friend with a question.” Well, lots of people really do have a friend with a question. Especially that question.

The simple answer, of course, is I don’t know. There are too many possibilities. But I will say this: there’s a whole generation of young guys who have never masturbated without porn. Some of these young men have not fully developed their erotic imagination enough to masturbate with just a hand and a fantasy. And since they’re not about to give up masturbation, it’s easy for them to imagine that they can’t stop looking at porn.

In my clinical experience, it might take someone a few weeks without porn to get their fantasies into a usable form. But people have been doing that for dozens of centuries, and they can do it any time they like.

My guess is that your friend has something else going on, like depression, anxiety, loneliness, or something he’s trying to avoid. When people watch porn “too much,” I ask what they’re doing too little—work? Exercise? Deal with their family? Schoolwork? The trick isn’t to watch porn less, but rather to get more focused on what you want to do, or on what you’re avoiding. That requires a serious decision and commitment, which some people can do, and others are not quite ready for.

“My husband disapproves of porn, but I like watching it sometimes. Should I tell him?”

This is not a porn question. This is a question of honesty, intimacy, self-acceptance, and power dynamics.

While I wouldn’t urge you to tell your husband you watch porn—because I don’t know the details of your situation—I would suggest you think about the costs of continued deception. When we’re honest in a relationship, we encourage growth in our partner, as they struggle to accept what’s difficult to accept, and struggle to compromise about things they thought were beyond compromise.

By hiding part of who you are, you’re allowing your husband to remain just as he is—not building the emotional strength he’s going to need sooner or later to navigate the more difficult moments that are inevitable in every marriage.

As a prelude to your decision, or as part of implementing your possible decision to be honest, you might want to ask him what his objections to you watching porn. Not his objections to porn in general, but his objections to you watching it. For example, he may believe that watching porn encourages infidelity. If so, does he think that watching porn will encourage you to be unfaithful? Those are two very different ideas.

“I don’t mind my boyfriend watching porn, except that when we have sex I always wonder if he’s fantasizing about me or one of his latest porn websites. What should I do?”

I suppose you might start by asking him what he’s focused on when you have sex together. In some relationships a person would answer that question honestly; in others, there’s an unspoken agreement that people never tell each other anything that might make them uncomfortable.

If you do wonder about that, I’d ask you why. During sex, does he call you by the wrong name? Forget what you like in bed? Seem distracted or not really present? Frequently criticize your body, or compare it to others? If you don’t have any specific complaints like these, and you enjoy the sex, I don’t know why you’re making yourself uncomfortable. If there are ways you’d like your sexual experiences together to be different, approach these directly and propose some changes. Don’t try to solve a problem that you two may not have.

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For answers to more questions about pornography, see my new book, His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America’s PornPanic With Honest Talk About Sex.

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