By Dr. Dawn Ferrara

We’re going to talk about the P-word. No not that one…well, not exactly. The word is – pornography. More specifically, we’re going to talk about internet porn. You may be surprised to know that it’s becoming a growing modern day issue with folks over 50 because more of us than ever are logged on, linked up and surfing along.

To be crystal clear, this article is NOT a “pro” or “con” pornography article. That’s a whole separate issue much bigger than can be addressed in a simple article. Some people find even the idea of this topic as offensive. If that’s you, that’s ok. Scroll on by. But for lots of other folks our age, pornography has intruded into our lives in ways we never thought possible. If that’s you, read on because this article is for you.

The Way We Were

First, let’s be real. Pornography or some form of explicit imagery has been around since humans first started writing on cave walls. Early on, we humans discovered that sex is not just for procreation. We found out pretty quick that it’s fun and in lots of different ways too! So, to be sure, there is endless fascination with and preferences for what we find stimulating. Every generation has had its own brand of pornography and what was deemed enticing at that time. Over the years, the imagery and access to it has changed dramatically. With that change has come challenges that are creating a set of consequences that most of us of a certain age probably never even imagined.  

senior man looking at computer screen

Growing up, most of us probably associated pornography with the “nudie magazines” discovered in dad’s bedside drawer or under an older brother’s bed. Or maybe you heard tell of “stag films” and hoped that you might get a peek someday. Let’s face it, kids are curious and yes, these are the terms that were used in polite company back in the day.

Then, there were the mainstream magazines of the 60’s, 70’s and beyond like Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler which could be found in any magazine shop. People no longer had to sneak into an adult book store. Then along came video and mail order and then…the internet.

No More Hiding

To the younger generation, finding their information and entertainment on the internet is a normal, everyday thing. They grew up in the age of technology and would find paper magazines and (gasp!) film or VHS tape boring and tedious. Many of us who came of age pre-Internet are still fascinated by and learning to navigate through the interwebs.

The internet has given the world 24/7 access to virtually anything and everything. Want to know something? Google it. Curious about sex? A quick spin around the internet will give you more information and sources for viewing than you ever imagined possible. For some, it might just be passing curiosity. For others, it’s the beginning of an obsessive fascination and a trip down the rabbit hole.

For our generation, access to pornography has gone from being something that you REALLY had to work hard to find and view in secrecy to a simple point-and-click anytime and anywhere. Imagine the fascination with that! On demand porn! You might be thinking, “Hey that’s great. I’m a mature adult.” Yes, you are. But, with that 24/7 access comes risks and consequences that can be devastating. And the fact that this level of access is so new and exciting for some folks, the temptations and the risks can be even greater. Read on.

When Curiosity Becomes Obsession

For those who view porn, it tends to be an occasional, solitary activity. Sometimes couples actually enjoy watching porn together and report that it enhances their sexual relationship. (About 65-70% of men and women admit to having used porn with their partners at some time.1)

Occasional indulgence in porn-watching is not going to destroy your life. But what happens when “occasional indulgence” become “porn obsession” or “porn addiction”? What happens to your relationship?

Meet Henry and Deelie. They’ve been married 34 years and have had what many would consider a rock solid marriage. They’ve had their trials but they have remained close and raised 3 great kids. They’ve been faithful to each other and have had a healthy sex life. Recently, Deelie has noticed changes in the way they connect. Henry seems more “adventurous” but is also more insistent in what he wants from their intimate encounters. He’s made comments about Deelie’s appearance, receptiveness and becomes distant if she declines. He spends more time alone and sulks for days if she refuses his requests for sex. She worries that he no longer finds her attractive and is unhappy in the marriage.

You might be thinking that well, after 34 years, they may be going through a transitional time or a rough patch. Maybe. But what Deelie doesn’t know is this:

Henry has been spending more and more of his free time viewing internet porn. It started out as a simple accidental click of a link that took him to a place he’d never been before. And he went back. Again and again. He’s become fascinated with certain practices and appearances. He sees his habit as a distraction and a way to relax. He can always count on his internet time to give him what he wants and needs. What he doesn’t see is that his occasional indulgence has become habitual. It is changing the way he expects and experiences sex. It is changing who he is and the way he engages with the woman he loves most. But he cannot see that effect because he is immersed in a false reality that he can’t get enough of.

When we think of porn obsession or addiction, we generally don’t think of a 50-something man. But the fact is, older adults are among the growing number of people struggling with porn. It’s new (for us), it’s titillating and it’s available 24/7…and it’s hugely addictive. Henry and Deelie’s situation is not unusual and is part of a growing trend among couples.

Research is finding that habitual use of internet porn has profound impacts on how one experiences sex and for couples, those impacts can be devastating. Most of the research has been with men as men make up the majority of pornography users but there is some research with women. Here’s some of what researchers are finding:

  • Men who habitually use porn as a sexual stimulus may become conditioned to that stimulus and find sex with a partner less fulfilling or less appealing.2
  • Habitual viewing of porn is associated with a greater preference for the “porn script” during real encounters with a partner. In other words, the more you watch it, the more you want it that way in real life. For men, at least, porn isn’t just fantasy. It shapes how they engage with a partner.3
  • Habitual viewing of porn stimulates reward centers of the brain and creates new neural pathways. Powerful chemicals are released that reinforce the behavior and switch on cravings for it much like addiction to other things. Over time, you want more and more of it.4
  • Women’s sexual satisfaction is inextricably tied to their self-esteem and comfort with the intimate encounter. When expectations of the “porn script” are introduced into the relationship, women can struggle with their sexuality and feel they are “competing” with their partner’s fantasy. That can be confusing and create distance between partners. In other words, she can’t live up to your porn fantasy.5
  • Pornography use doesn’t seem to be due to an impaired relationship. It does seem to precede the decline of a relationship. The greatest impact on relationships is associated with higher rates of porn use.6
  • Continued porn use over time nearly doubles the chances of getting divorced.7
  • Men and women actually tend to view porn differently. Women are more likely to view a partner’s use of porn as infidelity and a betrayal of trust. Men tend to view porn as erotic and a way to “spice up” their sex life.7

Now imagine being in a relationship of three – you, your partner and the porn fantasy! All of a sudden, your partner is distant, maybe refusing sex. Maybe you’re refusing sex or feeling inadequate. Maybe your partner all of a sudden wants you to do new things, maybe even risky things you have never done before. Maybe you are fixated on the fantasy you’ve created in your mind to the point you can’t have a satisfying intimate encounter with your spouse. Maybe you don’t know what the heck is going on!

Left unchecked it can be a recipe for disaster.

You’re not alone. There are lots of people struggling with this issue and how to deal with the repercussions.

Dealing With Reality

Are you or someone you love using porn to excess? Are you in the danger zone? Here are a few red flags to look for:

  • Deteriorating or inability to form intimate romantic relationships
  • Conflicts with your partner over your porn use
  • Experiencing sexual dysfunction with your sexual partner
  • Spending excessive time using porn, viewing increasingly intense content
  • Lying about using porn
  • Missing work, school or important events due to porn use
  • Loss of interest in things that you once enjoyed
  • Trouble due to viewing porn at work, school or other place that it is not allowed
  • Feelings of intense shame, fear, depression, isolation

These are some of the signs that the occasional peek has become habitual and harmful. Time to seek help. And the good news is that you can turn this around. Just like the brain creates new pathways when we do something (known as neuroplasticity), you can learn new ways of coping with the urges for porn.

Whether you are a porn user or in a relationship with one, you have to be real about what it is, what it’s not and what the true impacts are. Otherwise, you will both be operating from different perspectives and the risk for losing the relationship is high.

Have “The Talk”

You both know it’s between you but no one wants to start or to say it out loud. You have to get real and have a heart-to-heart, down and dirty talk about this thing that has come between you. If you don’t acknowledge it, you have zero chance of repairing the damage.

Communicate

Communication is more than just talking or naming this problem. Communication means sharing your feelings openly and honestly. Communicating also means listening – listening to understand and not just to respond.

No Judgment

The quickest way to kill communication is to judge. You want your partner to be honest and share their feelings, right? Berating and criticizing them is the fastest way to make them shut down. Instead, allow them to share. Hear them. You don’t have to agree and may feel very, very different. That’s ok.

Own Your Stuff

When trust has been broken, you have to own your part of a problem. You have to offer a true and honest accounting of your shortfalls, indiscretions or weaknesses. You also have to be gentle and handle your partner with care. Owning our stuff is hard! Now is not the time for recriminations and criticism.

Forgive

This one is always a brow-raiser. Forgiving your partner and yourself for things done takes strength and grace but it is the first step to healing. Be clear, forgiveness is not a “free pass” not does it excuse inappropriate behavior. Rather, forgiveness is giving yourself permission to not be held hostage by hurt and anger and fear for one more moment.

Decide Your Path

Deciding what to do next is a very personal decision and not one to be entered into lightly. Marital issues are especially difficult because the marriage relationship is an intimate relationship like no other. Seek help if you need it. There is counseling to help couples navigate this very difficult situation. There is treatment for excessive porn use.

So how did Henry and Deelie end up? Deelie learned the truth of what was happening quite by accident. Henry was ashamed and confused at how quickly and intensely his “dalliance” grew and what it was doing to his marriage. Neither of them saw it coming. They decided at after 34 years and a good foundation of love and caring, their marriage was worth fighting for. They opted for couples counseling with someone who also understood internet addictions.  The struggle to rebuild their trust and their intimacy was epic. They made it through but it will be a work in progress for some time.

The internet can be fun and exciting. It’s always an adventure what you’ll find. There’s also plenty of ways to get in trouble out there. It’s easy to get caught up in the lure of internet fantasy. And it’s never too late to get help if you need it. You may opt for marriage counseling. You may opt for help breaking the porn habit. Or, you may decide the trust is irrevocably broken. Whatever you choose, choose wisely and choose well.

References

Burriss, R. (2016, October 25). How Pornography Really Affects Relationships. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/attraction-evolved/201610/how-pornography-really-affects-relationships

Park, B.Y.; Wilson, G.; Berger, J.; Christman, M.; Reina, B.; Bishop, F.; Klam, W.P.; Doan, A.P. (2016).

Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 6(3), 1-25. Sun, C., Bridges, A., Johnson, J. A., & Ezzell, M. B. (2016).

Erratum to: Pornography and the Male Sexual Script: An Analysis of Consumption and Sexual Relations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45(4), 995-995. Hilton, D. L. (2013).

Pornography addiction – a supranormal stimulus considered in the context of neuroplasticity. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 3(1), 1-8. Séguin, L. J., Rodrigue, C., & Lavigne, J. (2017).

Consuming Ecstasy: Representations of Male and Female Orgasm in Mainstream Pornography. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(3), 348-356. Perry, S. L. (2016).

Does Viewing Pornography Reduce Marital Quality Over Time? Evidence from Longitudinal Data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 549-559. Weiss, R. (2015). Sex addiction 101: A basic guide to healing from sex, porn, and love addiction.

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