Straight Talk to Husbands Who Watch Porn
. . . .Shelli remembers well the day her husband John called her up to confess his secret obsession with pornography. Years of guilt, shame, and wasted time had finally taken its toll on John, and the emotional dam broke. He knew he needed to tell his wife the truth.
“It took me by complete surprise,” she says, “I didn’t have any clue that it was even an issue.” But after the shock came the hurt. “There was definitely a death of all that I thought was real,” Shelli says. “Everything that we had had prior to that felt artificial…that I was believing a lie, that I didn’t know him, and I didn’t know who he really was, and the way he felt about me was a big lie.”
John and Shelli Mandeville share part of their story on the documentary Somebody’s Daughter: A Journey to Freedom from Pornography. Sadly, John and Shelli’s story of a marriage nearly destroyed by pornography and addiction is all too common. In 2002, at a meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the divorce attorneys present said over half (56%) of their cases involved one party having “an obsessive interest in pornographic websites.”
Do wives need to lighten up?
In a presentation given at the Witherspoon Institute, Dr. Jill Manning spoke about the impact pornography can have on wives. “It has been troubling and intriguing to me,” reports Dr. Manning, “how many times I encounter derogatory beliefs about this group of women, beliefs that dismiss the magnitude of the issue and the legitimacy of it, by framing them as pathological, overreacting, and frigid women who need to lighten up. ‘After all, he’s just looking?’”
Some women, in fact, have “lightened up.” Not all wives react negatively to their husbands using pornography. Ana Bridges from University of Arkansas’ psychology department says in her own research she has met many women who have justified their husbands’ behavior. “All guys look at porn.” “It’s better than him having an affair.” “At least he’s not always coming to me to get his needs met.”
Bridges labels these rationalizations as “permission-giving beliefs:” things we tell ourselves that make certain behaviors seem normal or healthy. Ironically, it is pornography that often teaches and reinforces these beliefs in the first place. If we receive a steady diet of media that portrays illicit sex as the norm, it is easy to get the impression that “boys will be boys.”
How a woman reacts to her husband using pornography is based in part on what she believes healthy sexuality and relationships should look like in the first place. So, what if, just for a minute, we asked ourselves how our relationships could look if we didn’t live in a pornified culture. What if, for a brief moment, men turned their eyes away from the fantasy images—the airbrushed photos, the clever video editing, the breast enhancements, and the thumbnail images that portray women like dogs in heat—and instead focused on what pornography is really costing them and their wives? Before we quickly label distressed wives as overly conservative prudes, what if we peeled back the layers and instead saw women who were mourning the loss of something they should rightly expect from their husbands: intimacy.
Who says porn is bad for marriages?
John and Shelli certainly understood what porn was costing them. “Accept an impossible appetite and an impossible standard, and it steals from the true beauty of what marriage is supposed to be,” John says. “It’s the perfect theft of growing old together. Who wants to grow old together in a culture where all we honor is what’s young?”
Consider how the research bears this out. Pornography doesn’t teach men to serve, honor, and cherish their wives in a way that fosters romance. Pornography trains men to be consumers, to treat sex as a commodity, to think about sex as something on-tap and made-to-order. As Dr. Mary Anne Layden writes, “It is toxic miseducation about sex and relationships.”
- In Dr. Gary Brooks’ book, The Centerfold Syndrome, he explains how pornography alters the way men think. Because the women in porn are only glossy magazine pictures or pixels on the screen, they have no sexual or relational expectations of their own. This trains men to desire the cheap thrill of fantasy over a committed relationship that requires them to connect to another human being. Pornography essentially trains men to be digital voyeurs: looking at women rather than seeking genuine intimacy.
- According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, after only a few prolonged exposures to pornographic videos, men and women alike reported less sexual satisfaction with their intimate partners, including their partners’ affection, physical appearance, and sexual performance.
- Another study that appeared in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found similar results. When men and women were exposed to pictures of female centerfold models from Playboy andPenthouse, this significantly lowered their judgments about the attractiveness of “average” people.
- Dr. Victor Cline’s research has shown that sexual arousal and excitement diminish with repeated exposure to sexual scenes, leading people to seek out greater variety and novelty in the pornography they view.
- French neuroscientist Serge Stoleru reports on how overexposure to erotic stimuli actuallyexhausts the sexual responses of healthy young men.
- Dr. Dolf Zillmann reports when young people are repeatedly exposed to pornography, it can have a long-lasting impact on their beliefs and behaviors. Frequently, men who habitually view pornography develop cynical attitudes about love and the need for affection between partners. They begin to view the institution of marriage as sexually confining. Often, men develop a “tolerance” for sexually explicit material, leading them to seek out more novel or bizarre material to achieve the same level of arousal.
Dr. Judith Reisman summarizes it well: Pornography causes impotence—an inability to function with your own sexual power. “If he can’t make love to his beloved,” says Reisman, “If he has to imagine a picture, if he has to imagine a scene, in order to actually reach the heights of completion with this person, then he’s no longer with his own power, is he? He has been stripped. He has been hijacked. He has been emasculated. He has, in effect, been castrated visually.”
We might say the real problem with pornography isn’t that it shows us too much sex, but that it can’t show us enough about what real sex is. Porn treats sex one-dimensionally, packages it in pixels and rips it from its relational context. It titillates with images of sex but cannot offer the experience of real intimacy.
Am I not enough for him?
“It’s not because you’re not enough, not beautiful, and that he doesn’t find you attractive,” Shelli Mandeville says. “It’s so important that women get that.”
Easier said than done. One has only to glance through online forums and blogs on this topic: many women feel his porn use is somehow their fault. They feel they have failed their partners sexually. They feel if they were only more attractive or more available he wouldn’t rush to the porn to get his fix. Researchers have found that wives and girlfriends often feel a loss of self-esteem in these situations.
However, comparing marital intimacy to pornography is like comparing apples to oranges. “The type of pornography that’s available now was never available in human history,” says Dr. William Struthers, author Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain. “If you can get on a 50-inch HD television a picture of a woman engaging in a sexual act, the brain’s not wired to expect that kind of thing, because there aren’t women who have 50-inch-HD-TV bodies out there.”
Even the tabloids show us that the so-called picture perfect women can’t possibly compete with fantasy. Why would Tiger Woods cheat on his swimsuit-model-wife Elin Nordegren? Why would Peter Cook spend $3,000 on Internet porn when he could come home to Christie Brinkley? Why would Charlie Sheen be drawn to a digital harem, being married to Denise Richards?
The answer is that a mind trained for fantasy will find reality dull, no matter how supposedly stunning that reality is. Many men have conditioned their brains with this “digital drug” (as Dr. Struthers calls it). Some men train their minds to be turned to viewing sex from certain camera angles. Others train their minds to be turned on by certain physical characteristics. Others train their minds to expect variety: many images, many women, many physical types. And this toxic training begins for most men at a very young age.
Take John and Shelli, for instance. John remembers seeing porn for the first time when he was 10 years old. That’s when his habit began. “So when you’re 12 and 13 and you’re not married, you think when you become married, that this whole habit you’ve created for yourself will just go away because now you’ll have a sex partner,” John says. “But the problem is, it’s not actually a sexual experience, it’s a fantasy experience that your body gets trained for. So now, the reality of the marriage isn’t the fantasy.”
Feminist author Naomi Wolf puts it best. She believes the onslaught of porn doesn’t increase butdeadens male libido, leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy. “For how can a real woman…possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?” No woman can compete with this. “Today,” Wolf writes, “real naked women are just bad porn.”
Steps for Guilty Husbands
John Mandeville offers his words of advice to men: “You’re either going to give in and go for it, and sacrifice everything for pixels on the screen, or you make a commitment to what’s real—what’s a real human sitting next to you, and commit to whatever it takes to make that work.” And turning to Shelli he says, “And we had to make that decision together.”
Where do men start in making that commitment?
Accept responsibility. Men often blame their wives for not being attentive enough. Certainly, an inattentive wife can be frustrating to a man, but using this as an excuse for virtual adultery is nothing but cowardice. Counselor Joe Dallas writes, “The wife who is inattentive, indifferent, or downright abusive is responsible for her sins, not his. No woman, no matter how odious, makes her man commit adultery, so if a wife sins, let her account. But let her account for her sins alone.”
Many times men are putting the cart before the horse when they use this excuse. It may not be her inattentiveness that has been the catalyst, rather it may be a sign of him not initiating real romance and true intimacy in the first place. And, of course, other issues affecting intimacy may require professional counseling.
Talk is cheap. Fred Stoeker, author of Every Man’s Battle, says, “You must give your wife every right to play a role in defining what ‘trustworthiness’ means to her in your marriage.” What does your wife need from you? She needs more than an apology. She needs to see you are making every effort to change. Ask her what she needs to see from you so trust can be rebuilt.
Be patient. Remember guys, your wife may not understand your attraction to or struggle with porn like you do. And if she has just found out about your struggle, she may be dealing with a whirlwind of confusion and hurt. Just as you desire patience from her as you distance yourself from pornography, give her the same patience. Allow her the freedom to express the hurt she rightly feels.
Get accountability. The late psychologist Alvin Cooper believed that there are three main factors that draw people into the Internet porn: Accessibility, Affordability, and Anonymity. He dubbed this the “Triple A Engine” that drives the digital porn market. Like a three-legged stool: kick out one of the legs and it will fall.
The leg of anonymity is the easiest one to remove. When you remove the secrecy of your Internet use, you eliminate much of the temptation. We do this through accountability: we make ourselves willing to account for where we go and what we see online, allowing trusted friends and colleagues hold us to task on our commitment to stay pure. Use accountability software as a tool in your commitment.
Make real intimacy your end goal. The goal is not simply “quitting pornography.” That, of course, is admirable, but it only leaves a void. What pornography attempts to imitate is what, in the end, we really desire: intimacy with another human being. This is what husbands and wives must strive for in their marriages.
Reclaim what pornography has stolen from you. Choose to break the cycle. Choose to stand for intimacy in a culture drowning in illusion. “So we’re drawing a line,” John Mandeville says, “and whatever it takes, the generation that grows up behind us is going to run where we stumble.”