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☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦]
Translated by Audrey Morabito
Tapas, high heels, champagne, background music: happy hour with an air of déjà vu. As the flutes go down, more and more secrets, big and small, are spilled. We all laughed until the most prudish of the gang finished her drink before confiding that she and her man have been watching a lot of porn lately. Discomfort suddenly takes over the room. Radio silence until Amé, the most tipsy of us, replies with “well, Julien is wilder than I thought!”. With that, she revives the conversation. We burst into laughter and a round of shots arrive at just the right time to make us forget it all.
Is pornography still taboo in 2016?
In light of that evening, I have no choice but to say yes.
Is pornography too taboo to be scientifically interesting? Not at all! On my way back from that evening, while crisscrossing through the streets and alleys, I had one objective in mind: demystifying the experience of porn for women in relationships. This research was to be based solely on the heterosexual experience, in order to echo the discomfort created by this revelation. As soon as I entered my apartment, I was drawn to my screen to shed light on this mysterious discomfort created by Beatrice’s comment earlier tonight. It only took a few truncated words beginning with the letter “p” and a strong coffee to learn that many audacious people in white lab coats had already looked into the matter. The good news is that it is not only my prude friend and her hotter-than-anticipated boyfriend who watch porn together. Others like them let X-rated movies play in the background in order to add a little spice to their sex lives (Olmstead et al., 2013; McKee, 2006). In addition to wanting to spice things up, these movies can add educational value: the actors may inspire new positions (Olmstead et al., 2013; McKee, 2006). Some sex acts are therefore more adventurous by trying new Kamasutra inspired positions.
Who Are These Illicit Spectators?
According to a fairly recent study, the most avid consumers are couples who live together and those who are unmarried (Maddox et al., 2009). Couples who have never dared to watch pornography identify as being more traditional in their sex lives and admit to having an erotic life that is not very permissive (Daneback et al., 2009).
Is watching pornography as a couple the solution to all sexual problems and a revolution of the second millennium? No, but couples who get turned on in front of Bleu nuit or other cinematographic scenes in the same genre, present with less sexual dysfunctions than those where one of the partners watches porn alone (Daneback et al., 2009). According to the literature, the solo version of X-rated cinema is definitely not popular: heavy and lonesome use of pornography by their partners causes more distress in women, lower self-esteem and the perception of a disinterested partner (Bechara et al., 2003; Bergner et Bridges, 2002). Perceived excessive solo use is seen as proof of sexual dissatisfaction by their partners (Olmstead et al., 2013). The results found by Doran and Price (2014) and Daneback and colleagues (2009) support the same premise as they have shown that women experience anger and conjugal conflict when their partners use pornography alone.
The solitary use of pornography, regardless of who secretly does it, is harmful to a couple (Daneback et al., 2009).
According to a study by Olmstead and his team (2013), both men and women oppose solitary pleasure fuelled by pornography. They perceive it both as an activity harmful to their intimacy and as an alarm bell indicating an underlying problem within the relationship (Olmstead et al., 2013). Cooper, Galbreath and Becker (2004) add that there is even a decrease in sexual activity in couples where the man uses it alone.
Porn, a Man’s World?
Not necessarily. A qualitative study carried out in the United States reveals that nearly half of the women interviewed would accept the use of pornography within their relationship under certain conditions established in order to avoid addiction (Olmstead et al., 2013). Moreover, those who share this naughty little pleasure with their better half, have discovered pornography on their own (Mckee, 2006). Contrary to popular belief, it would not be under pressure from their partner that women would participate in the fantasy world of pornography. Users, reportedly, do not feel degraded or inferior in front of the sexually explicit images that are conveyed by pornography (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011).
However, according to Bridges and Morokoff (2011), women would much rather watch pornography with their man rather than reserve this activity for solo use. Women who watch pornography with their partner during sex are allegedly more satisfied with their sex life and have more sex than those who do not (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011). Maddox, Rhoades and Markman (2009) confirm that watching pornography with your partner would be more satisfying than watching it alone or knowing that your partner is using it alone.
What About Fidelity?
The results here are far from unanimous. Some have simply eliminated pornography from the infidelity register, others agree that it is a tolerable form, while some are adamant that the use of pornography is unacceptable (Olmstead et al., 2013). In the event of prolonged absenteeism, where two partners are apart, some consider the use of explicit sexual material to be an acceptable and interesting alternative (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011).
On the other hand, results show that couples who watch pornography together are more likely to be unfaithful compared to those who do not watch pornography or watch it alone (Maddox et al., 2009).
When looking at relationships, the results are unequivocal, girls who watch pornography report being more satisfied with their relationship than those who don’t watch pornography (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011; Daneback et al., 2009; Manning, 2006). They mention a stronger connection (Olmstead et al., 2013), better relational strength (McKee, 2006) and greater dedication to the partner (Maddox et al., 2009). Besides, subscribers to adult channels are said to put more trust in their partner, have better self-esteem, and be more interested in sex (Bridges & Morokoff, 2011). However, amongst Canadian women, watching pornography with their partner doesn’t necessarily increase relational satisfaction (Resch & Alderson 2014).
All in all, watching porn as a couple is associated with more open sexuality which requires communicating about one’s fantasies and desires (Daneback et al., 2009; Maddox et al., 2009). Indeed, watching porn together requires a communication process which would be difficult in a context where sexuality is taboo (Gagnon and Simon, 2011). Some therapists even go as far as suggesting to some couples to let loose in front of an erotic video in order to improve their intimacy (Manning, 2006).
Pornography could therefore be a potential source of pleasure, but its appreciation depends on the context of its use. To make use of images where both partners feel at ease can prove to be an exciting practice for lovers who desire it.
This article is not claiming to have all the answers to the questions surrounding pornography, it has, however, allowed us to gain insight on a specific aspect. That of the experience of female consumption of pornography within a heterosexual relationship. It is quite complex in that pornography is not a monolith (Mimoun, 2007). There exists a vast variety of types of pornography, not only in content but also in the reaction it elicits in its viewers (Mimoun, 2007). From there stems the importance for couples to negotiate which types of images they wish to consume together (Daneback et al., 2009; Maddox et al., 2009).
Not only is it hard to define the contours of pornography (Mimoun, 2007) but it is also complex to proceed to the clinical evaluation of it due to conceptual vagueness and an absence of common vocabulary (Messier-Bellemare & Corneau, 2015). Some authors like Cordonnier (2006) and Voros (2009) question the moral arguments concerning the possible addictiveness of pornography which could hide a discourse normalizing “good” sexuality. Cordonnier (2006) adds that the consumption of pornography is not necessarily linked to addiction and he urges clinicians to see pornography as a new form of expression.
Whether it is pornography used in a consensual context or for other fantasies, the couple's erotic bond should be nurtured in order to preserve desire within their union. On this subject, Perel (2006) invites couples to explore a more liberated sexuality that combines games, sensuality, creativity, furtive pleasures and seduction. She reminds us that eroticism goes beyond the sexual act and that there are as many ways to nurture the desire within a couple as there are lovers. Whether you are an actor or a spectator, isn’t the important thing to simply play?
*Myriam Pomerleau, a graduate student of the clinical master's degree in sexology, participated in the review and analysis of the studies used in this column *