By Natasha Helfer Parker
THREE MONTHS AGO I discovered my husband was looking at pornography. He admitted he has been addicted to pornography since he was a teenager and that as it has become more accessible (through the Internet, smart phones, etc.) his problem has increased.
I had a hard time with this discovery but reached a point where I felt I was able to forgive him.
My questions are: 1. Is it “normal” or at least common for wives to be reluctant to have sex with their husbands after their discovery of a pornography addiction? and, 2. How much pressure should I be putting on myself to have sex with him? Do I need to “grin and bear it” every time he’s interested? I want to help him overcome his addiction and I want him to feel loved and supported, but at the same time I don’t want to ignore my own needs and concerns.
THIS IS A good example of common issues that arise for married couples as they navigate the disclosure of pornography usage. Hurt, confusion, and meaning attached to the behavior are all difficult to sort out—especially in the cultural frenzy we currently find ourselves in (both inside and outside Mormonism) that rides the pornography pendulum from “healthy, artistic expression” to “vile, perverse degradation.”
First, it is usually helpful to think about how you and your spouse are defining pornography versus erotica. I have found that the term “pornography” is used rather loosely in Mormon culture. It often unnecessarily shames any visual stimuli that may result in arousal (i.e. costumes on Dancing with the Stars, lingerie ads, etc.). If everything that could be arousing is condemned, then secrecy, shame, and fear naturally arise, feeding compulsion, impulsion, and maladaptive disorders instead of helping to quell them. Stepping out of this secrecy cycle is a great first step for an individual to take, and proactive disclosure is better for facilitating trust repair than being “found out.” But regardless of how the secrecy stops, it is a vital first step towards healing, increased intimacy, and sexual authenticity.
It is also important to understand how you and your spouse are defining the term “addiction” when applying it to pornography use. The addiction label can be shaming and even counter-productive when it is misused, as often happens in Mormon culture. On the other hand, when one’s behavior feels out of control, the disease model can be helpful. It can help each spouse understand that change is much more complicated than simply exerting willpower.
The latest Diagnostic Criteria Manual (released in May of last year) uses the terms “substance-related and addictive disorders.” “Substance-related” refers to dependence on an ingested substance such as alcohol, narcotics, nicotine, and now even caffeine. The only non-substance disorder included is gambling.
“Groups of repetitive behaviors, which some term behavioral addictions, with such categories as ‘sex addiction,’ ‘exercise addiction,’ or ‘shopping addiction,’ are not included because at this time there is insufficient peer-reviewed evidence to establish the diagnostic criteria and course descriptions needed to identify these behaviors as mental disorders.” (DSM V, pg. 481)
The “impulse control” category only addresses behavior that violates the rights of others (i.e. pyromania, oppositional defiance, kleptomania, etc.). “Internet gaming disorder” made the section called “conditions for further study” but “sex addiction” or “pornography addiction” did not. There is currently much research being done in these areas, especially from the neuroscience field. We will have to wait and see how the next version of the DSM addresses these issues. Part of the caution being exercised has to do with being extremely careful about pathologizing any behavior tied to a basic human drive, especially one that is already so heavily regulated by culture and religion. Bottom line: unwanted behavior does not an “addiction” make.
However, a behavior need not be diagnosable nor maladaptive to still be problematic. For many married Mormons, the two main reasons pornography use causes problems are that it doesn’t fall within behavior their religious values deem acceptable, and it was not negotiated with their spouse as part of their mutually agreed upon sexual relationship. Therefore, finding out that your spouse has acted in a way that betrays your understanding of what it means to be faithful to your sexual relationship can be devastating. Many spouses who find out about hidden pornography use experience feelings similar to those of people suffering a spouse’s infidelity. It is important to normalize and validate what you feel: from anger to grief, denial, shock, and so forth.
Not wanting to be sexually intimate with your spouse during this time of disclosure is common, but the opposite can be true as well. In fact, you may find that your feelings change from day to day. It is important to take the time and space you need to heal, prioritize emotional and physical needs, and regain trust. As the work is done to increase trust and openness in the relationship (which will require the offending spouse to have a repentant attitude and show patience as the grief cycle progresses), your desire to be intimate will return on its own timeline.
It is important to recognize that a problematic relationship with pornography is not something the non-offending spouse can “fix.” It is not a spousal “job” to offer enough sex to prevent pornography use. There are plenty of people who have lots of sex but still use pornography in unhealthy ways. Now, if a spouse cites low sexual frequency as a reason for why they turned to pornography in the first place, then relational quality and sexual needs do need to be addressed. But make sure the behavior of one spouse is not blamed on the other. Sidestepping personal responsibility is never healthy.
Many people I’ve worked with who have found out about their spouse’s pornography use report fearing that they become pornography themselves in their partner’s mind. “What is (s)he thinking about while having sex with me?” It is imperative to not let pornography steal one’s inner sexual identity: sultriness, sexiness, playfulness, fantasies, etc. As you move as a couple away from the secrecy of pornography usage and learn how to embrace the intimacy potential within your relationship, you can work toward a more rich, communicative, and honest sexuality that has room for both “naughty” and “nice.” Healthy sex has room for nuance and exploration; it is not held hostage by the pornography industry. If you’re talking to each other during sex you won’t have to wonder what the other is thinking.
Pornography can often be used as a coping mechanism. So addressing problematic pornography use in and of itself usually misses the deeper issues that need to be explored. For example, secret pornography usage can be a sign of sexual immaturity or a sign of one’s inability to be vulnerable enough to be truly intimate (emotionally and sexually). As sexuality remains a taboo topic in LDS culture, we tend to be somewhat sexually immature in general. Especially since sexual vulnerability is not readily role-modeled or directly teachable.
Sexual maturity arises when we are able to define a successful sexual encounter as more than just erection, vaginal/penile intercourse, and/or orgasm. Maturity comes about when we are able to communicate our needs and respect our partner’s needs. It develops when we are able to withstand an understandable rejection, when we can reject respectfully, and when we can compromise over libido differences. Maturity arises when we can accept that arousal templates differ and when we can empathize with our partner’s turn-ons without labeling them as perverse or unholy just because we don’t share them. Our maturity develops when we are forgiving about mishaps and miscommunications. Once secrecy is abandoned, once we start learning to be vulnerable, once we start forgiving, attaining sexual maturity can be a fun and exciting venture for a couple as they address their relational and sexual challenges.
I recommend seeing a credentialed sex/marital therapist to get through this process. A good therapist, whether LDS or not, should treat your religious values with respect and help you feel comfortable. aasect.org, aamft.org and MormonMentalHealthAssoc.org are good places to find a qualified therapist near you.
I also recommend The Porn Trap by Wendy Maltz (as well as her website) and Living a Life I Love by Weston M. Edwards.
I worry that LDS culture gives pornography more power than it deserves. Yes, porn affects the brain. So do roller coaster rides. And yes, pornography use can develop into maladaptive behavior. So can shopping. Though these are very real issues, the rigid stance and fear-inducing language we use when addressing pornography grants it unwarranted power. LDS culture doesn’t normalize erotica or the natural arousal that occurs when we see erotic or pornographic material. Instead it villainizes it. This, in my opinion, is dangerous, as is labeling curious teens—or adults who look at pornography intermittently for a variety of reasons—as “addicts.” Educating ourselves on the effects of pornography, teaching ourselves constructive usage of diagnostic terms, treating disorders when they do exist, and embracing the sex-positive aspects of our doctrine is a challenge I hope we as Mormons can embrace.