How porn is wrecking relationships

Updated: 2007-05-29 17:27

The Sydney Morning Herald spent two months charting a social phenomenon that is poisoning couples and destroying families. Adele Horin reports.

The internet has brought an explosion of pornography into the home and workplace of virtually every Australian. Just a mouse-click away are images that exceed the bounds of fantasy or imagination. In 1961 the introduction of the pill helped usher in a sexual revolution. It had a profound effect on sexual attitudes, practices and relationships. It brought worry-free sex first to married couples, then to singles. And now there are experts - psychiatrists, sociologists and relationship counsellors among them - who argue that the social and psychological impact of internet pornography is potentially as huge.

For some Australians, the rising tide of internet pornography has offered a form of sex education. It has helped extend sexual repertoires, re-invigorated flagging sex lives, and assuaged anxieties or hang-ups. It has been, some argue, a liberation.

But internet pornography is also emerging as the new marriage-wrecker. More and more clients, counsellors say, have begun to cite internet pornography as a factor in their relationship breakdowns.

The technology has created what some call an addiction. Others are more cautious, describing it as a compulsion. Whatever the label, internet pornography is becoming yet another outlet for those with pre-existing compulsive personalities while for others, it has made it easier to do the things that a former head of the American Academy for Matrimonial Lawyers, J.Lindsey Short, says "traditionally lead to divorce".

An increasing number of men appear to be hooked, and the women in their lives are flailing about in unhappiness, self-doubt and self-blame.

Michael Flood, a research fellow in gender studies at La Trobe University and co-author of the 2003 report Youth and Pornography in Australia, says: "This is not about couples going to the porn store to spice up their sex lives. Men in growing numbers are using porn in ways that are secret, shameful and damaging. It is having a damaging impact on intimacy and sexuality."

It is difficult to determine the scale of the problem. A survey of more than 9000 American internet users by the psychologist Alvin Cooper and colleagues in 2000 found about 9 per cent were addicted - those who spent more than 11 hours a week looking at porn. A 1998 survey of internet users by David Greenfield, founder of the Centre for Internet Studies, found almost 6 per cent met the criteria for compulsive use, with porn sites and chat rooms being most seductive. The godfather of US sex addiction research, Patrick Carnes, the author of In the Shadows of the Net: Breaking Free of Compulsive Online Sexual Behaviour, claims 3 to 6 per cent of people are sex addicts. An Australian survey of about 1000 porn consumers by Alan McKee of the Queensland University of Technology and colleagues found 0.4 per cent said they had an addiction.

But all online surveys are flawed: they are not based on representative population samples, depend on self-selected participants and lack control groups. What seems undeniable is that a subset of people spends so much time porn gazing online that they are damaging their relationships.

The Herald has waded into unchartered waters to chronicle the impact of the compulsive use of internet pornography on relationships. Psychologists, relationship counsellors and men were among those interviewed. But it was the long and candid interviews with women aged 25 to 50 whose partners were obsessed with pornography that proved most illuminating. The problems may be confined to a minority, but it was surprisingly easy to find women whose lives had been turned upside down by their partner's online activities.

The same themes emerged over and over. The men spent hours online, searching for progressively more hard core images. Family time or couple time was the first casualty. Then sex lives floundered and withered away as men lost interest.

Men became, in the words of Dr Margaret Redelman, the president of the Australian Society of Sex Educators, Researchers and Therapists, "lazy lovers". In the end they could not be bothered with real-life sex. In other cases, sex lives became porn-like, male-focused, extreme and lacking in intimacy.

Women's self-esteem nose-dived. They felt they could not compete with the nymphs on screen. They did not measure up to the bodies or sexual performance of the women their men were watching. Connie, a 50-year-old graphics designer, whose former partner looked at pornography constantly, says: "After a while I started to feel worthless." Karen 44, whose eight-year marriage broke up over her husband's porn obsession, agonised over "why he preferred that to me".

A well-conducted British survey based on a representative sample of partners of regular porn users shows these feelings are widespread. Most partners are largely neutral about their men's regular pornography use, the survey, published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 2003, shows.

But a significant minority - about one-third of the women - found it highly distressing. About 32 per cent said their partner's porn use had adversely affected their sex life, 39 per cent said it had negatively affected their relationship, 34 per cent had lessened self-esteem, 41 per cent felt less attractive and desirable since having discovered their partner's use, and 42 per cent said it made them feel insecure. More than one-quarter viewed it as a kind of affair.

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