Rants, Feelings & Opinions

Is Porn a Form of (Ethical) Non-Monogamy?

October 10, 2019

The anti-porn movement thinks that “porn kills love,” and many people treat porn as a dirty little secret. But can jerking-off to MILF gang bangs actually benefit our relationships? Lizzi Sandell reports.

Is porn cheating? A lot of people think so, and others think it’s Just Plain Wrong even if you’re single. Google the question, and you’ll discover a Christian organization called Covenant Eyes’ sole purpose is to teach “pure” Internet usage. On the supposedly secular side, a cool-aspiring, Utah-based group called Fight The New Drug sells “Porn Kills Love” T-shirts, and bags that say “Porn is Totes Not Cool.” America’s favorite pop psychologist Dr. Phil takes a hardline approach too, writing on his website that porn is “not OK behavior. It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship. It is an insult, it is disloyal and it is cheating.”

While it would be easy to dismiss this view as Bible-bashing or otherwise sex-neg, I am interested in what it is about watching porn that people perceive as a threat to a relationship. Do we believe that true monogamy dictates that every ounce of sexual energy be directed towards your partner? It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of strict religious circles banning solo masturbation, especially in the context of, say, a long-distance relationship. Masturbation is even considered bon pour la sante, which is conveniently the only phrase I can remember from French class. So what is it about porn in particular that makes it feel like the “other woman” in a relationship?

Members of Fight the New Drug

Maybe there is something about identifying with an actor, in the way you might do with a character in a film where people don’t constantly fuck, that makes watching porn resemble intimacy even to the more open-minded among us. Film scholars have been writing for decades about how we identify with characters on-screen. It seems like we instinctively divide characters into those we want to be and those we want to sleep with, like a game of Fuck, Marry, Kill. So, are we having an emotional affair when we watch The Notebook? Not really. But if we identify with one or more of the actors (or even an imagined voyeur) when we watch porn, maybe it can resemble fantasy non-monogamy. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Porn, with its endlessly diverse array of kinks, scenarios, and body types (if you know where to look) gives you the opportunity to dip your toe into different types of sex. You can body-swap with people of different genders, or even, as in hentai, be a giant octopus with eight fuck-tentacles if you feel like it. Or you can bone Marge Simpson, which I personally cannot fathom but it’s cool if you’re into that. Some people are really good at fantasizing without visual stimulation, but porn can certainly offer food-for-thought. 

In her 2006 book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel discusses the contradiction between our need for excitement and our need for stability within a romantic relationship. She writes, 

“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected.” 

Perel sees this as the fundamental friction negotiated within any long-term relationship: if eroticism thrives on difference, how does it survive in the context of the familiar? And what happens when the familiar wears Crocs to the beach?

Much of Perel’s work grapples with the limitations of the monogamous relationship model, which we increasingly rely on to fulfill every sexual, social, and romantic need. She asks, “Today we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did… Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?” Inspired by Perel, sex columnist Dan Savage also makes frequent attempts to debunk the myth that any two people are ever “enough” for each other in the way that we have been led to expect, writing in Savage Love last year,

As I’ve pointed out again and again, there are lots of .64s out there and, if you’re lucky, you might find a .73 lurking in the pile. When you find a serviceable .64 or (God willing) a spectacular .73, it’s your job to round that motherfucker up to ‘the one.’”

Between our need for erotic diversity and our permanent status as .64s, perhaps it’s no wonder that various forms of non-monogamy are becoming increasingly visible and socially accepted. From open relationships to polyamory to Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell, many people see external romantic exploration as a way to invite sexual change into their lives while still reaping the benefits of a stable partner. A 2015/16 YouGov study found that only half of those aged 18–30 (significantly less than older demographics) describe their ideal relationship as entirely monogamous. But for couples who do wish to remain monogamous, perhaps consciously experimenting with porn is a decent alternative.

The anti-porn movement seems to consider porn either a gateway drug to “actual” cheating (Dr. Phil writes, “Viewing Internet pornography… is a short step to taking cheating to the next level”) or full-blown (albeit digital) cheating itself. Luke Gilkinson, a writer for Covenant Eyes, didn’t mince words: 

“It is engagement with a digital prostitute despite one’s vow to forsake all others… the act of seeking out another woman for sexual pleasure—even if she is hidden behind a veil of pixels…—is not a movement towards faithfulness, but away from it.”

Aside from Gilkinson’s problematic “prostitution” angle, which makes biased assumptions about performers, I want to posit that porn-watching could in fact be a “move towards faithfulness” in the sense that it reaffirms monogamy by allowing individuals to have fantasy extramarital experiences without (directly) involving others.

For porn to qualify as a legit form of non-monogamy, it must be something both partners are comfortable with—that’s the “ethical” part, which in a non-monogamous setting generally refers to which acts are permissible and with whom, according to previously agreed-upon conditions. But the act itself must be ethical too, and is porn really? 

Dr. David Ley, author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, outlines (in an interview with Goop randomly) ethical porn in the following way:

“In terms of production, ethical porn is a media where the performers are paid a fair wage for their work, treated with dignity and respect, not expected to engage in acts against their will, and where sexuality is recognized as a diverse, individual experience… Another way to think about it is to consider the idea of “mindful” porn use—where a user of porn has considered what porn means in their life, what role they want it to hold, and is using porn in a conscious, considered way that’s consistent with their values.”

So, perhaps it is possible to jerk off with impunity.

Unfortunately, this type of consumption is not compatible with free tube sites, where a smorgasbord of fleshy orifices bombards the senses and clicking on them rarely generates wealth for those involved in the production. Millenials make up a sexy 69% of Pornhub’s 92 million daily visits, and despite the site’s legitimizing philanthropic efforts and fashion collabs, it is widely accepted (and outlined in Jon Ronson’s podcast The Butterfly Effect) that its meteoric rise has not been a good vibe for the industry. Ethical porn involves paying for your porn. We’ve all fallen into a gang bang click hole on occasion, but making a more thoughtful decision about where we source our porn could be beneficial for everyone involved.

Reframed this way, maybe porn can be ethical as well as sexually gratifying. Legitimizing our porn habits as an extension of our sexuality and not as a dirty little secret could strengthen our monogamous relationships, allowing us to experience sexual difference from the comfort of our couch and sweatpants. Indulging fantasies through porn might be a form of non-monogamy that many of us are already practicing, and realizing that might help us to see monogamy in a slightly different way.

Lizzi Sandell is a writer/editor from London who lives in LA.

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