By Jill C. Manning, PhD, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
CNN recently interviewed the infamous Hugh Hefner about his life, his corporate empire, and Steven Watt's new book, Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream. In the interview, Hefner, who is now 82 years of age, mentioned he had started dating two 19-year-old twins named Karissa and Kristina Shannon. When I saw a corresponding photograph of Hugh Hefner dressed in a burgundy bathrobe sitting alongside these two teenage girls, I was struck by how creepy and pathetic the whole thing is. Needless to say, the Baltimore Sun's description of Hefner as "the sexualized Peter Pan who refused to grow up" resonated with many of my own reactions.
For me, the photograph symbolized how bizarre the pornography industry and its growing acceptance in our culture are, not to mention how sexually toxic and perverse our social climate has become.
As I contemplated this photograph and scenario further, I couldn't help but reflect on the many women I have met who have been negatively impacted by pornography. As a marriage and family therapist who works with women directly impacted by pornography, I am continually struck by the profound damage it causes.
Although downplayed and dismissed by many, pornography consumption by a spouse is devastating and should not be underestimated in terms of the far-reaching consequences it has on trust, intimacy, family life, children, finances, the marital friendship, and, in a growing number of cases, the existence of the marriage itself. Aside from abuse, I know of no other marital issue that affects the very soul of women more than pornography consumption by a spouse.
Too often, the discovery or disclosure of a pornography problem in marriage causes women to slip into unhealthy comparisons; to engage in inappropriate behavior themselves; or to spiral downward into depression, self-doubt, and in some cases, even suicidal thinking. These responses, although unhelpful, are understandable when the magnitude of damage, betrayal, and hurt are understood. Pornography, by nature and name, diminishes virtue, love, creativity, healthy sexuality, personal and relational growth, and honesty. Consequently, responding to pornography problems in marriage requires that we be exceptionally honest and clear about what pornography is, what it is not, how it has impacted our relationship and self-concept, and what is the best way to respond.
The following three concepts, among many others, have been helpful for women to incorporate into their healing and decision-making process:
- Clarify the Motivation. In many cases, pornography use is more about seeking an escape or mood-altering effect than it is about sex itself. Although pornography use often starts out as a youthful curiosity about sex, in most cases it develops into a way of escaping certain emotions and stressors. Looking at pornography can even be used to self-medicate depression and anxiety and to self-soothe loneliness or poor self-esteem. Understanding this can help cut through the faulty belief that being more sexual with a pornography user will reduce consumption, or that if someone is using pornography, his or her spouse must not be sexually available or attractive. In addition, understanding the non-sexual motivations behind pornography use can help a woman understand that her partner would have likely turned to pornography regardless of whom he married and that his pornography use is not a commentary on her attractiveness (even though it feels like an attack). Erroneous assumptions about the motivations around pornography use not only promote misplaced blame and shame, but also detract from holding the consumer responsible for choosing to deal with life's problems in maladaptive and harmful ways.
- Beware of Comparing Reality to Fantasy. Many women will tell me they feel insecure and intimidated when they compare themselves to the pornography stars their husband lusts after. There are two issues here: (1) the destabilizing hurt caused by a husband's infidelity and (2) the dynamic of comparing oneself to someone who has prostituted herself in a pornographic scene. Let's look at the second part of this assumption. Many women believe they don't measure up to what their husband is neurotically and narcissistically seeking out because they think the porn stars represent a sexual ideal. This is one of the biggest lies pornography invites women to believe. Most pornography stars have histories of sexual abuse, drug use or addiction, mental health problems, failed relationships, cosmetic surgery, and/or sexually transmitted diseases. In short, the only thing that is modeled in pornography is sexual brokenness and spiritual disconnection. Men who recover from a pornography habit also come to this realization and ironically begin to "see" the beauty of their spouse as what they desire and need.
- Ignore Comments That Invalidate the Seriousness of This Problem, and Seek Out People Who Understand the Issue. When a woman takes the risk to share this marital problem with a trusted friend or family member, it is not uncommon for her to encounter statements such as, "Boys will be boys," "All guys are into porn," or "At least he isn't cheating on you." Comments such as these not only demoralize and invalidate, but they also reflect a lack of understanding about the addictive potential this habit has and the impact pornography use has on relationships. Pornography use represents a serious breach of the marital bond and pulls sexual energy away from an intimate relationship. It is important to ignore comments that dismiss or invalidate the seriousness of this issue and to actively seek out the opinions and support of individuals who understand this issue well. As a woman sifts through the constraining and erroneous beliefs that compound the pain associated with a spouse's pornography use, she is better able to make healthy decisions and take steps that will facilitate healing. Although it is troubling to consider that an increasing number of women are facing this issue in their marriage, it is reassuring to know there are also a growing number of resources to support women and families dealing with this issue. With our continued support, the Lighted Candle Society will not only be able to help women get the support they need, but also be able to continue its unique fight against the pornography industry at large.