Pornography and Intimate Relationships

Dear Liz,

I am a former student in your ethics class, and I specifically remember the section on pornography. From this discussion, our class explored how it might feel when your partner frequently looked at pornographic images on a social media. My boyfriend is always looking at these photos and discussing them with his friends. I try to explain to him that this hurts my feelings and he justifies it with, “this is something you can’t understand, all guys talk like this.” I try to take a moral standpoint and tell him that “butts and boobs” don’t exist for men to talk about, and that he’s objectifying these women by only talking about them in the context of their body. He still disagrees. We feel fundamentally different on the issue, but I still feel as though there should be a way for us to both feel comfortable.
Thank you 🙂

Dear Friend,

Hmmm…it’s one thing to be oblivious to how pornography objectifies and demeans women, and another thing to be indifferent or resistant to that truth. Look, your question has less to do with pornography and more to do with you, and the connection you need to have with your partner. You said there should be a way for both of us to feel comfortable, and I agree. However, that comfort may be realized together, or apart.

When in a mutually caring relationship, both people make concessions for their partner. This is a positive thing—we don’t get far without sensitivity and compromise. However, the concessions we make should not be concessions that lead us to deny our values or heartfelt desires—those things that make us who we are, such that if compromised, we’d lose a bit of our self.

Your boyfriend doesn’t seem to want to make a concession here, in response to your feelings. And it seems accepting his use of pornography will be challenging for you, to say the least. So what this comes down to is you making the right choice for you.

I’m curious, other than this issue, are the two of you in sync on most other issues? When you are not in agreement, are you otherwise able to compromise and work through those challenges? Is the pornography issue a “fluke”, or could this be a situation of worldviews colliding?

Our worldview is shaped by our nature and combined experiences, experiences that inform what we value most, and those values we feel compelled to give expression to in our daily life. Worldview is at the heart of who we are and how we live our life. Do you and your boyfriend share values and hold a similar worldview?

Sadly, viewing pornography has become a cultural marker of normal masculinity. But that is a terrible deception the culture is feeding to young men. Boys and men do not access a path to authentic personhood by watching women being used and exploited. Only in a patriarchal society could pornography (the sexualization of otherwise demeaning and/or abusive scenarios) be deemed “normal entertainment”.

Challenging the “boys will be boys” mantra:

You’ve had the opportunity to experience pornography, not just on a personal level, but through an academic lens, and that lens likely shaped your deepened discomfort with pornography. But the truth is, even if your boyfriend had access to all the same materials you had in our class, it doesn’t mean he’d have the same consciousness shift as you did. This is because of the privilege boys and men have in a patriarchal society ( a “privilege” that simultaneously harms them, but that is a topic for another column).

Let me explain by pulling you back to our class.

Do you recall the course unit on systemic racism? We learned that those privileged by white supremacy and racism (white people) will not necessarily feel the same urgency to address racist practice, as those who are directly impacted by racist practice. White people are privileged in that they can ignore racism, with no consequences. This pattern of privilege can be found wherever dominance ideology is present, and arguably, pornography is an expression of the dominance ideology of patriarchy.

Resisting the truth about pornography is an act of privilege, just as white people remaining indifferent to racist practice is an expression of privilege.

What do you value most in an intimate relationship? What are you unwilling, or unable, to compromise over?  

You cannot control your boyfriend’s behaviors. All you can do is make your own choices around what works for you and what doesn’t. Only you can decide if you can genuinely accept his “blind spot” when it comes to pornography, should that blind spot persist. If your acceptance is not genuine, if you simply resign yourself to his use, you will likely end up resentful, or you may end up feeling diminished, and either one will compromise your well-being and the well-being of the relationship.

Once you are clear on whether you can accept his pornography use, steal him away for a heart to heart (I really mean that—speak from your heart, to his heart). This doesn’t have to be about who is right; it can be your asking him to stop, simply because it hurts you—he doesn’t have to completely get it in order to be thoughtful of your feelings. There will be lots of opportunity for concession making as you navigate your intimacy, and it might be his turn this time, and your turn next. This is a very good moment in your relationship, because you’re about to keep it real.
Love, Liz



One thought on “Pornography and Intimate Relationships

  1. No, not all guys talk like this, and even the ones who do or have viewed pornography normally at least recognize it as something shameful and private. That her boyfriend is so comfortable in viewing and talking about pornography with his friends makes me think he would also be comfortable with other public displays of sexism and misogyny, such as wolf whistles, unwelcome comments about women’s bodies, and dismissive comments about women’s talents and feelings. I would be curious if her boyfriend is equally dismissive of her feelings and opinions in other areas.


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