Editor’s note: The following story deals with sexually-themed subject matter that will not be appropriate for some readers. Discretion is advised.
This is part two in a four-part series. Read part one: “Ubiquitous assailant: The dangerous unasked questions surrounding pornography“. Read part 3: “Why laws to fight pornography aren’t being used.” Read part four: “How couples break the cycle of addiction.”
NEW YORK — The keys jingled in her hand as Lili Bee walked up the steps to her apartment. The New York air was warm and the trees along her street were finally showing traces of spring.
“Hello!” Lili called out as she shut the front door behind her, not wanting to startle her cleaning lady, who was in the master bedroom.
“Here, I want to show you how I organized the walk-in closet,” the woman said, motioning Lili to follow. “Here’s his tennis racquets, his record collection, his hammers, tools.”
The woman then grabbed a garbage bag and handed it to Lili.
“And here’s his pornography collection,” she said casually, turning toward the next shelf.
Lili was stunned. She had no idea the man she considered her soul mate viewed pornography. In fact, each time they walked by an adult video store in Manhattan he shook his head in disgust.
In that moment she felt betrayed, and sick to her stomach. She ran to the bathroom.
“Oh honey, you shouldn’t be upset by that, all guys do that,” her cleaning lady called through the door. “Some of us even do that.”
Even years later, Lili can still remember the sinking feeling that her boyfriend was living what felt like a double life.
Lili wasn’t alone in feeling betrayed. In a 2003 survey published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, of 100 women surveyed, 26 percent said they considered viewing pornography on par with adultery, while 39 percent said it negatively impacted their relationship. Nearly half said habitual viewing of pornography by their partner made them feel insecure.
“People aren’t aware of how extremely harmful (pornography) can be,” says Wendy Maltz, psychotherapist and co-author of “The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography.” “We’ve allowed this product that shows sex in a particular way and trains sexual arousal patterns in ways that can limit positive sexual expression. People are developing a sexual relationship with it that is superseding human relationships.”
Maltz and a growing number of scholars and therapists are becoming concerned about the effects of pornography on relationships, the way it commercializes sex and normalizes violence under the guise of fantasy.
“If there’s one thing that enrages me it’s people downplaying this,” Lili said. “That makes me so angry. There’s a world of pain out there around this, and if we keep sticking our head in the sand it will grow until it blows up in our face. As far as I’m concerned, it already is blowing up in our face.”
The dangers of commercializing sex
Jan Meza walked up the stairs already drunk, her stomach in knots, despite the variety of pills she’d been given that morning to help her relax.
As a prostitute-turned-porn-star working in California’s San Fernando Valley, her normal scenes involved one or two men. But this morning in 2006, 25 men would have sex with her.
She agreed because the paycheck would be $5,000 for an hour. It would pay the rent and keep food on the table for her three young children back home with grandma, who thought she was in California doing plus-sized modeling.
The director promised to stop if she was in pain, and vowed no one would call her bad names.
But they did, and he didn’t stop filming even when she began crying. During the scene, the pain was so intense she actually blacked out several times — images that had to be cut from the final film.
After the scene and publicity photos the men wanted to take with her, she ran from the room to the bathroom, where she stood in the shower crying and vomiting.
The producer came up minutes later and raved about her performance.
“ ‘Great job, we definitely want to do more scenes,’ ” she remembers him saying. “He didn’t care … about the kind of wreck I’m in. It’s just, here’s a pat on the back, and extra money and ‘What do you need for next time?’ ”
When the video finally came out, it was edited to make it look like Meza was enjoying the experience.
And that, in a nutshell, is one of the biggest problems with pornography, says Rachel Collins, a youth minister who has spent the last nine years building relationships with women in the industry and helping them get out.
The entire industry is all just a façade, she says, a parade of carefully edited images and manipulated encounters that are sold as authentic and enviable — all while ignoring the pain of performers.
Over nine years as a producer of pornographic films, Donny Pauling recruited more than 500 women. None of the women have ever thanked him after they started in the industry, even though they could make nearly $500 in a few hours performing a soft-core scene (Pauling left the industry in 2006 and now speaks out against it).
“I couldn’t think of anything unsexier (than porn),” says Collins. “Sex is made to be between two people in a committed relationship who love each other. There’s so much to it that’s so beautiful and intimate, and when you make everything about an orgasm, what a cheap and fake reality.”
But the industry thrives on selling this reality — scripted and manipulated though it may be.
“These are men who can do it without any kind of mental involvement,” says Bill Margold, a porn actor who is also the adult entertainment industry historian and unofficial spokesman. “… The best men in this business are men who are having sex with themselves, not the person they’re with. You have to become detached when you’re performing.”
And while that may make for a good production scene, experts say it makes for a terrible behavioral model, especially for young people who have no other ideas about sex.
“The pornographic model of sex (is) limiting, rather than expanding, our concept of what sex is and can be,” says Meagan Tyler, a lecturer in sociology at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, and author of “Selling Sex Short: The Pornographic and Sexological Construction of Women’s Sexuality in the West.”
Tyler, a non-religious feminist, says society has accepted sex as a commodity that can be bought and sold, viewed upon demand and twisted into every imaginable fetish.
“Every time I speak about the harms of pornography, I get asked about the possibilities of ‘better porn’ or ‘ethical porn,’ ” Tyler said. “What it shows me is how desperate we are … to believe that porn use is fine. What I ask is that people try and think about what sexuality would be like without porn. If you have difficultly imagining what that would be like, then we all have a problem.”
Numb to violence
One of the most distressing studies during Robert Wosnitzer’s doctoral research in media culture and communication at New York University was a content analysis of 304 scenes from the 50 most popular porn movies of 2005.
In 88 percent of scenes, performers were slapped, spanked, gagged, choked, kicked or had their hair pulled. Insults and name-calling were present in almost half of the scenes.
Almost all (94 percent) of the violence was directed to women, who responded nearly overwhelmingly with pleasurable or neutral expressions.
“Viewers of pornography are learning that aggression during a sexual encounter is pleasure-enhancing for both men and women,” Wosnitzer, Dr. Ana Bridges and their co-researchers wrote in their paper published in Violence Against Women in 2010. “What (is) the social implication for this type of learning?”
In college fraternities, that fusing is seen as men who consume pornography — specifically rape and sadomasochistic types — report higher levels of willingness to rape women if they wouldn’t get caught or punished, and lower willingness and perceived ability to intervene in a sexual assault situation, according to research by Oklahoma State University education professor John Foubert.
Such results undermine the argument that pornography is a personal choice and what happens in private doesn’t affect anyone else, he says.
“Most of the culture today thinks that pornography is fine, that it’s an acceptable part of human sexuality with no consequences beyond the individuals who are using it,” Foubert said. “Users don’t think about … what scripts play out in the porn they’re watching and how that might affect their attitudes toward others.”
Foubert and others argue pornography is changing expectations of normal sexual behavior in non-coercive settings, meaning that even though women aren’t being raped or assaulted as often, they’re being asked and pressured by boyfriends to engage in pornographic-modeled behaviors.
Five Swedish studies of youths found that young men and women who frequently look at pornography are more likely to have had anal intercourse, and that boys who watch pornography are more likely to have experimented with acts they saw on screen, according to a review by Michael Flood at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society.
But saying that someone who watches something in a movie will immediately behave that way is like saying that “if James Bond drives a car really fast, people will drive faster as a consequence,” says Hugo Schwyzer, author and professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. “This is a fantasy you’re dealing with in pornography. It’s not the way the rest of the world works. As human beings, we’re capable of distinguishing from what arouses us to what the world is supposed to be.”
But it’s hard to make those distinctions when so much of mainstream pornography is fixated on stereotypical themes of dominance, aggression and power, usually perpetrated by white males on an array of ethnically diverse women, says Wosnitzer.
“The mainstream industrially produced porn from San Fernando … allows a mostly white male audience to see itself with all of its power and privilege attached to it,” he says, “and that women are objects, for (their) own pleasure.”
While polls show Americans are divided over whether pornography is bad for relationships, anecdotal evidence is beginning to pile up that it’s bad for marriages. In a 2002 survey of 350 members of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 62 percent said the Internet was a “significant factor” in divorce cases they had handled the last year.
The most-cited problems included meeting a new love interest (68 percent) and obsessive interest in pornographic sites (56 percent).
In 2009, 79 percent of lawyers from the same group said that over the previous five years, Internet browser histories, which typically included visits to pornographic websites, were being entered as evidence in divorce cases.
“We’re going to have a whole generation of people whose intimacy is through a computer screen,” said AAML president Kenneth Altshuler. “Which is much more of a problem than viewing pornography online. It’s more that their entire relationship is online, and they cannot even connect to human beings unless they’re on a computer.”
It’s just another way that pornography is promoting “a sexual dumbing down of the culture,” says Maltz.
Yet Maltz said she’s encouraged by the growing number of couples in her practice who realize that “porn is futile and is actually harmful.” So instead of using it, they develop “new approaches to sex that involve being emotionally connected and present with their partner, because it’s just naturally more fulfilling.”
But Lili never got that chance.
After two years of supporting her partner through sex-addiction therapy, couples counseling and recovery meetings, he finally confessed he never quit viewing pornography, and his addiction had even gotten worse. Lili kicked him out of the house and focused on her own healing.
It was a long journey, made worse by the fact that her partner’s stash of pornography was solely women, a “digital harem,” that he watched, arranged and organized for hours and hours each week, yet never had time or interest in being intimate with her anymore, she said.
“I could never get it out of my head that I wasn’t his ‘real choice,’ ” Lili said. “I was someone he was settling for. And how could I ever feel OK about the impending aging process when I knew my partner was bonding (through orgasm) to girls who were teenagers, girls decades younger than myself? I began to go to war with myself, to hate every gray hair that sprouted, every tiny line on my face, every freckle on my body.”
Today, she shares what she’s learned through her website, PoSARC.com — Partners of Sex Addicts Resource Center — and through her work as an interfaith minister and a counselor to partners of sex addicts.
“We all (think) that if we were sexy enough, sweet enough, cared enough about the man, all of this wouldn’t happen,” Lili says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”