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Dear How to Do It,
Two months ago, I discovered my husband’s secret social media account that he uses to look at porn. That part didn’t bother me—I knew that he watched porn sometimes and I told him I was OK with it. I even encouraged him to share videos that he liked with me, but he rarely did.
The problem with this account is that 1) he was using it to like and comment on sex workers’ photos and videos, and 2) like and comment on the nudes of a mutual friend of ours (“Ashley”). Since this was an anonymous account, “Ashley” didn’t know it was him, and her account is public. My husband had a huge crush on her before he and I started dating six years ago (she didn’t reciprocate). To me, there’s a big difference between simply watching porn, and communicating with people in porn/that he’s attracted to. That’s not something I ever said I was OK with. When I confronted him, he admitted to everything and was extremely remorseful and apologetic. I’m somewhat sympathetic to his secrecy around porn use because he says he feels shame about the things he likes, and I think his conservative Christian upbringing plays a big part in that. But he broke my trust and hid this from me for over a year. He agreed to go to therapy, but so far he hasn’t made an appointment. I feel like he’s breaking my trust further by not doing what he said he’d do.
Meanwhile, he has continued to watch porn (I checked his phone). I thought of myself as a sex-positive, open-minded person, but the volume and frequency of my husband’s porn use, I have to admit, makes me uncomfortable. I was shocked to find that he has HUNDREDS of porn videos saved to his account and has been watching porn even when we’re regularly having great sex. I don’t have a problem with porn per se, but this seems like a LOT?? When does enjoying porn cross the line into a compulsive or problematic behavior? I don’t want to pathologize or kink-shame him and I can’t force him to go to therapy. Am I the one who needs to do some work to become more comfortable with his particular expression of sexuality? I am trying so hard to be a supportive partner and yet I am very hurt and angry.
—Sex-Positive, Trust Negative
Stoya: No, there is no need to do some work to become more comfortable with your husband expressing his sexuality by following a mutual friend who has no idea that it is your husband. The writer has every right to be upset, feel lied to, feel distrustful, all of that.
I’ve got a small caveat that I want to get out of the way, though. Sex-positive is a beautifully populous term, and to me, it means accepting people who do sexual labor as well. That is a place where this woman could do some work because those interactions are how we turn social media followers into fan site followers and interaction on the fan sites is how we make our money. The videos get immediately stolen, the photos get immediately stolen, and it costs us money to make them. We rarely earn that much money on them. However, the interactions, that’s where we get paid. So that’s just an aside to consider.
But back to the question about the volume and frequency of her husband’s porn use. It kind of depends on how long the social media account has been around for. If this account has been around for 10 years, hundreds of porn videos is probably a fine number. If it’s only been around for six months, that is compulsive behavior. That is a lot of time to be putting into pornography which is probably more than people who do this for a living put into pornography. That would make me concerned about where that time is coming from. If it’s being subtracted from relationship time, work time, or family obligations time, then that is a problem.
Rich: Yeah. I think to your earlier point about the state of porn, the writer does not seem fully aware of the technological state of porn, which is that it’s easy to collect videos. Sometimes all you need to do is click to download. As a media hoarder, I save stuff. If I see something on YouTube that I might need to reference later, it’s getting downloaded. There could be a similar approach taken with porn. Just because you have all those videos doesn’t mean you’ve watched all those videos and a lot of people are subjected to so many videos in a single masturbation session because of the tube-ification of porn. Watch 20 seconds of one, move on, and keep going. You can flip through 10, 20, 50 videos sometimes. That’s less worrisome to me.
That doesn’t necessarily signal a need to intervene. It sounds to me like this feeling of betrayal—LW not realizing the interactions that may take place—set off this cascade where now everything is fraught. The whole situation has been tainted in a way.
To the question, when does enjoying porn cross the line into compulsive or problematic behavior? Yes, volume could be a potential sign, but the writer reports that they’re having great sex. So I would say it doesn’t seem like the porn has actually affected that. It seems like it’s all good. Maybe it is taking his time away from the family. But if it’s not and you’re still having good sex, that to me sounds like he may be just satisfying a high libido.
Stoya: So it’s worth it for our writer to consider how high their libido is and whether they are completely satisfied. And if they are completely satisfied, have there been moments where the husband has gotten the message that more is unwelcome? Perhaps even out of respect for the LW, he’s gone, “All right, looking for porn videos to collect.”
Also, consider the signs of an actual issue, which are: Is he doing OK at work? Is he showing up the way he’s always shown up? I’m aware men across the world in heterosexual marriages hardly ever do half of the house maintenance. But is he still doing the amount that he usually did at the beginning four years ago? Is he holding up the same amount of his end of the bargain as he has historically? And is he avoiding spending non-sexual time with the LW to be on his phone watching porn?
Rich: Right. What do you think about the therapy thing? I think that he shouldn’t have agreed to do that if he wasn’t going to actually do it. But I can understand a scenario in which you’re confronted by something you feel really bad about. It feels like a really big deal and you think, “Oh, I betrayed my partner,” only later to think about it differently, like: “I don’t have a porn problem, I just used porn. I’m not going to do that because I said that to placate them in the moment.”
Stoya: But when it comes to Ashley, what was he thinking? That’s a reason to go to therapy.
Rich: This is what he’s probably thinking: “This doesn’t count as cheating. This is as close as I can get to the line without crossing it, so I’m going to do that.”
Stoya: Yeah. And that kind of super risky, go right up to the line of cheating behavior—that is concerning. That doesn’t strike me as being a porn issue so much as an obliviousness or risky behavior issue. That is concerning to me. He did say he would go to therapy. You screw up, you apologize, you acknowledge what you did, you acknowledge how it was harmful or put someone at risk, and then you take steps to do better. And if the agreed-upon step is to go to therapy and then you don’t do that, then your spouse might go into a tailspin and have a really hard time with trust because that was a commitment you made.
It doesn’t matter whether the commitment is, “If you remind me, I will take out the trash tonight,” or if the commitment is “I will go to therapy” or the commitment is “I will stay away from Ashley.” When trust has been breached, you have to honor all of those commitments. Your partner is trying to figure out, “Can I safely stay in this relationship?” Or “Do I need to blow up my marriage of several years?” And that’s a terrible position to be in. It’s something a lot of people go through, whether we’re talking about marriage, domestic partnership, or simply a long-term relationship with no cohabitation. I think just about all of us find ourselves in that position at some point or another. But if you’re taking the issue seriously and you’re not dealing with a compulsive behavior issue, then you got to show up and follow through on the things you said you were going to do.
Rich: Yeah, I agree. From the writer’s perspective, do you think it would be useful to pivot a little bit and say, “OK, we’ll go to counseling together that way you can work through this issue. I’m there to explain the transgression that maybe he isn’t even fully grasping at this point.” The thing about this suggestion is it creates work for her. But counseling might be a way to get his feet moving by being like, “OK, we’re both doing this.”
Stoya: I would not suggest anything—
Stoya: I would say, “Hey babe, you did this Ashley thing. You told me you would go to therapy as an action that would help me rebuild my trust in you. You didn’t follow through on that. Am I staying? And if I’m staying, what are my reasons to stay?” And then I would let him think about that, but I am 37. That’s how I play these things at this point in my life. It’s not necessarily like you’re completely on your own, but it is like they have to take some kind of proactive action or I’m not having it.
Rich: Yeah. Falls in your court.
Stoya: Exactly. Women are expected to do far too much emotional labor and the only way to interrupt that is to refuse to do more than an appropriate amount of that labor. In heterosexual relationships, it often falls to the woman to baby men through an issue, explain to them what they’re supposed to do, and it’s like, “Wait, so you’re the aggrieved party, the therapist, and the mom? No.”
Rich: I think that all goes back to women being socialized to be masters of emotion, to understand situations, and to have that emotional maturity. Men just are not socialized that way. So when push comes to shove, the women have to guide the men toward emotional maturity because they’re already there and when you’re assigned female at birth, that is the track that you’re on. Obviously, it varies for people, this is just widely speaking, but it does seem like women are mediators a lot of time between men and their inaccessible feelings.
Stoya: What actually seems to be the most effective is to let them dangle and let them be uncomfortable. Let them feel lost without you. Let them have that realization of what is important because as long as you’re there going, “It’s OK” and accepting it and immediately forgiving it without requiring some sort of action, they don’t change.
Rich: Right, ultimately make it so that you can’t be taken for granted. Handholding, ushering along, and saying, “It’s OK,” gives no incentive to actually appreciate what’s happening. It’s just propping them up. So LW, let him dangle, and understand what he currently has.
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I have never really enjoyed sex in all the years I’ve been doing it and with all the partners I’ve had. I don’t feel horny, I don’t masturbate, and it doesn’t feel good to me. I’ve just always done it because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a relationship. As I get older, I find myself wanting to go along with it less and less. My partner has their “required minimum” times per week that is acceptable.