I wish I could think and write more intelligently about adult pornography. The very word looms large on the page or when spoken and is rarely mentioned in mixed company, even among good friends. Some well-known women academics regard it as an unmitigated evil, but the very existence of an industry that draws in many billions of dollars a year reflects a demand these authors do not address, except to seek censorship. Does prohibition ever work?
Admittedly, my vantage point is narrow. The few porn films I’ve actually seen, I found seriously wanting, offering no context that would provide women, at least, with any sustainable interest.
In the 1970s, my public defender years, the courthouse was my bailiwick. From the sidelines, I followed the criminal trials of the producers of pornographic films (after all, we do know it when we see it), some of them notorious. Eventually, as juries began to return not-guilty verdicts, prosecutions dwindled, and in 1975 the VCR arrived in the marketplace and theatergoers retreated into the seclusion of their homes. The shift to the Internet offers viewers even greater privacy, until discovered.
Pornography entered my professional world when some wives in mediation told about their husband’s Internet exploration, calling it a factor contributing to the disintegration of their marriage. But was it a cause or an effect? Remembering their stories, I still don’t know.
What is clear is that for some women, a partner’s interest becomes a defining issue. They are convinced that their partner’s vivid fantasy life weakens the marriage bond, as it seems to call into question their own desirability. Unable to talk about it, the intimate dance that brought them together goes into reverse, and she withdraws to self-imposed isolation. If he had reassured her of her desirability, would the outcome have been different?
For some, the issue is a moral one. Their upbringing or religious belief affords them absolute clarity of judgment, allowing for no accommodation. Their partner must respect their position, even if they do not share it. But for many, their partner’s clandestine and solitary involvement evokes concern that it creates a yearning that erodes commitment. Is that true? Is that inevitable?
Because open discussion of this taboo subject is rare, I have little knowledge of those couples who successfully address the issue with a counselor, or those where the viewer’s interest is not condemned, may even be joined, or simply treated lightly, tolerated, or just ignored.
In mediation, my conversations with the husbands, the accused watchers, were typically brief and superficial. They’ve been “outed”, are somewhat embarrassed, but neither denied their interest nor made excuses. In all respects known to me, they are honorable and healthy men, supporting their families, devoted to their children. Their exterior life in the community is openly on display, while their interior fantasy life allows them to secretly travel wherever they wish. Or it did until now when their wives met them with rage or sullen silence or accused them of perversity, and their family fell apart.
About more familiar fantasies, I can think and write intelligently. There is probably not a married person alive who has not, at least in their interior life, envisioned the “what ifs?” What if I’d married someone else? What if we separated or divorced? What if ten years from now I regret missing important opportunities? What if I seek a major change in my life right now and give it primacy over the accepted patterns in my marriage?
I remember times when “what ifs?” were on my mind, and times I imagined my husband asking himself similar questions. Some of those moments were scary.
But those daydreams turned out to be healthy, even if they were unsettling. For eventually we talked. They provoked change, small steps that gently shifted our established ways, or even major moves that altered life’s course.
We honor “what if” speculations, whether they are enticing or frightening, whether they are about intimacy, a job change or even global disaster. One day, comfortable doing so, a conversation can begin. Is that also possible in the realm of explicit, deceptively idealized sexuality?
Is porn inevitably destructive? May it also bring important questions into the open? If, rather than passing unwavering judgment, a more nuanced discussion could be had, without assigning blame, might changes then be made to improve upon the reality, the fantasy world accepted as just that?
Or is that a fantasy?
Nancy Nolan writing here: You’ve just read a sample from Bea’s new book, The Third Person in the Room: Stories of Relationships at a Turning Point.
You can get your copies at one of these locations: