There has been an uproar about pornography for decades. Since the advent of the internet and free or low-cost access to pornography, the uproar has turned into a crusade. Most of the press about pornography is negative though there is little evidence that pornography does damage on its own.

I am a registered psychologist and a sex & intimacy coach and I have spent the last 30+ years working with clients on issues to do with sex and relationships. I use pornography and erotica regularly in my practice and have always done so. People come for sex and relationship therapy for a wide variety of reasons. Some come because they have trouble with desire. Others come because the sex in their relationship is no longer satisfying or is non-existent. Others come for growth. Still others come for some type of dysfunction (erectile dysfunction, vaginismus, premature ejaculation).

Thinking about sexual pleasure

For lots of people, thinking about sexual pleasure is not a usual activity. Many people were never taught about their own pleasure, how to explore their own bodies and how to figure out what turns them on. There is nothing wrong with them. They just need the tools so that they can go and explore and enjoy. Figuring out where to start exploring can seem overwhelming.

I often ask if they use any type of pornography or erotica. If they are watching movies, for example, I will ask what parts of the movie turn them on. If they aren’t sure, I give them homework—Go watch your favourite movie and this time stop to notice why it is your favourite. Is it the way the star looks? Is it something about sexual activities? If they don’t use any type of pornography or erotica, homework is to go and watch some. I recommend watching a number of different types of pornography—varied genders, varied activities. I ask them to be non-judgemental about what turns them on.

Pornography is a place where we can indulge in fantasy and be turned on even by genders and activities that we would never choose to engage in sex within life. It’s normal to find some things exciting in the fantasy that you would never enjoy in reality.

Woman masturbates in bed while watching porn to help stimulate herself

Joanie came to see me after a hysterectomy. She said, “I never really knew what I liked. I just did what my husband liked to do. I was in pain for 20 years with fibroids so sex was always difficult and painful. Now that I am out of pain, I want to explore what I like and have the great sex I missed.”

We spent a few months working together. As part of our work, Joanie made a wide study of pornography to explore her desire. She was surprised to find that she really enjoyed lesbian erotica though she had no desire to actually sleep with a woman. She was amused to find that the men who turned her on were very similar in appearance to her husband. Joanie asked her husband to watch her favourite movies with her. They had a brilliant time exploring together and both told me that they felt more like people in their 20s than in their 50s.

There are often other problems involved

Couples who come in complaining of dissatisfaction with their sex life or a non-existent sex life often have a couple of problems. They usually have trouble communicating about sex in a meaningful way and without ending up in a row. They often have never really talked about what turns each other on. Many couples have never talked about sex explicitly. They met and were attracted to each other and they had sex pretty quickly. The sex was at least OK so they focused on the rest of the relationship. If they had children, usually this took over and sex was for procreation and pleasure wasn’t really considered. By the time they come to see me, sex has become the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see.

The 7-year itch is a real phenomenon

Margo and Harry came to see me when they had been married for 7 years, afraid that they were experiencing the famous 7-year itch. The 7-year itch is a supposed condition that happens around year 7 of a relationship where people begin to have problems in the relationship. The term was credited to a British judge, Sir Francis Jeune in around 1913. It was then famously used in an eponymous play about cheating. The movie version in 1955 starred Marilyn Monroe.

There is some evidence that the 7-year itch is a real phenomenon. Divorce rates are higher around year seven though, in the UK, the present risk year is year 11. Margo and Harry said that their sex life had become dull and both had found themselves noticing other people. They wanted to keep their marriage intact and were not sure what to do.

We spent six months working together to bring the fire back into their relationship. Erotica played a central role in our work. It helped them to tell each other more about the desires that they had been keeping private for many years. It gave them new ideas about sex and after watching one particularly arousing movie, they decided to consider going to a swing club so that they could pursue a threesome.

A year after their work with me, Harry said, “I never thought Margo would consider having another woman in our bed. She had always said that she was happy with the sex we had and the message she gave me was that she didn’t want to explore. Now we are both more open-minded. We watch porn together and when something really gets one of us going, we talk about whether it is something we might want to try. Sometimes the result is as hot as we hoped. Other times the experiment falls flat. We enjoy it either way. I think this work saved our marriage.”

Margo said, “I am so much happier with Harry. He is sexually more attentive to me and orgasm has become easy for me. We have a lot more fun. We laugh a lot and we have a lot of sex! More than when we were first married! Most of all, I trust him more and know he is committed to me. The coaching literally saved our marriage.”

Step one when working with any couple is to look at their communication skills

My time is spent helping people to develop high-quality robust communication skills, especially around sex and intimacy. This includes helping people learn to be present with their partners, helping them to identify their own desires, helping them to communicate their desires clearly and helping them to listen without judgement and create a safe space for intimate and difficult conversations.

Jenny grew up in a religious home and didn’t have sex until her wedding night when she was 29 years old. Sex was never talked about at home so the only sex education she received was from school. Jenny’s mother gave her this advice on her wedding night: “You may not like it, but sex is important for your husband. Make sure you give it to him once a week.”

Jenny and Jonathan came to see me after they had been married for 15 years. They had not had sex for the last five of those years. Jonathan gave Jenny an ultimatum—therapy or divorce. Jenny never had an orgasm and did not masturbate as she was far too ashamed.

My work with Jenny started by creating a safe enough space to start to talk about sex and to help her get the education that she was lacking. I worked with Jonathan to teach him how to create a safe space for intimate conversations. We worked on communication for a few months, spending a lot of time working on shame and getting rid of shame about sex. I used erotica with Jenny to help her start to explore what might turn her on. She enjoyed reading and was happy to explore the wide variety of excellent erotica. At first, she found it difficult because when she felt aroused, she would feel ashamed and shut her arousal down. After a few months, she began to be able to allow herself to be aroused without shutting down.

After our work finished, Jonathan had this to say, “I did not know how sexy my wife was until we did this work together. We have gone from no sex at all to weekly sex. And our sex is so much more satisfying.”

Jenny said, “I never thought I would be sexy. I know I am now and I love it. I love knowing Jonathan wants me and also knowing that I can satisfy us both.”

Step two is to get couples to begin to explore sex and sexuality together.

Pornography is extremely helpful for this step. I often have partners watch movies solo to explore desire and then share their favourites with their partners and watch them together. Sometimes I have couples construct a date night around movies with the instruction not to have sex that night no matter how turned on they are. Anticipation is a fantastic aphrodisiac so by the time they have sex the next day it is super intense.

Movies can also give a shy partner a way to tell their lover that something turns them on without having to say anything. They risk less when introducing something new this way. If their partner is not turned on, then they simply drop the matter. If they are, then there is a platform to start a conversation from.

Gerald came to me because he was afraid to tell his partner about his desire to be dominated. He and Paul had been together for 20 years and Gerald had never told Paul that he had always desired a dominant partner. His first sexual experience was with an older man who was an officer in the military. He told me he loved when his partner would order him to do things. The relationship ended with Gerald never telling his partner how turned on the orders made him. He was just too ashamed of his desires and too convinced that if he told a partner about them, the person would find him disgusting and leave him.

This is a very common problem. Many of us have desires that we are afraid no one else will ever share. Rather than take the risk of losing a partner we love or a partner that is a good fit in every other way, we keep our desires silent and indulge them only in fantasy. For some people, this works fine. For many, indulging in fantasy only is just not enough and they spend their lives sexually frustrated and unfulfilled.

Gerald worked with me for a few months on accepting his desires and fully accepting himself. As part of that process, he read erotica and watched pornography and chose the stories that most accurately reflected his own desires. The moment of truth arrived. Gerald was too anxious to talk to Paul directly for the first time. Instead, he organised a date night that was centred on a couple of his favourite films. Paul’s reactions to these stories gave Gerald the confidence to finally tell him what he truly wanted in their bedroom. One year after we finished working together, Gerald and Paul are enjoying a hot and healthy sex life.

I have couples read erotica and share the sexy bits with their partners. One of my personal favourites is reading erotica out loud to a partner. This can go a long way to helping people kill shame as they become more comfortable talking sex. If couples are feeling creative and more adventurous, I have them write erotica for their partner.

Over the last 20 years, the term sex addiction and specifically pornography addiction have become part of popular media. In my opinion, the terms are both completely inappropriate. There is no such disorder as sex or pornography addiction. Dr David Ley has written extensively on this subject. Researchers looking at so-called sex addiction found that none of the brain responses present in true addictions was present.

This is not to say that people don’t get into trouble because of impulsive risky behaviour and sometimes compulsive behaviour and this can include sexual behaviour which can also include pornography. People who use pornography in such a way that it negatively impacts the major areas in their lives (job, finances, relationships, health) will benefit from help to stop.

Concerns over pornography use

When a couple comes in with concerns about one partner’s pornography use, I look at the whole relationship in detail. I look at the pornography use in detail as well. For example, if they are still having an active happy sex life otherwise, the problem isn’t the partner’s pornography use. The problem is likely to be how this use is viewed in the context of the relationship. Sometimes a person feels that a partner should never look at another person in a sexual way and if they do, that is cheating. This is an unreasonable stance. People have passing fantasies about others regularly and this has no bearing on their commitment to their partner, their level of attraction to their partner or the quality of their relationship. In these situations, the work is on the relationship, acceptance and a decrease in shame and not on the pornography use.

Lisa brought her husband Kevin in to see me because she said, “Porn is ruining our marriage”. They had been married for three years when Lisa discovered that Kevin watched porn ‘regularly’. She told me she felt betrayed and that Kevin was cheating on her and wondered why she wasn’t enough. Kevin said that he had always watched some porn and had never deliberately hidden it from Lisa. He said that he tended to watch once a week for an hour or two and that most of the time this was when he was finding it difficult to sleep. He said he enjoyed watching gay porn, lesbian porn and even some BDSM porn and that he had never felt a desire to try any of these areas in real life.

My work with Lisa initially was to help her to see that Kevin’s use of porn was not a statement about her or her attractiveness. She found this extremely difficult. In her world, once you married you never thought about anyone else ever again in a sexual way. Slowly Lisa was able to relax and understand that looking at someone else with desire was not a statement about wanting someone else. I worked with Paul to create a safe space for Lisa to express her feelings and also to remain honest and transparent about his porn use. In the end, Lisa realised that Paul was more creative in the bedroom because of the movies he enjoyed and they began to watch together. Lisa started telling Paul to go enjoy himself when she was tired or just not in the mood.

Marc came to see me because he was worried about ‘porn addiction’. He said, “I watch porn every night for at least an hour and sometimes two or three hours.”

I asked him if he was still dating and having sex with people. Marc said, “I am not seeing anyone seriously. I have sex when I meet someone I am attracted to. I am not interested in a serious relationship right now.”

I was able to re-assure Marc that his porn use was not a problem and clarified that it is only a problem when someone uses it compulsively or it negatively affects the rest of their lives.

What if you just want to grow and explore? Many of us fall into a sex rut. We fantasise about the same things, have the same type of sex at the same time of day and in the same position. We may even think that we cannot have sex any other way. Most people masturbate quickly and focused on the goal of orgasm. For some, this is as a result of shame. If that is you, there are things we can do together to get rid of your shame. For others, it is just how we learned to masturbate. We didn’t learn to value our pleasure. We often learned that it was something to be done quickly so we could get on to the next thing in life—a method of decreasing pressure or a build-up of sexual energy. Women often use masturbation to fall asleep or to ease period pains.

Man enjoys watching good sex positive porn while masturbating

Masturbation is so much better when it is about your pleasure.

When you take your time, you can find new areas of sensitivity, learn to extend your orgasm and have multiple orgasms and discover new areas of interest. Learning to reach orgasm by yourself in more than one way raises the possibilities of reaching orgasm with a partner. One of my favourite ways to explore with masturbation is to use different pornography when exploring. Movies allow us to test out a fantasy. We can identify with the main characters. We can imagine ourselves engaging in the acts we see on the screen. Well-made pornography makes it easy to enter the story ourselves, making using it during masturbation super-hot. We have the opportunity to rehearse our fantasies and this can make taking them into reality far easier.

Pornography and erotica fill an important place in our sexual lives. It gives us the opportunity to expand our horizons, experiment and fantasise. Porn and erotica make it easier for us to share our desires with others. It can renew our relationships and inspire us to new forms of play. It even can act as a springboard to creativity in the rest of life, not just in the bedroom.