Depathologizing Sexual Eroticism

Understanding why men’s and women’s erotic identities are so different

It’s a story I’ve heard many times in my practice.

A marriage is going along just fine until the day a wife discovers that her husband has been watching Internet porn, porn that bears little resemblance to what she and her husband do in bed. Maybe the sex is rougher, kinkier, wilder, or the women in the videos look nothing like her. They are younger or older than she is, thinner or fatter, or dressed in fishnet stockings or bustiers. Maybe they say nasty words during the sex, things she would never think of uttering, nor being spoken to in such a way.

She feels betrayed, almost as if she had found him in bed with another woman. Then, out come the labels—sex addict, pervert, deviant, liar—raining down upon the husband like spears. He is embarrassed, filled with shame, and swears he’ll never again pursue such fantasies, promises to stop watching porn and anything to escape his wife’s wrath, anything to try to close the shame he’s feeling from being exposed. And he really means to keep his promise, but in another week, or month, or year, he is drawn back to that irresistible make-believe sexual world.

The first advice I offer is “Let’s slow things down.” It is critical that men and their wives lower reactivity when learning about the other’s sexual interest. Discoveries like this raise hackles that couples didn’t even know they had. There are myriad unspoken cultural prohibitions and minefields they are going to have to navigate, and it must be done carefully and at least somewhat dispassionately.

Next I move the focus away from the porn. Most couples—and too many therapists—focus on the porn as the problem. In fact, the porn is often not the problem, but rather each partner’s relationship to the porn. Too often therapists jump into the conflict judging the porn and inserting their beliefs and values onto it, which are often aligned with the wife. This is distracting the couple from getting to the root of the real issue, which is more about erotic differences.

The question that I ask both partners is “What is the content of the porn bringing up for each of you?” The porn has been given a meaning by both partners, and I hold the value of that meaning in high regard for both. Often her reaction to the porn points to negative feelings and beliefs she may be carrying about herself. For him, the content of the porn is expressing parts of himself he may not be able to express nonsexually.

I help couples by decoding the nonsexual narrative of the porn that was discovered. I teach them to see their sexual fantasies as though they are dreams, metaphors. Research indicates that our erotic interests are the result of very early events. For example, a boy growing up with an older sister may sneak a peek at her when she’s naked, see her pubic hair, and find himself attracted throughout his life to unshaved women. Perhaps he saw his mother pulling on a pair of fishnet stockings before she went out, and forevermore he is aroused by porn in which women dress this way.

Next I explain to them the concept of erotic identity. Both men and women have an erotic orientation that includes sexual desires and behaviors that don’t necessarily match their outward lives and values. In other words, both men and women can be in relationship with a partner, holding the boundaries of what they enjoy in their head in order to maintain harmony in the relationship, while needing to find an outlet for their own erotic identity. For men this is often through pornography, and for women it is often through romantic novels and movies.

Generally speaking, and not all that surprisingly, men and women are not often aroused by the same stimuli. When men have fantasies, there is more objectification of the sex partner. Men’s fantasies are less about relationship, less about tenderness and dialogue, and more about cutting right to the sexual acts. Women’s fantasies are more relational, more about romance. They tend to fantasize about love stories. Men seldom do. In general, women more often need to feel they are being courted, seduced. Men don’t need any of that in their erotica. For men, the gateway to feelings of intimacy is the sex itself, but for women it often is everything leading up to it.

Why, you may ask? In our culture, we stop touching boys around the time they turn eight years old. They are encouraged, subtly or overtly, to distance themselves from their feelings, and to not touch other boys. The outlet for their feelings then often becomes sports, violence, work and sex. These become the place men have permission to express themselves.

For a girl, on the other hand, touching and expressions of adoration aren’t taboo. She may get an erotic buzz when when a man tells her how beautiful she looks, or how prettily she dances. This becomes her template for opening the doors of intimacy in the future. In the popular book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, by neurological researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, we find proof positive that in men, physical arousal and psychological arousal are united, while in women, psychological arousal is separated from physical arousal. The authors name the difference as “porntopia” for men, and “romantopia” for women.

What is needed then when I work with couples where porn is the issue is to work on bridging the cultural expectations between men and women. I invite them to begin to talk openly about the differences between their erotic identities without judging the other’s as good or bad.

At the very least this may cultivate some understanding of and compassion for their partner, minimizing the judgment and disgust of the porn they have discovered.

I’ll share one example of how this worked. A couple came to me when it was discovered that the man had been carrying on a two-year affair with a woman half his age. As we delved into his infidelity, he revealed that he really had no interest in a real or lasting relationship with this woman. He simply objectified her as someone who was willing to enact the erotic fantasies he’d harbored for years, but which, when he had implied or suggested to his wife, were met with such disgust that he felt ashamed and never again brought them up.

While in therapy, however, his wife, who was a devoutly religious woman said, “You’re wrong. I would do anything like that for you. My Bible tells me that you are my husband and we should be able to do whatever we want. I never thought, or realized, that I was shaming you.”

Through becoming honest with one another, and having a willingness to bridge their erotic and cultural differences, this couple’s marriage was saved. I believe many others can be salvaged as well if we are willing to challenge the silence and taboos that have pathologized too many of our normal desires.