Ask Esther Perel

Are you using porn wrong?

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Are You Using Porn Wrong?
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09 March 2015

Because every man wants to have better sex, even if that means actually being a better man, we're proud to present Ask Esther Perel, a monthly series in which critically acclaimed sex therapist Esther Perel answers your questions about sex and relationships and helps you and your partner have a more fulfilling life, together. Have a question? Just ask Esther Perel.


So I’m 35 and my girlfriend is 33. I’ve been watching porn since college, ever since it became widely available (free!) on the internet. I guess I watched it about once per day or every other day. Recently, about five weeks ago, I decided to stop watching altogether (I’ve tried before, but without much success). I’ve always thought it was bad for me, it isn’t part of my sexual life with my girlfriend, and we have sex regularly, etc., so I figured now was a good time to really try. The problem is my libido hasn’t been what it used to be since I quit. I used to have a HUGE libido! And now I just don’t feel like having sex. Like, I’d rather just watch TV in bed and go to sleep. I’ve often thought I had a mismatched libido with my girlfriend before I quit, now I’m wondering if the only thing that was keeping us going, sexually speaking, was my porn habit? Is that weird? Or is this post-porn period a type of recovery period for my brain? When will it end? 

— Frustrated Guy, MN

The first thing I’d like to say is I appreciate your question. It is honest and thought out, and I hear your being puzzled and worried.

When you spend multiple years watching porn, you develop a particular arousal template. Porn is an intensely visual turn-on, but it also is external. It’s all served right there in front of you. High intensity, low emotion. It leaves little room for your own imagination to be activated. Hence, there’s often a confusion between arousal and desire.

The other thing you get when you watch porn on a daily basis (and you didn’t say if it was 10 minutes or 2 hours), is that you don’t have to relate to anyone. There is no need to do anything to turn a woman on. And besides, in porn, she comes ready, too. She wants it, she says “more, more, more,” she never has a headache, and she’s always enjoying it.

You don’t have to worry about performance or feeling inadequate when you watch porn. Then, with your girlfriend, you come to her already charged up, instead of allowing a growing excitement to rise from the interaction between the two of you.

You say you don’t think watching porn is good for you. I want to make sure that no one here will read me saying that porn is “bad.” We’re talking specifically about what it has come to mean for you, and I base my response primarily on the sentence “I feel I have no sexual drive since I’ve stopped masturbating to porn.” You’re not alone.

For years now, you have conditioned your mind and body. You’re right that your brain’s wiring has come to understand porn as a quick and predictable means to arousal. As Donald Hebb says, “neurons that fire together are wired together.” This overstimulation (getting what you want, when you want, and how you want it) produces changes in the way neurons fire and in the dopamine reward circuitry, or pleasure circuitry, that paradoxically makes you less responsive to pleasure.

So for me to really answer you specifically, there are three questions I have:

1) What do you mean when you say you tried before without much success? Did it become your way of waking up and going to bed, to manage stress, to relieve anxiety, to counter boredom?

2) To what extent has your sexual template become conditioned by the porn you were watching? Were you watching the same kind of porn? Or do you look at diverse things? Or do you spend time honing in on the exact thing you wanted, the exact butt, the exact breast?

3) In all these years with your girlfriend, did you rely on porn to turn you on, or did you also create an erotic sexy atmosphere with her? 

Yes, there is a recovery period for your brain. For your mind, for your body, and for your imagination. The reality is that you need to wait longer for your brain to catch up to your abstinence from porn to extinguish those well-worn pathways of stimulus-response connections to allow new pathways where you experience erotic pleasure with your partner. When men masturbate, they can stay very localized. They’ll touch their penis, and sometimes just a very small part of their penis. In contrast, women, when they masturbate, will touch their own breasts and neck and face and stroke their own legs. Their arousal template is more diffuse.

When you get turned on in porn, nobody touches you. So this is a moment for you to go beyond a visceral response and to learn how to engage your imagination. Your internal imagination. Your ability to turn yourself on. When you watch porn with that kind of intensity, most likely you have not had to turn yourself on, as paradoxical as that may sound. It’s as if somebody has cooked for you your entire life. You don’t really know what to do when you’re sitting in front of the ingredients.

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here. I could go on to say how porn may be impacting your ability to slow down and really enjoy the process of arousal and all of the sensations that you can create with your girlfriend, but I don’t know enough about your experiences with your girlfriend to say if that’s true for you.

I understand you’re asking if the only thing that kept you going is your porn habit. But basically, I would hope that you have also been engaged by your girlfriend’s interest in you, and the pleasure you had in being with her. 

Can you talk with her? I wouldn’t take your mismatched libido as such a given. My guess is that if you have been watching so much porn, you are probably not the most attuned lover. Ask her whether there are different things she would enjoy. Don’t ever confuse a girl who’s not interested in sex with one who’s less interested in the sex she can have. That is one of the biggest misunderstandings about women. But generally, if you’ve been in an auto-erotic practice to the extent that you have, in your own little world, I don’t know how much you know about interactive sex. The dialogue of sex.

Don’t see this as “I’m giving up." There is a world of sex you haven’t discovered yet because you had such a strong reliance on this one script. You’re going to have moments that are really difficult, withdrawal, like any of us have had when we’ve been addicted to things. You may even have a certain kind of mourning. You’ve lost a loyal friend. Always there, always ready. But there is a whole world of other sex that awaits you.

Are you weaning yourself from an addiction? Habit is a perfectly fine word. But yes, your brain has been trained. It’s been completely Pavlovian. Conditioning and response. But sexual arousal and sexual desire goes beyond conditioning and response. On occasion, don’t go watch TV, and just see if you can generate a different energy in your body with her. Be sexual through touch, gaze, attunement, play. Create your own turn on. And my guess is you will make sex much more interesting to her as well.

Given what I’ve shared, what feels most true to you? Depending on the role porn has played in your life, your current levels of stress, demands on your time, and satisfaction with/interest in your relationship, what next step feels right to you?


Esther Perel is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth. Have a question? Ask Esther Perel.

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