It’s time for sex therapists to stop pushing porn

sex therapy

A startling number of sex therapists recommend commercial pornography to patients. While it might sound surprising that trained psychologists, counsellors and sexologists prescribe porn, sex therapy, and pornography have a long and intertwined history.

But with a growing recognition of the harms associated with mainstream pornography production and consumption, it’s time to question a model of sex advice that promotes inequality and limits women’s sexual autonomy.

From the founding of modern sex therapy techniques in the 1960s with the work of Masters and Johnson (made famous in the Masters of Sex series) to today, there are a variety of links between the porn and sex therapy industries.

These include the use of commercial pornography in the training of therapists, and in diagnostic work, as well as treatment options. In terms of treatment, some of the earliest reports relate to fairly horrific accounts of pornography being used as part of “conversion therapy.”

A 1970 pilot study, for example, attempted to change the sexual responses of gay men. A subject was first shown homosexual pornographic images and then deprived of water for 18 hours. Drinks were made contingent on increased erection response to being shown heterosexual pornographic imagery. The authors of the paper concluded that this kind of “therapy” facilitated stronger erections in relation to heterosexual sexual imagery and that it therefore warranted further investigation with additional subjects.

Treatment trials like these trailed off in the 1970s, after homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and there were significant changes in the ethical norms established by practitioners. (Although we’re left to ponder the damage done while conversion-oriented experimentation with pornography was being conducted.)

By the 1980s, the focus had shifted from trying to convert gay men to heterosexuality, to more subtlety indoctrinating women into male-dominated constructions of heterosexuality. Pornography became part of treatments for sexual dysfunctions, especially for inhibition and anorgasmia in women. In effect, these labels applied to women anxious about, or unwilling to engage in sex with their male partners and women who had not experienced an orgasm, or did not experience orgasms during coitus.

One of the primary bases for using pornography in the treatment of these issues has been the concept of desensitization. The idea is that women who are anxious about engaging in particular kinds of heterosexual sex can be encouraged to participate by being shown images and films of these acts while practising relaxation techniques. It was thought that this would eventually lead to lessening inhibition about having sex with a male partner.

As I document in my contribution to the new collection The Sexualized Body and the Medical Authority of Pornography, there is practically no evidence base to support the efficacy of these treatments. But a lack of evidence has not dissuaded therapists from continuing to endorse the use of pornography.

Research on this topic is limited, especially in Australia, but there are certainly sex therapists based here happy to publicly characterize pornography use as inevitable or healthy.

Research elsewhere in the world shows the therapeutic use of explicit audio-visual materials, including pornography, to be widespread. One study, published in the late 1990s, found that 253 of 279 (approximately 90 per cent) professionals surveyed in the United States and the Czech Republic reported that sexually explicit materials had been useful in their practice. (Although many therapists at this time also reported negative attitudes towards violent pornography.)

In a more recent study on this topic, from 2008, around a third of sex therapists in the US reported using pornography, even when that was specifically defined as involving violent, dehumanizing, or sexist content.

Some therapists, such as Sharna Striar and Barbara Bartlik, suggest pornography can be helpful to “introduce a partner to a new mode of sexual experience that he or she might find otherwise distasteful or unacceptable.”

Others say porn should be studied by patients like a textbook. Overall, practitioners tend to cite education and desensitization as primary justifications for pornography use.

But what does this education and desensitization really involve? There is a significant normalization of violent and degrading content in popular pornography, with 88 per cent of scenes in bestselling pornography containing acts of physical aggression, and the targets of that aggression being “overwhelmingly” female. Surely we should question why any professionals are telling women that this is a model of sexuality they should accept, let alone emulate.

At best, the practice of prescribing pornography in sex therapy encourages women to mimic those paid to fake their own sexual enjoyment. But that’s a very generous interpretation. It’s more accurate to say that the power dynamics of therapy make it quite difficult for any patient to simply refuse this kind of “treatment” when it is recommended by a qualified professional.

And it’s a treatment that risks women being seen as non-compliant if they are not aroused by degrading pornographic content, or are not willing to re-enact it in their own lives.

While some therapists and researchers have mooted “female friendly pornography” as a potential solution to this situation, they overlook the problematic and similarly violent content of porn that is often touted as “female friendly” or “feminist.” Such arguments also ignore the broader critiques of the pornography industry that contest a commercial sexual act — which is based on following a script for money, and not on mutual pleasure — as a useful or equitable basis for everyday sexual interaction.

When a medical authority integrates pornography into treatment models, they reduce the space for reasonable objections to porn consumption in heterosexual relationships.

This also promotes a model of heterosexuality that diminishes the likelihood that women’s sexual refusals will be heard and accepted.

In a climate of increasing emphasis on respectful relationships, and addressing unhealthy cultures of sexual coercion, a woman’s right to say “no” to any sex act she feels uncomfortable with should be affirmed, rather than undermined.

Given the lack of evidence in support of therapists recommending pornography as treatment, and a growing recognition of the harms associated with even mainstream, commercial porn, we need to ask why this practice has been allowed to continue for so long and who really benefits from it.

Meagan Tyler is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University in meaganMelbourne, Australia and an internationally recognized scholar in the field of gender and sexuality studies. She is the author of “Selling Sex Short: The pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West” and an editor of “Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism.”

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Meagan Tyler
Meagan Tyler

Dr Meagan Tyler is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia and is the public officer of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia. Meagan is the author of "Selling Sex Short: The sexological and pornographic construction of women’s sexuality in the West" and co-editor of "Freedom Fallacy: The limits of liberal feminism."

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  • Jeanne Deaux

    Read that comment again and calm down, please.

  • firestorm717

    I really appreciate you writing this book. Jeffreys “Anticlimax” profoundly changed how I viewed heterosex. Before I discovered radfem, I always had an uneasy feeling that women were getting shafted by the sexual revolution, and that sex was constructed as an act of male domination. It was refreshing (if depressing) to have my suspicions confirmed directly by the sexologists. I’ve been trying to find more sex-critical works since… I’ll be looking into your book and the Jackson recommendation.

    • Rachel

      It is depressing, but like you said, also refreshing to find your suspicions are true – makes you feel less crazy. Well, it did for me. I must read these books.

  • will

    “And it’s a treatment that risks women being seen as non-compliant if they are not aroused by degrading pornographic content, or are not willing to re-enact it in their own lives.”

    I think that, worse, it preys upon women’s physiological arousal response to sexually explicit imagery – that cognitive dissonance of having the body in an arousal response during sexual assault or while watching imagery and scenarios that amount to a psychological assault.The “therapy” acts to erode a woman’s healthy response of self-respect and self-preservation by pathologizing that response and working to remove it, ultimately training women into dissociation. As another commenter has noted, it’s grooming.

    It’s horrifying that the very place that women go to heal, that many of us pay our hard earned dollars for guidance and support in healing our trauma, is where we are [further] traumatized.

  • fxduffy

    In most cases it seems like the whole drift of the psychological approach is to undermine and bypass the political. The individualistic trumps the social.

    And yes “sex therapy” like sex jokes, is about 99% certain to be sexist at one level or another.

  • Cassandra

    It’s my sometimes unpopular opinion that 99% of the entire psychology/psychiatry field is a giant black hole of patriarchal bullshit and has been from the beginning. It’s horrifying that any professional with any sense of ethics would recommend porn to any woman. It’s hatred of women distilled to its most concentrated state. God when will the human race evolve?

    • Tired feminist

      I have that feeling often, too. Psychology per se is a legitimate science (at least in theory), but nearly all psychologists I met in real life held some kind of pseudoscientific belief. Perhaps because psychoanalysis (which is a pseudoscience) has dominated psychology for so long.

  • Blazewarrior

    Agree and yes I have read Selling Sex Short and also The Real Facts of Life. Interesting is it not that men are not commonly told by male sexologists and the female handmaiden sexologists to ‘refrain from demanding their female sexual partner/wife be sexually available to them as and when they demand.’ Also heterosexual males are not advised to be sexually available to the female partner/wife when she wants sexual activity! Issue is solely about heterosexual males having sexual access to females as and when they demand which is why the men have always claimed ‘women are the problem not us men!’

  • Blazewarrior

    Again totally agree and typical of what men in political power enact which is a ‘piecemeal approach’ wherein only certain aspects of how men maintain their male supremacist system are challenged but the central issue is never ever addressed. In other words teaching girls and boys what supposedly constitutes respectful egalitarian heterosexual relationships totally ignores the fact mens’ malestream media; mens’ pornography industry and mens’ popular culture continue to promote male hatred/male contempt for women and girls.

    Rather similar to saying ‘teach girls and boys that racism is wrong but don’t challenge/refute white mens’ supremacist system!

  • FierceMild

    I see isolated cases of men who seem to want better and to want to do better. Isolated cases can spread.

    I also see more women looking around themselves and wanting better.

  • Rachel

    Thank you for sharing. This was amazing and I love her wit and her passion that come out throughout her talk. At the end I wanted to stand and cheer.

  • oneclickboedicea

    We are in an age of denial, society says one thing – we value equality, human and animal rights, saving the planet – whilst most in private wank themselves off furiously to images of a trafficked women/child being raped whilst guzzling factory farmed hamburgers and wearing bonded labour clothing. We are severely in need of culling as we have over run the planet and outrun our moral compass – we are in an ethical no mans land hoping trump and brexit will lead us to the promised land. We laid waste to our humanity in pursuit of keeping up with the kardashians.

  • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

    BINGBINGBING! We have a winner! You are so right….and men already use porn to groom women…they don’t need some goddamn therapist encouraing it!

    • Rachel

      That’s true, men do groom women with porn. I still have female friends who’s partners have their porn pics all over their houses. It’s so gross and how could you feel comfortable in your own house when everywhere you turn there’s tits or arse in your face. like you said though, it’s grooming, and they aren’t allowed to say how they really feel about it for fear of being a “prude” and ganged up on by their man and even their friends. It’s so dangerous coming from a professional. I’ve had men swear black and blue that sex advice is correct because a sexologist wrote the article. I feel the same way about that Alan and Barbara Pease who wrote the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Women can’t read maps, men can’t follow directions books. Everyone at the time used them as some sort of bible. I was only 16/17 at the time and knew it didn’t sit right. Yet of course with everyone going on about how a Psychogist said it, so it must be right, I was forced the lie to myself, and pretend I was happy with the “advice” they talked about. I wish these myths would just die already and I wish this whole pop culture porn obsession would die also. The more men view this stuff, the more they think it’s normal, the more skewed see becomes, and the more they view women as objects and sex as being about objectifying a woman’s body. Sex has lost all meaning and all connection. Beauty has become mixed with sex appeal, and sex appeal has become the most important thing about a woman.

  • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

    It wasn’t that long ago that you could commit your wife as insane for refusing you sex…..

  • Katie MunchmaQuchi Smith

    She is saying that some people SAY that porn is liberating but that does not mean it really is liberating.

  • Cassandra

    Aw thanks, Ms. Mar.

  • Cassandra

    They exist, but they’re few and far between and you have to be really careful. Never go to a male, for one thing, but women can be just as bad, as we all know.