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Eyes Wide Open or Shut

Question: Is using pictures of people on Instagram as porn material healthy? What amount of porn consumption is considered healthy in a committed relationship? I am trying to allow myself to let go of my stigmas around my partner using porn.

The healthiest amount of porn consumption within a committed relationship is 2 hours per week. No wait, that can't be right. Is it 20 hours? Or am I confusing it with 20 minutes?

The most common question I receive as a sex educator is some variation of "Is this normal?" Occasionally the question is accompanied by an inappropriate photo in my DMs, but for the most part, this question simply stems from our need to know that we (and our partners) are healthy with regards to sexual behavior.

And much to the disappointment of those seeking a concrete answer, the truth is there's no universal magic number that dictates healthy pornography use within a committed relationship. I could talk about research reporting the average amount of time individuals watch porn in a week, but that wouldn't tell you if it's healthy for your relationship. Couples need to figure out what's healthy for them, regardless of statistical averages. For some couples, no amount of porn use within the relationship would be healthy if pornography goes against their shared values. For other couples, the movie Asses in Masses III could be projected onto every wall of the house 24/7 without it causing any problem in the relationship.

If you're unsure of what's right for your relationship, start with a conversation about values and attitudes about pornography. What's the role, function, and comfort with porn in your relationship? What do you like and dislike about it? Are you comfortable with your partner watching it alone or would you prefer to watch it together? Is there any content within porn that's off-limits? Are you okay with your partner watching a porn parody of The Golden Girls?

Having your porn behavior align with your porn values is far more predictive of individual and relational health than the number of hours watching pornography, so it's important the two of you discuss what your values are and how you plan to live authentically and congruently.

It's similar with Instagram as your source of sexually arousing material. There's nothing inherently unhealthy about masturbating to photos on social media, but the appropriateness of the behavior depends on the values and boundaries within a relationship.

A unique variable with social media compared to pornography, however, is that your partner may personally know the person they're staring at on their phone while having an orgasm. Instead of a stranger on a porn site, it's the latest selfie from Sam your neighbor or Dana from accounting that is being used as masturbatory stimuli for your partner. The ethical dilemma also includes whether they comment "Great pic!" before or after climaxing.

On the surface, this behavior can seem unhealthy for the relationship. It can easily be viewed as inappropriate or even a threat - a slippery slope to infidelity. However, this is where social media and porn as masturbatory aids have a similarity: You can ban the medium from your relationship, but you're still left with the fantasies. Without Instagram, your partner can still fantasize about Dana from accounting or Sam from next door. Without the porn parody of The Golden Girls, your partner can still fantasize about a threesome starring Dorothy, Blanche, and Rose.

From my clinical experience, this is the crux of relationship problems involving pornography. It's less about the porn use per se, and more about masturbation, fantasy, and the realization your partner has a sex life that is independent of your relationship with them.

Porn (and social media) become easy scapegoats for our unease because these mediums are visible. Our partner's fantasies are right there in their browser history and in their social media following lists. We may say we're comfortable with our partner masturbating; that it's the porn that's the problem. But have a conversation with your partner starting with the question, "What do you think about when you masturbate?" and see how quickly that comfort starts to fade upon hearing the answer.

The difference between porn and fantasy is just whether our eyes are open or shut during masturbation.

So in addition to having a conversation about porn values aligning with porn behaviors, have a conversation about the role, function, and comfort with masturbation and fantasy in the relationship. Therein lies true vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy for couples. The discussions about pornography are just scratching the surface. Through these conversations, hopefully both of you are able to increase comfort with the realization of each other's personal sexuality, along with their fantasies, whether real or imagined, that may include a nude Betty White look-alike.

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