When I was 19 years old and trying to figure out the wild world of dating, no one warned me about porn. I sifted through the dating arena of potential partners completely unaware that I was blindly choosing from a pool in which 79% of men between the ages of 18 and 30 were viewing pornography at least one time per month (Covenant Eyes, 2018). No one warned me that among some of those men, the frequency and intensity of pornography use was much higher and had morphed into addictions that included hours of porn use per day, compulsive sexting, paying for sex, frequenting massage parlors, going to strip clubs, engaging in chronic affairs, and other behaviors I could not have even imagined at the time. No one informed me that even in looking for the bare minimum of fidelity in a partner, the odds were never in my favor. In retrospect, it is no surprise that I suddenly found myself in a relationship with someone struggling with a sexual addiction at the age of 19, and I was alarmingly unprepared for the situation.
Pornography is rampant in today’s internet-based society and, unfortunately, that’s not something we’re going to see change anytime soon. According to Covenant Eyes, $3,075.64 is spent on pornography every second, 35% of all internet downloads are related to pornography, and Pornhub alone has a daily average of 81 million visits to its site (2018). We know that porn is highly addictive and can escalate to other problematic sexual behaviors while having harmful effects on mental health and society. Porn use and addiction can lead to decreased capacity for intimacy, decreased levels of empathy, increased irritability and mood issues, and porn-induced erectile dysfunction, among other problems (Lair & Brand, 2016). Pornography websites are also wildly under-regulated, and videos of rape, abuse, and children are perpetually on mainstream porn sites including Pornhub because it is often impossible to know if the videos are of consenting adults (Kristof, 2020). For more information about the mental health and social justice issues associated with pornography, click here.
While it can be difficult, awkward, and painful, it is necessary to learn how to ask the hard questions about pornography and sexual history with potential dating partners in order to ensure that you know what you’re getting yourself into.
1. When do we bring up the hard questions?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that every relationship is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to when the issue of pornography and sexual history should be brought up. A good rule of thumb is to have the conversation (1) as soon as you feel comfortable and (2) before things progress too far. When you start getting emotionally attached to someone, it becomes more and more difficult to bring up issues that could dampen the relationship or cause more pain as time passes. Knowing your standards and sticking to them early on will empower you and protect you in the realm of dating. You can ask the hard questions on or before the first date if you feel comfortable doing that. On the other hand, if you’re unsure if a relationship will progress at all, then you can hold off until you think you want to consider a longer-term commitment.
Generally, at some point in a relationship’s development, a conversation defining the relationship happens that is commonly referred to as a “DTR.” In this conversation, both parties are typically evaluating if they’d like to move forward and be in a committed relationship. This is a great time for you to bring up questions about your partner’s relationship with pornography, because these are things you want to know before any commitment is made.
A helpful tip is to talk openly with the people around you about pornography and the harm it brings. Pornography is a relevant social, cultural, and justice issue, and talking about the harm it causes can bring awareness to others while also attracting individuals to you who know and respect your stance. If you’re open about your feelings towards pornography, potential partners are more likely to be aware of your standards and ready when you bring it up with them directly.
2. How do we bring up the hard questions?
The biggest mistake people make when having these conversations is asking vague questions. This typically happens because it can feel very uncomfortable and intrusive to ask about sexuality. While it can be difficult, it is imperative that you ask specific, measurable, and time-sensitive questions that leave no room for ambiguity. Remember that this kind of addiction/compulsion often breeds shame, and many people struggling with addiction are caught in a cycle of lying about it. You want to leave as little space as possible for someone to stretch the truth or leave out important details.
For example, ambiguous and open-ended questions like, “What’s your relationship with pornography?” or “What does your sexuality look like?” leave lots of space for someone to scramble and come up with minimizing answers that may not reveal the full truth. Questions like this do not require a specific, measurable, or time-sensitive answer and could result in inaccurate information or half-truths.
The following are better-suited questions that get straight to the point and leave no room for uncertainty.
- When was the last time you looked at pornography?
- How many times have you looked at pornography in the last month? The last six months?
- Do you ever sext people or use sexual chats online?
- What kind of pornography do you watch, and how much time do you usually spend watching it?
- Do you think you could go the rest of your life without looking at pornography? If not, have you thought about getting help?
- Have you ever paid someone for sex?
- How many past sexual partners have you had?
- Have you ever been unfaithful or cheated in the past?
If you can think of it, ask about it and be specific. Remember, it’s much easier to ask these questions if you’ve already been open about your stance on porn before the bigger conversation rolls around. You should be aware of your standards and what is and is not okay with you before you go into these conversations. If some of the answers reveal problematic sexual behaviors, it doesn’t have to automatically mean the relationship can’t proceed, especially if they are willing to get help. However, you should know before the conversation happens what the deal-breakers are so that you can hold to your standards. Maybe you are willing to give dating a shot if they use pornography up to 3 times per week and are willing to get help, but a history of paying for sex is a deal-breaker for you. Maybe you are okay with a history of porn use, but a history of over 50 sexual partners is a hurdle you can’t clear. Maybe you simply aren’t willing to date someone who’s ever had a pornography or sexual addiction. Whatever your boundaries are, find them and remember that it’s okay to pursue what you need to feel safe and secure in a relationship.
3. Why do we need to bring up the hard questions?
As a CSAT-trained clinician, I’ve seen the devastating effect that sexual addiction has on partners. The unknowingness, the feeling of being deeply deceived, and the realization that these behaviors were happening during the relationship often leaves partners with an agonizing feeling of powerlessness. Oftentimes, the pain of being lied to hurts just as much as the sexual acting out. I constantly hear partners say, “I didn’t choose this. I just wish he had told me the truth so then at least I would have had a choice if this is what I wanted or not.” Pornography and sex addiction are lifelong battles. If you choose to be in a relationship with a sex or porn addict in recovery, you should know that their recovery process will equip them to be open and engaging partners, and that there is always a risk for relapse.
Asking these questions can do more than just protect you; it can also spur healing and help for others. If you ask about these questions and make it clear to your potential partners that their porn use and sexual health matters to you, they may realize they have a problem and understand that it’s time to get help. If this person ends up being your forever partner, then you’ve likely saved yourself years of pain and heartache as you’re going into the relationship with your eyes wide open. Even if they don’t end up being your forever partner, you could inspire them to get the help they need to be a faithful and equipped partner for their future relationships.
Asking hard questions and being informed about pornography and sex addiction gives you empowerment through the knowledge that you’ve done everything you can to be aware of the issues. There’s not a guarantee you won’t be lied to or deceived, but when you’ve asked the hard questions, you’ve done everything you can to be aware and protect yourself. It’s messy, it’s difficult, and it’s hard out there, but don’t be afraid to hold to your standards and let honesty and authenticity lead the way.
Covenant Eyes. (2018). Porn Stats. https://www.covenanteyes.com/2010/01/06/updated-pornography-statistics/.
Kristof, N. (2020, Dec. 4). “The Children of Pornhub.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.html.
Laier, C., & Brand, M. (2016). Mood changes after watching pornography on the Internet are linked to tendencies towards Internet-pornography-viewing disorder. Addictive Behaviors Reports, 5(C), 9–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.abrep.2016.11.003.