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21.7.11

Porn is Not a Bargaining Chip

Hugo Schwyzer recently got into a debate with Aaron Gouveia, later expanding his view on his own blog, over the question of whether one partner in a romantic relationship has the right to insist that the other stop looking at pornography. Schwyzer's view, which I more or less agree with, is that it's reasonable to request a porn-free relationship and reasonable to want a porn-allowed relationship. Most of his prominent antagonists, including Gouveia and Dan Savage, argue that the porn-hater is making an unreasonable request (though I'm sure there are also people whose reaction is that the porn-allower is making the unreasonable request).

But I think one reason this debate has become so stubborn is that it gets framed as a matter of bargaining. Schwyzer states the bargaining position framing forcefully, speaking of the sacrifices that we must make to balance our relationships. So "I want to look at porn" and "I don't want you looking at porn" get taken as elements in an negotiation offer, much like proposed tax cuts and service cuts in Congress's debate over raising the debt ceiling. These positions are staked out by the parties and then can be held to or compromised away in exchange for some other gain.

I would rather see partners' differing ideas about porn (as well as other relationship disagreements) as a starting point for exploring the type of relationship that each partner wants to build. Schwyzer writes of a hypothetical man whose "girlfriend, for any number of reasons, doesn't want him masturbating to images of other women." As I see it, the girlfriend's reasons are absolutely critical. To start from the fact that she simply doesn't like his porn habits forces us into the bargaining model, asking whether one party or the other can agree to give ground to make the relationship work.

Later in the post Schwyzer references two possible reasons that the girlfriend might want him to abstain from porn -- sexual exclusivity and radical feminism. It makes sense to me that someone being asked to refrain from looking at porn could react differently when faced with an anti-porn request depending on which rationale lies behind it.

Sexual exclusivity (the primary reason, as I understand it, why Schwyzer's marriage is porn-free) is based on the idea that the anti-porn girlfriend wants her boyfriend's sexual energy directed exclusively at her. That rationale then implies a lot more about how she wants the relationship to be structured than simply that it would be porn-free. The radical feminist request to eliminate porn from the relationship is based on an analysis of porn as inherently exploitative of women and encouraging of an objectifying approach to sex and to male-female interaction more generally. A boyfriend who began with a desire to continue looking at porn might be inclined to say "I see the value in the form of sexual exclusivity that you're looking for and I would like to join you in seeking it, and I'll give up porn as part of our journey. But the same boyfriend might be inclined to respond to the radical feminist request by saying "I disagree with the radfem analysis of porn, and I would not be comfortable being in a relationship which is based on the tenets of radical feminism." A different boyfriend might reject the sexual exclusivity model but be open to radical feminism. Either way, the right to use porn is no longer a bargaining chip that each partner must decide if they'd rather give it up or walk away from the relationship. It's a starting point for thinking about what kind of relationship you're building.

Treating "yes porn" and "no porn" as simply negotiating positions does a disservice to both partners in a relationship where there's a disagreement about porn. If porn use is simply a bargaining chip on the table, the pro-porn partner comes off as a pervert who would contemplate sacrificing love for a wank, rather than as someone who has a particular model of a desired relationship, of which permission to use porn is just one indicator. Meanwhile, the partner who just does want to prohibit porn use comes off as a controlling shrew who wants to nitpick their partner's personal business, rather than as someone who also has a particular model of a desired relationship, of which opposition to porn is one indicator.

Going beyond the specific question of porn, I wouldn't want to be in a relationship where I approached disagreements as forums in which to try to extract as many concessions as I could while conceding as little as possible from my side. Nor would I want to approach disagreements as times in which I will be forced to sacrifice. I want to approach disagreements as opportunities to reconsider the nature of the relationship we're building together. This is not to say that negotiation and bargaining never have a place in a relationship -- but they are a second-best approach, the use of which is an indicator that something has failed in the relationship.

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