Swipe This! My boyfriend is addicted to porn. Should I leave him?

“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

Dear Swipe This!

A few months ago, I moved in with my boyfriend of over a year, and our sex life ground to a total halt. I felt super-rejected and I took it very personally, but I attempted to talk to him about it in an open way. He really shut down and requested a full month break from sex to take the pressure off. I agreed, but the break didn’t help. 

Eventually, I noticed that he was hiding his phone screen from me and shutting his laptop when I came into the bedroom. I asked him about it, and he confessed that he’d been watching porn. He said the only time he wanted to be sexual was by himself with porn. He liked that it was an efficient way to fulfill a physical urge without the pressures and complications of IRL interaction/intimacy. He also said he’d read stories online about other men losing interest in IRL sex and identified with them a lot. He also said he wanted to stop watching porn and see how it went. I told him I was along for the ride and it sounded like something he might also want to discuss with a therapist. He agreed, but in terms of finding a therapist, he’s been dragging his feet. 

Since our talk, I’ve felt so uncomfortable because I am really turned off by like 99% of the porn that is out there (not that I have seen a lot of it—trying to weed through the bad bums me out so hard). I’ve also worked very hard to “fulfill” the porn fantasy IRL and it feels so fucked up to try to make myself into a touchable version of that and still have my partner prefer a screen/the void of (my) human touch.

Last week, I accidentally caught him requesting photos from a college girl he had met on a group trip I had to miss because of family obligations. I became totally enraged and went through everything I could find trying to figure out what the fuck was going on (not my proudest moment). I saw he’d still been watching porn. I found Viagra in a drawer in a take-out food container. I confronted him about the college girl and the Viagra (I was too scared to bring up the porn) and he basically begged me to give him more time to work on “it” whatever “it” is…

I’m not sure what to do. I don’t want to hurt him, and I also don’t want to drive him further away from me. But I’m scared that he’s an out-of-control addict. I’m also sick of feeling like I’m in competition with the unrealistic images in the porn he watches. This has been so painful and lonely. I thought I was craving sex, but a big part of what I’m missing from him is intimacy and closeness.

If he’s addicted to porn, is our relationship hopeless? 

Sincerely,

Sick of Competing with Porn

Dear Sick of Competing with Porn,

There are few lonelier experiences than loving an addict

When you described trying to make yourself fit the unrealistic standards of pornography, my heart sank. You’re sick of competing with porn because deep down, you know you can’t. Porn, like alcohol or drugs or any number of other numbing substances or activities, offers your partner an escape. You want intimacy, and intimacy requires showing up fully present, turning your full face toward another, and allowing yourself to feel and to touch, to see and to be seen. 

In my own experience, dating an addict can feel like dating someone who always faces you in profile. I could only see one half of my partner’s face, and I could look into that one eye and see the soul of someone I loved deeply. But I could never get him to show me his full face. He couldn’t turn toward me completely because one eye was always on his addiction. 

Just like having a glass of wine isn’t inherently evil, consuming porn isn’t a crime and doesn’t make your partner a bad person. But there are ethical and unethical ways to explore pornography. Most “free” porn is exploitative, does not pay its performers fairly, and (as I’m sure you’ve noticed) is loaded with toxic masculinity. There are, however, progressive filmmakers like Erika Lust who are striving to create pornography that captures intimacy and desire and centers women, trans, and nonbinary people’s experience of sex. You certainly shouldn’t feel obligated to watch porn if you don’t want to, but you expressed frustration at the limits of what’s out there. While it’s not yet the norm by a long stretch, better and more progressive porn exists.

That said, I don’t think you should take on the burden of teaching your partner about better porn or about the road to recovery. I understand why you have compassion for your partner. Addicts are powerless over their addictions, and they often struggle and suffer greatly. But his suffering shouldn’t have to be your suffering. Groups like Al-Anon address the issues of codependency that arise when you date an addict, and if you decide to stay with him, you owe it to yourself to seek out your own sources of support.

Is dating an addict a hopeless endeavor? If they’re in recovery, I’d say no. People who have navigated recover from their addictions often have a lot of self-knowledge. Many are familiar with therapy, are willing to own their flaws, and value honest, effective communication. But your boyfriend is only at the beginning of his recovery journey, and from what you’ve written, it’s unclear whether he’s interested in taking the first steps, let alone committed to the long and difficult path.

Your partner told you he wanted to change his patterns, and then you caught him soliciting photos! And the Viagra? Clearly, he hasn’t been showing you the truth about his addiction. It’s also possible that his behaviors are escalating. 

The truth is, if you want to stop competing with porn, and if your boyfriend isn’t willing to start the steps to recovery for himself and for your relationship, the solution is simple: just stop. 

Maybe that feels scary. Maybe you’ve convinced yourself that if you’re sweet enough, hot enough, and patient enough, he’ll come around. But you may feel that there is nothing you can do to make yourself more desirable than the pornography that has gripped your partner’s attention. This isn’t because you aren’t sexy or incredible in bed. It’s because you’re a human being with wants and needs and complications. You cannot polish or stretch yourself into a cure for his addiction. And you shouldn’t have to! You are and have always been enough.

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Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay is a frequent contributor to the Daily Dot, covering body positivity, feminism, sex, relationships, and gender. She is also the author of the advice column “Swipe This!” A former New York Teaching Fellow, her writing has been featured in Reductress, Rolling Stone, Mic, Someecards, and more.