Is “Real” Sex Healthier Than Porn and Cybersex?

Many sex addiction therapists base their thinking on the idea that real or “relational” sex, sex with a real person as opposed to porn, cybersex or masturbation is healthier in some way.  They tend to believe that a preference for non-relational sex is not entirely healthy and that it is often the basis of sexual addiction.

Other clinicians and many people generally feel that it is wrong to place relational sex on a pedestal.

Some think non-relational sex is just as valid a form of sexual expression and feel that the other side is just being moralistic and narrow-minded.  I will look at some of the arguments on either side.

The argument for fantasy sex

  • All sex is about domination fantasies anyway

Experts have argued that all sexual arousal relates in some way to fantasy and that all sexual fantasy has ultimately got something to do with domination and submission.  It doesn’t matter whether you are dominant or submissive, so the argument goes, your arousal relates ultimately to a fantasy involving unequal power.

This argument suggests that there is not so much to choose between the real person and the virtual one if the fantasy content that arouses us sexually is basically the same.

  • All sex can be used for damaging purposes

The pro relational sex folks might argue that relational sex is somehow more humane and less prone to exploitive or criminal behavior.  But the other side would argue that sex with a partner can be just as exploitive and potentially harmful in certain circumstances and that solitary sex such as masturbation to porn or fantasy can be seen as safe and humane.

  • The preference for relational sex is a religious leftover

This argument assumes that if you are not an anything-goes “liberal” then you are a conservative throw-back.  It ignores the fact that there are increasingly arguments coming from the gender justice, humanist and neo-feminist camps that view pornographic fantasies as corrosive on grounds other than traditional ones.  The “liberals” argue that there is nothing wrong with heightening arousal through imagery and fantasies that add an air of mystery or the forbidden and that sexual experimentation is normal and healthy.

The argument for relational sex

  • Deception, secrecy and shame

We don’t blatantly look at pornography in public or engage in cybersex in front of friends and relatives and so there must be something inherently shameful about it.  Although the secrecy may add to the arousal, it can also be construed as promoting a secret life and a splitting off of sexuality from relationships.

Having a secret life is an integral part of sex addiction and so the pro relational sex people might see that what started out as a harmless promoter of fantasy arousal can become a compartmentalized way of life.

  • Cybersex leads to losing track of reality

People who engage in cybersex can present themselves as other than who they really are.  This is based on the problematic belief that no one would want them as they really are.  But this can lead deeper into fantasy life and away from reality.

Sex addicts who engage in behaviors like online relationships, phone sex and even massage parlors and prostitutes can and do become very fantasy ridden about the person they have the make-believe relationship with.  They can become semi-delusional about what is really going on in the “relationship.”

  • Relational sex is more gender equal

A recent article reported that sex in an onging relationship provided more equal satisfaction to both partners in terms of such things as orgasm and equal amounts of giving and receiving of oral sex when compared to having sex with someone you were not dating or just met.

Another line of argument says that sex outside of a real relationship with another person is sexual objectification.  And a host of ill effects of sexual objectification  are talked about; everything from eating disorders to an increase in cosmetic surgery among teens.  See any of the excellent work by professor Robert Jensen like “Pornography is What the End of the World Looks Like.”

There is no question that there are major changes going on in the realm of real and virtual relating as well as changes in the way relationships are established and conducted.  My own feeling is that we are in a period of great turmoil and confusion about where it will all end up.  This in turn breeds overblown fear and polarized attitudes.  But real connecting with another person is a huge part of what makes us human, and I for one believe it’s here to stay.   Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource