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TODAY contributor
updated 3/11/2009 8:13:28 PM ET 2009-03-12T00:13:28

Q. Can you explain why pornography is “bad”? Men are visual creatures. If masturbation is OK, what are we supposed to see while masturbating? Porn is the visual expression of fantasies. Most women will not make porn for their hubbies or boyfriends these days, as they are afraid it will wind up online. So we have to find our visual stimulation from the “pros” in the porn industry. Again, why exactly is this bad?

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A. It isn’t inherently bad. You seem to have picked up the party line or conventional wisdom that women think it’s bad. Whether it’s good or bad is highly dependent on how it is used and on your partner’s reaction to it.

Men are visual creatures, and so are women. In fact, recent research shows that women monitored to measure arousal while viewing pornography report they are not aroused, but the monitor shows they are. So, at least unconsciously, they do find pornography stimulating.

Any woman refusing to make porn for her partner has her brains intact. There can be terrible consequences for those whose pornographic images end up in the wrong hands. It is prudent not to make porn with one’s self in it.

Aside from that, pornography is a potential tool of sexual enjoyment. I am not talking about porn that harms anyone involved in the making of it, but of porn that adults have consented to. It can be useful not only for men, but for women and couples who use it in the service of enjoying themselves sexually and having healthy, positive sexual relationships.

The problem is that the viewing of porn has the potential to evolve negatively, depending on how it is used. If it is used repetitively or addictively, or to replace a healthy sexual relationship, then it crosses the line. Some women complain their men are secretive and sneaky, preferring watching porn to being with them. Once you start lying, using it more obsessively rather than as an occasional tool or taking risks in order to watch pornography, you are likely dealing with a pornography addiction and THAT is what’s “bad.”

Certainly, some women feel inadequate next to voluptuous young porn actresses, and their insecurities are sometimes justified, especially if their partner makes them feel bad about this. And some men become desensitized to normal female bodies, expecting the idealized ones they see in pornographic images to also exist in real life. So men and women should be sensitive to their partners about such feelings. If this is a problem, you can use educational sex tapes that still show sexual acts but use people with more average bodies.

The real issue involves how you are using porn. The best way to use it is with your partner as a prelude to a fantastic time in bed together; then there is no problem with it.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Pornography isn’t intrinsically bad. It’s bad only if it interferes negatively with people’s lives or relationships.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her latest book is “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie.” She is also the author of “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts,” which helps parents deal with preschoolers’ questions about sex and reproduction. Her first book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,” was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. It is now available in a paperback version. For more information, you can visit her Web site, www.drgailsaltz.com.

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