Pornography, Strip Clubs & Other Feminist Relationship Quandaries

I could really use some help on this issue. I am a feminist, and pride myself on being open-minded and trying to keep my insecurities in check. I have been with my boyfriend for years, and we have lived together for 2. Within the past few months I have been looking at his computer and seeing that he watches pornography. While I do try to understand why, I cannot help but feel hurt. It brings up issues I have with my own body and makes me feel bad and inadequate. While I am trying to come to grips with this, I have found out that his friend is getting married and they are going on a trip. I know they will be going to strip clubs, and this is making me crazy. He is not the type of guy who would cheat on me or that would probably really enjoy this, but then again I didn't think he was the type to watch porn. I feel like I have become more paranoid knowing about this porn-viewing and now I am not able to see clearly this situation. My main question is, if he gets a lap dance, this is considered cheating, right? It seems like this male tradition that for some reason is okay, and it's just this free pass. Should I talk to him about it? Do I have a right to be upset? I feel so anxious and like I'm losing my grip with him and with my own feminism. Please help me.
Heather Corinna replies:

I don't think that how we feel emotionally is ever about a matter of rights. We cannot control what we feel, after all: we can only control how we process, hold, express and manage our feelings. You feel upset: whether or not you or anyone else thinks you have a right to have those feelings, there they are. We feel what we feel, and I certainly think we are all entitled to the full range of our feelings.

What cheating is depends on what any given couple have negotiated and agreed on in their relationship model. Not every relationship has the same invisible fence around it, and there is no unilateral definition of monogamy or cheating. What one couple agrees must be exclusive isn't the same as what another does. Because every person and every partnership is different, there is no one set of rules for all. What your rules are is something you need to determine together. In some relationships, using pornography or going to strip clubs would not be considered cheating: in others, one or both might.

As a fellow feminist, I don't need to tell you that there are plenty of things that have been or still are considered "traditional," to do or think but which are or may be based in sexism or other kinds of inequality. Because something has some kind of historical precedent doesn't mean that automatically makes it okay, that no one gets to have a problem with it, or that no one can suggest that precedent is crap if that's how they -- as an individual or as a group -- feel about it. For instance, the idea and practice that women should be who takes all the responsibility or the lion's share of child-rearing and housekeeping is, effectively, a "tradition," but it's one based in sexism. Feminists quite unilaterally, as individuals and as a group, have voiced problems with that tradition since feminism began.

I don't know what other parts of your relationship may include agreements one or both of you have just assumed, rather than earnestly made together, but clearly one of the areas where you need to make some clear agreements is with your agreements around sexual exclusivity and monogamy.

You need to first figure out what you want and need when it comes to the level of exclusivity of your relationship on your own: to do so with a sense of what you want and need and also what you think will be best for your relationship as a whole. If you strongly feel that going to a strip club and/or being part of any services there is both not okay with you and something you feel isn't healthy for or wanted by you in your relationship, and that is also not what you consider monogamous (which sounds like how you feel about this), then you put that on the table.

If what you feel on this (or any other issue) and need around it is a hard limit, you say so. If it's something you feel you can negotiate around, then you say that. Then he gets to voice his feelings on the matter, and you both consider each others' ideas and feelings, then work to find some agreement around both of your perspectives that leaves you both feeling good and assures both your needs get met. The same goes for his use of pornography. You get to decide if you are or are not okay with a partnership where your partner uses pornography. Whatever your objection to porn is based in, you get to have your own objections, and you get to choose partnerships which are in alignment with your feelings. You have to also accept the other person gets to do same: this isn't about trying to change someone, after all, unless that person already wanted to change, for themselves.

What that also means, though, is that you need to assert yourself and put things like this on the table upfront with potential partners, with as much respect for your own preferences, ideas and wants as you have for theirs. You being able to be who you are and want to be as an individual has to be as important as you wanting to be in a relationship. If and when a potential or current partner wants or does things -- be it porn or a lap dance, wanting or not wanting kids or marriage -- that you feel will or do not work for you, you need to advocate for yourself from a position of wanting an equal and well-suited partnership that best meets both your needs, rather than from a position where one person's needs or identity come first and the other just has to suck it up. This obviously also means you have to be prepared to negotiate or to potentially walk away from relationships that don't fit your wants and needs where the other person feels they can't or don't want to negotiate to try and seek out a compromise that works for both of you.

My suggestion for a good start with these issues in your current relationship is to take out paper and pen and make three columns: one for what your ideals are and what you really want, one for what isn't ideal for you, but you'd be okay with or could adapt to and a third for total dealbreakers. For example, in addressing sexual exclusivity, I may ideally want a primary romantic relationship where for right now, we're exclusive for any kind of genital sex (which I'd frame lap dances as), but where that agreement is understood as something either of us can revisit and potentially revise at any time. Let's say it's not my ideal, but I could be okay with walking into a negotiated, honest open relationship so long as certain rules are in place and any other partners or situations are okayed first by myself or my partner. Let's make my dealbreaker someone who wanted to go outside the relationship for genital sex with other partners without negotiating that with me, or who planned to do whatever they wanted regardless of my feelings.

I'd make that list as involved as you can, encompassing as many issues as possible. You also may find it's a good relationship exercise to have both of you make these lists then compare them.

When you're done, take a look at your lists and evaluate how your current relationship looks in that context. If it's in alignment with a whole lot of the first column and some of the second, with little to none in the third, then you're probably looking at a relationship which fits you pretty well overall. You can then take any issues in your second or third column that are a factor and discuss them with this partner, working together to try and create agreements that feel good to both of you. I know that sometimes that's intimidating: if we really want to be in a given relationship -- or are afraid of being without one -- it can seem safer not to set hard limits and advocate for oneself, and instead put your energy into trying to live with things you really don't want to. And while avoiding hard issues or potential disagreements may well keep a relationship from ending, it won't nurture a particularly happy or healthy one.

You also just don't always know how a partner really feels about things until you really talk them out. It may be that he feels differently about things in your dealbreaker column than you're currently presuming he does. You may think something is in his ideal, column, for instance, that's actually in the middle one; that's something he really could live with or without more easily than you'd think. Some partners who use pornography, for instance, do so more out of rote habit than anything else, and if they felt it was hurting a partner or a love relationship, would be totally down with trying life without it or making some adjustment with where they keep it. Some men who might only go to a strip club with other men to keep the peace or not have their masculinity put into question may feel more emboldened to opt out or state an objection to it with a partner's support. You just never know.

While any of us, at any age, may have strong wants, needs and dealbreakers we know about in advance, more often how we get to know what all of these are for us is something that's part of our development, and which we discover over time. As you gain life and relationship experience, you'll have a better sense of what your wants and needs, limits and boundaries are before you even start a new relationship. Few people come to romantic or sexual relationships knowing exactly what they want and need right at the gate: most of us learn a lot of this as we go. Few people also first come to relationships with anyone having explained to them that the "rules" of any given relationship are something you make together, not something writ in stone for all people. There is no one set of rules, no one relationship model: what there is is what we make, be it with or without awareness and conscious choice, but I'd encourage you to go for the former rather than the latter.

It's obviously a lot easier to negotiate terms of a relationship when you start doing so right at the gate, and then simply adjust and adapt them as need be. Even if you two have never really talked about what your agreement to monogamy means, though, as people in a long-term partnership who also cohabitate, you've probably negotiated at least some things together, like the sex you have (or don't) or how you split household responsibilities and finances. Bring whatever skills you have developed from those kinds of negotiations to this one.

It may be that your long-term partner is not in agreement with you on these matters. You may find yourselves at an impasse, where to continue the relationship as it is, one or both of you would need to do or tolerate something you don't really want to. Suffice it to say, if you're looking at that list you made and discovering that when it comes to a relationship, you have very little that's in that first column, and most of what's in your second and third, you probably want to re-evaluate staying in this relationship, period. The best advice I can give you is that it's important in a relationship that everyone involved is able to have a complete sense of self, to be who they are and to never feel they need to compromise who their best self is in or for a relationship. What our interpersonal relationships should be made of is exactly who both of us are at our best together, with both of our whole selves intact, loved and respected.

If you ever find a relationship asks you or your partner to compromise your or their values or ethics, or asks you to be someone other than who you really are -- including sexually -- you'll want to deeply consider if that really is a good relationship to stick with and stay in. Because if it does, it really is best to move on, seeking out partnerships that don't require that of either person; partnerships where on the things you both feel strongest about, there's a pretty easy accord and alignment.

One thing I want to be sure to mention is that a lot of women have the idea that if they are going to be sexually or romantically involved with men, they have to just accept that all men use pornography, or will go to strip clubs, or will be sexual with others outside a relationship, even if they're not okay with those things. Know that that isn't true. Yes, many men purchase or use pornography, and many frequent strip clubs. But there are also men who don't do either. Some don't because they have no interest in those things. Some don't because they find it unhealthy in a relationship, and they feel their partner and their relationship are more important to them than porn, lap dances or falling in line with other men. And some don't even with partners who would be okay with those things, expressly because those men feel those things are sexist and/or not in alignment with their values.

I hope you know there isn't any one feminism: we all have our own feminisms and they vary widely. I'd certainly question if anyone really was feminist who wasn't on board with the goal of equity and equality for all genders, and equity and equality for all women, but outside that core value, even when it comes to how any of us think we can best reach that goal, there is a lot of diversity.

Some feminists are okay with pornography or sex work (in general and/or when it comes to themselves or partners participating in either). Others are not. Our feelings can also depend on what we're talking about, be that about how porn is is made or in what environment sex work takes place, what activities or attitudes either include, if it is violent or nonviolent or how someone sees or utilizes it. For some, these opinions are based on how those things make them feel about themselves, while for others it's more about the perceived impact (or lack of impact) they see or understand porn or sex work as having on women as a class or on the women who do sex work.

If it helps, here are some pieces to show you a brief spectrum of feminist thought and positions on pornography and sex work, which perhaps can help you better figure out your own stance:

You'll see a lot of polarization around these issues, but there are more than two "sides" and there are a lot of us who are somewhere in the middle of the pro- and anti- poles.

You'll also want to suss out how much of this is about porn in the first place. For instance, is it his looking at pornography that is making you feel so bad, or is it that you feel bad about a partner thinking of anyone besides you sexually (which pretty much everyone will do at least from time to time), and pornography is simply making that tangible and real? Is this really about his use of porn, or is it about your own body image or sexual self-image? If he cut back on or stopped using the porn, would that take care of this, or might you need something else from him entirely or additionally, like a little more affirmation than he has strong sexual feelings for you or some changes in your sex life?

I couldn't help but notice you said you've been struggling with issues around your own body and feelings of sexual inadequacy. I'd expect, in a sexual relationship you have chosen to stay in that it supports you feeling good about yourself sexually and benefits your sexuality. A partner can't give us esteem we don't have or radically improve our esteem just by finding us sexy or attractive, but in a good sexual relationship, we should feel wanted and sexy, just as we are, without having to try too hard. If you feel like you really don't this far into a relationship -- especially if this has been a constant -- or that the particular dynamics of this relationship or the parts of it that are sexual have made you feel less sexy or less happy sexually, I'd take that into consideration in terms of if this really is still a sound relationship for you.

I know that this process of evaluating a long-term relationship you have valued -- thus, why you have probably stayed in it this long -- can feel scary, and I also know that if you haven't set hard limits or negotiated difficult issues, it can seem daunting.

But let's rally your feminist self here: in a mutually beneficial partnership of equals, advocating for yourself is not just okay, it's essential. If you don't do that, and a relationship isn't truly made of both people's wants and needs being in consideration and alignment, but of one partner who just does what they want and another who merely acquiesces, then it's not a partnership of equals. Voicing issues like this can't destroy a healthy, loving relationship: it can only strengthen it and make it a better place for both partners. If a partner loves who we are, they want to really know who we are, even if that may challenge them in some ways or facilitate a need to re-negotiate something or reconsider the nature of our relationship.

Here are a few more relevant links from the site to grow on:

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