I think Jacqui Smith, whose programme Porn Again was broadcast on BBC 5 Live last night, is brave to talk openly about her husband using pornography. It’s certainly caused a sensation, and, as some people suggest, whether or not she’s using this as an opportunity to open up a career in journalism isn’t the point. But pornography being a major issue in society certainly is. I discovered just how much during my research for Sex, Meaning and the Menopause.
Until I started writing the book, I hadn’t given pornography much thought. Of course I was well aware of it. I can remember watching a couple of porn movies on video as a much younger woman, encouraged by my then new boyfriend. It did nothing for me. And that was the end of the relationship.
These days, anyone with a computer has access to over 500 million porn sites. I find these numbers appalling, especially as most of the content is not regulated. It is horrendous to know how many children are accessing these sites.
It’s also easy to think that pornography is the province of younger people. But this is certainly not so. Sexual changes that women experience during the menopause cause many a husband (possibly including Jacqui Smith’s) to reach for his computer.
Of course, some women continue to be just as sexually active as they were before the menopause. Some even experience an increase in their libido. But many I discovered, had lost interest and only had sex to keep their husbands quiet. Others found sex so painful that penetration was no longer possible. But in a porn-fuelled culture that equates sex with penetration, husbands and partners in most cases were finding this difficult to accept.
So what’s an older man to do when he still wants sex and his partner doesn’t? Being unfaithful is one option. Visiting a prostitute is another. But most men I spoke to did not want to cheat on their wives. They loved them, and cherished what they had built up together. So, being healthy sexually active people, this is where porn seems to come in. One man in particular found pornography the only way he could survive after his wife reached the menopause. He’d never told his wife about it, but he said she had probably guessed.
However, Wendy Maltz, an American sex therapist, and author of The Porn Trap, told me that it can be very difficult for older wives and partners when they discover their husbands are using porn to compensate for a lack of sex. It’s not just the rumpus caused by being found out. Pornography, said Wendy, is highly addictive, and men often become less emotionally available when they use it. This puts added stress on a relationship already undergoing huge changes at this crucial time of life. Therefore, it can sometimes be the last straw.
It‘s well known that men and women have different sexual needs. As one man said to me when I was researching the book, evolution is very unfair. In his experience, women were happy to have sex to attract their mate and to have their babies. After that, everything seemed to go to pot, and all made terminal around the menopause. Most men, he correctly noted, remain driven by their sexuality, yet all hell breaks loose if they have sex with other women. As for using pornography – it’s the most dreadful thing to have done. ‘Yes,’ he said with feeling, ‘evolution is bloody unfair.’
So sex and pornography is a extremely complex issue that continues to be so as we grow older. Personally, I have always admired the fourth century BC Greek playwright Sophocles, who, aged 70, replied to the question whether he still had sex: ‘Hush, man; most gladly indeed am I rid of it all, as though I had escaped from a mad and savage master.’ And he wasn’t talking about his wife.
I wonder what Jacqui Smith’s husband is thinking.