An essay in which I discuss pornography, marital infidelity, and Ceara Lynch.
Where’s the line?
In 2006, the marriage of Christie Brinkley and Peter Cook collapsed the old-fashioned way when she discovered that he was sleeping with his 18-year-old assistant. But their divorce trial that summer was a distinctly internet-age affair. Having insisted on keeping the proceedings open to the media, Brinkley and her lawyers served up a long list of allegations about Cook’s taste in online porn: the $3,000 a month he dropped on adult web sites, the nude photos he posted online, the swinger sites he visited, and even the videos he made of himself masturbating. As juicy as these porn-related revelations were, the most interesting thing about them was the ambiguity about what line, precisely, Cook had crossed. The notion that pornography has something to do with marital infidelity has been floating around the edges of the American conversation for a while. But the attention paid to the connection between porn and infidelity didn’t really translate into anything like a consensus on what that connection is.
Increasing usage of porn or marriage instability – which came first?
During the past few decades, a number of academic studies have examined the qualitative relationship between pornography use and marriage. With few exceptions, however, these studies lack both objective measurements and sufficiently robust data samples to establish a generalized connection between pornography usage and marital stability. In fact, less than a handful of studies explored any empirical connection between pornography use and divorce at all, and those that did were unable to discern whether divorce occurred because of porn use or vice versa.
Perhaps the most scientifically rigorous of these studies was conducted in 2017 by Samuel Perry and Cyrus Schleifer of the University of Oklahoma. Their study, “Till Porn Do Us Part? Longitudinal Effects of Pornography Use on Divorce” (published in the Journal of Sex Research, Vol 55:3) found that under certain social conditions, pornography usage has a negative effect on marital stability. Specifically, their analysis showed that increased pornography viewership habits during marriage increased the probability of divorce (from 6 to 11 percent for men, and nearly tripled from 6 percent to 16 percent for women.) This was particularly true for the internet generations in which the study found that the younger an adult was when he or she began watching pornography, the higher his or her probability of getting divorced. Religiosity also seemed to played a role. For those married persons who did not attend religious services regularly, increased pornography use was associated with an increase in probability of divorce (from 6 percent to 12 percent.) By contrast, those who attended religious services at least weekly saw virtually no increase in the probability of divorce despite increased viewing of pornographic material. Whether couples perceived their marriage as happy also seemed to play a role; an increase in pornography viewership seemed to rock an otherwise happy marriage to the point of divorce, though it didn’t seem to make an unhappy marriage any worse than it already was. Interestingly, Perry and Schleifer also found that women who discontinued the use of pornography reduced their risk of divorce (from 18 to 6 percent), whereas porn discontinuance by men made no appreciable difference in their probability of divorce.
So what does this all mean? The Perry and Schleifer study, like most others, is correlative. That is, none of the studies clearly indicate that porn use causes marriages to break up. Despite exceptions where erotic media are used as a part of love-making and thus may yield positive returns, their study suggests that pornography use is an indicator of marital problems and that, taken together with prior research, increased pornography use has at least some direct negative impact on marital stability. What it doesn’t show is whether increased porn use causes, or is a result of, marital problems. Nor does it address what thresholds of pornography usage or what type of pornography being used pose the greatest risk to marriages. And it’s the last issue – what type of pornographic material is being used – that may be most relevant.
It’s not your grandfather’s porn
The days of purchasing magazines and videos from an adult book store are long gone. Over the past three decades, the internet has completely changed the way in which people interact with porn. The porn we see is weirder, wilder, and more particular than what most of us will ever have – or want – in our own lives. Online porn has become a laboratory of the sexual imagination. Pornographic scene-setting, erotic situations, and role-playing are being reinvented to accommodate ever-expanding imaginations. Some of the porn is pedestrian and conventional, some contrived and unbelievable, and some only acceptable when they are taboo. Technological innovation has piled on technological innovation, making modern pornography a more immediate, visceral, and personalized experience than ever before. Undoubtedly the internet has changed the very nature of pornography.
The vast majority of people no longer pay to watch porn. The content consumers watch is being paid for by advertisements or, for subscription porn sites, by a slim minority whose spending is lucrative enough to keep the site afloat. That minority skews to the niche, fringe, and extreme. And the handful of people willing to pay for that kind of porn are really into it. Niche audiences have a harder time finding their thing at volumes great enough to titillate and surprise on a regular basis. So niche porn producers oblige them by customizing content to those highly specific tastes. Designing specific experiences for fans through private webcam shows, personalized video clips, and social media interactions can be highly lucrative. And for those niche porn consumers, they are no longer merely witnessing sex acts, they are actively participating in the fantasy being produced. And it’s here that the barrier between online pornographic fantasy play and marital infidelity becomes less and less solid. If you approach infidelity as a continuum of betrayal rather than an either/or proposition, then the Internet era has ratcheted the experience of pornography much closer to adultery than I suspect most porn users would care to admit.
But before I go deeper down that rabbit hole, I need to say a few words about infidelity.
Though a large majority of people in the United States do not believe that porn use is a form of adultery, porn use comes up in divorce proceedings more often than you’d expect. An informal survey of 350 lawyers attending the annual meeting o f the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in 2002 claimed that “an obsessive interest in internet pornography” was a significant factor in 56% of their divorce cases the prior year. And porn usage is the most cited cause of ‘Constructive Desertion’ — meaning the spouse is at fault for emotionally abandoning their partner and withdrawing from sexual intimacy.
Undoubtedly increasing pornography usage will often lead to withdrawal of sexual intimacy, but in these cases the root cause for the breakdown in marriage is less about pornography and more about a betrayal of trust. If you posit that adultery lies on a continuum of betrayal and that there are many different levels and ways to betray your partner’s trust, some more onerous than others, then where the use of pornography lies on that continuum depends on how much secrecy is connected with a spouse’s porn viewing habits. Fact is, there are few things that will tear apart a relationship as much as snooping around and keeping secrets.
So the argument about porn breaking up marriages goes something like this. When the secret is that one half of the relationship is not only imagining but actively soliciting and paying for sexually stimulating play with another person over the internet, the other half in the relationship feels betrayed. After all, sex can be one of the better parts of being in a committed relationship. It can connect partners and provide a way to express the deepest emotions of love and intimacy. When one half of a relationship views and masturbates to customized porn, they aren’t sharing intimate moments with their partner, but instead are having those moments on a computer screen with a persona who is delivering customized erotic fantasy play using internet-enabled technology. It’s not just constructive abandonment. It’s virtual adultery.
But it may not be quite so simple. The larger truth is, generally speaking, men and women view sex differently. While there are plenty of women who can compartmentalize and separate sex from love, there are far more men who can. Married men who have a one-time fling are often telling the truth when they say, “She meant nothing to me.” And so it is with customized pornography. It really is just sex. But for most women (and a number of men), sex cannot be so transactional. It is bound up with emotional need – to feel we excite our partner above all others, to believe that we have primacy in their lives. So the question is whether it’s possible to act on our desires sensibly while maintaining the special equilibrium we trust our marriages to preserve. Do we know our relationships well enough to allow our partner to go outside them?
Relationship and sex advice journalist, Dan Savage, thinks we probably don’t. Sexual fulfillment matters in its own right, but mainly it matters because without it, relationships are more likely to break apart. It is for the sake of staying together – not merely for the sake of orgasms – that Savage coined his famous acronym, G.G.G. — lovers ought to be ‘good, giving, and game’ (put another way, skilled, generous, and up for anything.) And if they cannot fulfill all of each other’s desires, then it may be advisable to decide to go outside the bounds of marriage if that is what it takes to make a marriage work. Savage says a more realistic sexual ethic would prize honesty, a little flexibility, and when necessary forgiveness. In short, he things the youth-filled assumption that “all relationships are monogamous and between two people, that love means nothing can come between you” is unrealistic. It’s not about an open-relationship as much as it’s about acknowledging that your partner may have different tastes. And that if you’re not G.G.G. with those tastes, then you have to give your partner the out.
Savage’s honesty ethic gives couples permission to find happiness in unusual places, including pornography. And according to Savage there’s another, more realistic, factor that needs to be taken into account when discussing pornography in marriage — all men look at porn. So it’s pointless to moralize about porn because men are going to use it anyway. While men shouldn’t rub their female partners noses in the fact that they look at porn – that’s just inconsiderate – telling women that the porn ‘problem’ can be resolved through good communication, couples counseling, or a chat with your pastor is neither helpful or realistic. Given the choice between men using porn or abandoning a marriage, Savage things porn use should be tolerated. Marriage is just too important to let a secret internet-enabled virtual pornographic dalliance destroy it.
Most people, however, aren’t so enlightened. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, Americans have evolved an understanding of marriage in which partners must meet all of each other’s needs — sexual, emotional, material. When we rely on our partners for everything, any hint of betrayal is terrifying. So as good as Savage’s ‘good, giving, and game’ advice may be, most couples are afraid to take it. If you expect to have only one person be all things sexually for you, then you have to be whores for each other. You have to be up for anything. But rather than broach the subject of our fetishes or wildest fantasies with our mates, we opt for a tacit code of reticence. Because we’re afraid. We’re afraid of not being everything to our partner. We’re afraid that they might find someone worthier. We’re afraid of being alone.
And so we keep our secrets. And turn to the privacy and comfort of the internet to satisfy our desires.
It’s just fantasy, right?
Porn has always been a place for indulging irrational, secret, socially unacceptable desires. It’s a place where people feel free to let their fantasies run wild, a place where fetishes and eroticized taboos can be indulged if only in fantasy and not real life. One such online fantasy play space place is the porn genre inhabited by Ceara Lynch — erotic humiliation.
As fetishes go, erotic humiliation is an extremely small niche in the porn industry. Less than 1% of all the videos available for viewing on the world’s largest porn web site, Pornhub, are erotic humiliation and related videos. On that same site Ceara Lynch’s public account has barely 1.5% the number of followers as that of the most popular porn stars. Yet, Ceara’s popularity within the genre can’t be overstated. Her business model is built around providing a fantasy fetish experience that is personalized and more accessible than that of a mainstream porn star. The video clips she produces are custom-made to meet customers’ specific requests. The infrequent webcam sessions she has are one-on-one and personal. In short, nothing is mass-produced. Everything is personalized.
It’s not uncommon for online cam girls to develop a personal video-based friendship with their more devoted customers; to evolve a relationship that goes beyond masturbation into something more intimate and familiar. Perhaps what makes Ceara most successful is her ability to compartmentalize her job’s fantasy play from reality; to construct boundaries and maintain a professional relationship with her customers without alienating them. During a recent interview with Holly Rand on 8 Dec 2018, Ceara discussed her interactions with her customers. With few exceptions, aside from their fetish preferences, Ceara knows very little about the lives of her customers. She respects their desire to remain anonymous and detached. She strives to keep the relationship professional, discrete, impersonal and harmless (particularly to people who have not consented to be involved in the play.) She’s a professional sex worker so to her it’s just about sex and masturbation. There’s no emotional investment. It doesn’t really mean anything. Except it’s erotic humiliation. Which, from a genuinely submissive male’s perspective, might lend itself to being about a bit more.
The most common feedback Ceara receives from the myriad of customers who purchase her videos is “I felt like you were talking directly to me.” Even though the dialogue in the video is one-way, that feedback hints at the effectiveness of both the emotional and psychological impact she has on her viewers. And viewers can watch a purchased video clip over and over again, so that impact endures. For men who are conditioned by society to be ashamed of their submissiveness and of their erotic desire to be verbally and emotionally humiliated, having a beautiful woman speak directly to you about your most secret and taboo fetishes can be powerfully seductive.
Ceara makes no effort to conceal that her clips are fantasy based. Acknowledging that artifice excuses most viewers who might feel uneasy with the fantasy or need reassurance that no real coercion or humiliation is taking place. And most men are quite able to distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. But the wall between fantasy and delusion is wafer thin, particularly in an environment like the internet where technology and virtual social networks tend to subvert the fantasy-reality dichotomy. When fantasy is augmented by clips that ‘speak directly’ to the viewer and more than encourage that viewer to become addicted to stroking for her, to forgo your marriage and become her virtual slave, to encourage home wrecking .. well, it’s not hard to imagine that some men might obsess and delude themselves into believing that their darkest desires are within reach, and in a way that can be done harmlessly – compartmented off from wife, family, and a vanilla life. And so they take the plunge and commit emotional infidelity and constructive abandonment. But does that man really exist, or it is just conjecture? A hypothetical?
In that same interview with Holly Rand, Ceara said she has never received any feedback from wives girlfriends, or partners that her clips or online play had caused harm to a relationship. No phone calls. No emails. She’s not aware of any real or anecdotal evidence that her work has ever ruined the lives of her customers or their families. Yet, when I run the statistics and crunch the numbers*, there’s a good probability that the deluded submissive male hypothesized in the preceding paragraph does exist.
So is Ceara Lynch a home wrecker?
As mentioned previously, the relationship between porn and marriage stability is still largely unknown. It’s not clear if excessive pornography use causes increased risk of divorce, of if increased risk of divorce causes excessive pornography use by men inside their marriage. I suspect, however, that the unique features and attributes of Ceara Lynch’s online erotic humiliation videos lend themselves to ‘obsessive use’ in a way mainstream pornography doesn’t.
Ceara Lynch is no intentional home wrecker. In that regard, however, her porn is more dangerous than most. Though she bears no direct culpability for any divorce which may be attributed to obsessive use of her pornography, for those instances in which men may have delude themselves into believing that her clips are more than just fantasy, it’s not a stretch to suggest she has abetted emotional infidelity and constructive abandonment, and contributed to the conditions that lead to divorce.
* From the CDC, there were 825, 000 divorces in the US last year. Assuming that the percentage of divorces in which porn usage was a factor remained at 56% then the number of porn-related divorces in the US last year was approximately 462,000. I then used Pornhub video views for Ceara Lynch (1.9M) and those of their most popular porn star (827M) to estimate Ceara Lynch’s percentage of the total porn viewership (0.22%.) Applying this percentage to porn-related divorces last year provides an estimate as to how many divorces may have been due to ‘an obsessive interest in Ceara Lynch pornography’ (1016).