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Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 14:00 UK

Is porn still a dirty secret?

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News Magazine

Richard Timney
Remorseful in public: Jacqui Smith's husband Richard Timney

Remove the public apology, the expenses claim and the blizzard of headlines and Richard Timney's humiliation is one many other men will identify with - to have been caught by one's partner watching pornography.

The weekend's news coverage was dominated by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's husband Richard Timney having to apologise for watching two pay-per-view adult films and charging it to his wife's expense forms.

Quite apart from the political fallout from the expense claim, Mr Timney's late-night surreptitious viewing of two pornographic films has caused his wife severe embarrassment.

But could it also be construed as an infidelity? How much of a betrayal could this act be seen as?

When my missus goes to bed, I'm like other guys, I'll have a look now and then
Radio 5 Live caller

Mr Timney watched two films via a mainstream cable TV package last year - the same package, the expenses show, which allowed him to also view the rather less racy crime caper Ocean's 13 (which he watched twice, for the record).

Before the advent of the internet and multi-channel TV, pornography was something that had to be sought from outside the home. Today, all it takes is a few clicks on a computer or a remote control.

This instant, cheap access to a limitless variety of porn has inevitably made a dent on society's attitudes - although the suspicion cast over Mr Timney shows it's by no means a mainstream pursuit. Certainly, many callers to a BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in were more angered by the fact the films had been claimed for on MPs' expenses rather than for their salacious content.

Home access

"Men are different to women," one caller who admitted to an occasional porn habit said. "When my missus goes to bed, I'm like other guys, I'll have a look now and then."

Others - men and women - said pornography need not be seen as a threat to a relationship, something akin to an affair. In fact, if watched by a couple together, it could be seen as a way of keeping their sex life healthy, some said. Not everyone agreed. But one caller who complained of it being dirty or seedy, was accused by others of being a "prude".

One caller to 5 Live suggested Mr Timney needed to admit to his wife what it was he was looking for out of pornography. Another summed it up in a different way - we shouldn't care about what our partners are watching to get turned on, as long as we are the ones reaping the benefits.

How can a man have a midlife crisis when he's never left puberty?
Author Kathy Lette

But what about those who are frequently called on to judge these sort of relationship dilemmas?

Responding to just such a dilemma in her column last year, Observer relationships counsellor Mariella Frostrup was roundly dismissive of the notion that pornography is a liberating force in relationships.

"To me, it's undeniable that a man who spends his off-peak time fantasising about women as one-dimensional sex objects will have his attitudes to them in real life impaired by such a 'hobby'."

Author and relationships commentator Kathy Lette, whose new book is called To Love, Honour and Betray - Till Divorce Us Do Part, is more sanguine, describing the weekend's story as a "storm in a teacup". She doesn't equate it with an affair.

"Boys will be boys - and so will a lot of middle aged men who should know better. The question on the minds of most wives today is, how can a man have a midlife crisis when he's never left puberty?

Remote control
Material that used to be illegal to trade in can now be seen with a few clicks

"It's so cliched isn't it? Husband watching porn behind his wife's back. It's more corn than porn. Jacqui Smith's husband has now been exposed as a cornographer."

The Spectator's agony aunt Mary Killen doesn't necessarily see the porn watching as a breakdown of a relationship. But she is highly aware of its capacity to embarrass - because to many it still has the aura of a furtive activity, one which needs to be hidden or kept secret.

A late friend of hers, a writer, once spent a night in a hotel room while on a story for the highbrow magazine Country Life, she says, and watched a pornographic film. The film, naturally, came up on the hotel bill - and the bill was later queried by the magazine's accounts department.

"He never wrote for Country Life again because he felt the woman in the accounts department was revolted by him," Ms Killen says.

What if her own partner had been watching porn films late at night on his own? "I think he would be doing it out of curiosity or because his friends did it, but not because he wanted a 'virtual relationship'."

The fact that much of the shock over this incident is over the £10 initially claimed for in Ms Smith's expenses, and not the nature of what Mr Timney was watching, perhaps reveals how pornography in relationships has become more broadly accepted.

Below is a selection of your comments.

When I took my marriage vows, I made the vow "forsaking all others" - this does not simply mean not having affairs, this relates to any kind of infidelity. If marriage were properly understood and cherished as it should be, a husband would find such delight in his wife that he would find it abhorrent to consider getting sexual gratification from any other woman in any way whatsoever. Moreover, in a marriage, two people give themselves to each other. I no longer belong to myself, I belong to my wife; as she to me. If I choose to use pornography, I am robbing my wife of part of what belongs to her, namely, my sexual desire. This is even before we start discussing the fact that pornography degrades and reduces people to the level of unreasoning beasts.
Steve, Hull

Steve, I like your attitude. However, I also disagree with you in some ways. I enjoy some porn and also don't mind my partner watching porn alone provided I know about it first - as long as both partners are in agreement about it I don't see the problem (in fact we often tease each other about it).
Catherine, Leicester

I really can't see the problem with occasionally wanting to look at a sexy body; I'm a man who finds women attractive. I'm guessing evolution has steered me into enjoying the female form in all its poses... so what's the point of apologising for natural instincts. I can only guess that people who have issues relating to sexuality etc would complain about pornography.
Dave F, Leeds

Give the man a break. He obviously wasn't thinking straight when he charged the porn to his wife's expense account; and therein ends his error. You either like porn or you don't. It is a fantasy, like many other things, that is good for you in moderation. Hold your head up high Richard (but don't tell my wife that I support you).
Murwayi, London

I, too, think that the viewing of porn is linked with men and women's natural instincts, although of course the material itself is so terribly fake. Yet because of the conservative society in which we still live, it seems many feel they must lie about their covert passion for a bit of thigh. Little do they know that their partner probably shares their hobby, albeit also in secret. My boyfriend is very open about his interest, for which I thank him. If only the rest of society could cotton on. Sensationalising one of the most mundane concerns of everyday life is so 1950s. Let's move on.
Isabelle, Prague, Czech Republic

I couldn't care less about Mr Timney watching what are doubtless the tamest of "adult" films. I am not in the least surprised that this MP has claimed this sort of expense. I wonder how many others have. What concerns me is that this couple's satellite or cable bill has been leaked to a newspaper, presumably, by some employee of a company entrusted with their personal details. To my mind this is the matter that should be the subject of investigation and public outcry and should lead to the sacking of the person leaking these private details.
Alasdair McDonald, Windsor

Porn, soft or hard, is bad for the soul, not good for relationships either because it is false sex and unjust and demeaning to women. Sooner or later porn corrupts and disfigures the truth. Verdict: pornography is very destructive.
Denis Jackson, Bradford

There is nothing wrong or seedy about porn. It's when people feel ashamed or become secretive about it when it becomes a problem. Whether you enjoy it with your partner, or by yourself, as long as you are upfront and honest about it then where is the problem ? It is not perverse or taboo to pander to your libido every now and then which is one of the most natural instincts we have. If that means on occasion having to use porn to achieve this, then great, why the hell not. It is certainly nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about.
Jock, Tonbridge

I am shocked at the underlying assumption in this piece, it is not just men who watch it. Myself and my partner often enjoy it together, and both readily admit to enjoying it alone. As long as it's not replacing something missing from a relationship where is the problem? Does a love of romantic films mean you're focusing that side of you on someone else in the same way porn is considered cheating? I watched Se7en a few days ago, so does that equate to my secretly yearning to be a serial killer? Of course not.
Simon, Southampton

I think it is insulting for a man to prefer porn to making love with his wife. It destroys an important part of the relationship.
Marlene, Pendle

Mere irony that Smith is the politician who has done more than any in our recent history to undermine the privacy and especially sexual rights of the British people.
Dominic, Tyne & Wear

I have nothing but sympathy for both him and his wife, for so-called "dirty laundry" to be aired in public like that. Who has the right to throw stones at someone for watching pornography? No-one, it's an outlet of human expression. It might not be perceived as a nice one by some, but that is down to opinion. He made a mistake, got caught, admitted the error, and doesn't deserve to be publically judged like this. If watching porn is the worst thing this man has done in his relationship, he is probably a moral model for the rest of society.
Jennifer Hand, Dundee, Scotland

Only in Britain. Most European countries wouldn't even turn a hair. What galls our continental neighbours is that we are so prudish and worried about things like this, and yet our mid-teenagers reproduce far more than theirs, and our young abroad are some of the most promiscuous in the world.
Nigel Williams, London

I agree; there appears to be a "Victorian" tendency to porn in Britain. It's sad that couples who are supposed to have committed to each other cannot share all aspects of their sexual being and agree to each others' boundaries - whether that be approval or agreement not to view porn. I don't have a problem with it, as long as consensual adults are participating - and I believe can become very wealthy from their jobs. Maybe if couples (married or not) could talk freely to each other their would be less broken families and a lower divorce rate. One can hope, eh?
Bee, Colchester, UK

It seems that the men commenting here are saying there is nothing wrong with watching porn movies. Well, maybe not, but speaking as a lady who has been in love with her guy for more than 20 years, I would be devastated to learn that he watched porn movies on his own. I do not want images of actresses paid to look sexy in his head. Hey, you guys, discuss with your partners.
Pat, Swansea

What is prostitution? It is selling your body for the sexual gratification of another. That is exactly what pornography is. To say that is does no one any harm is deluded. If someone is looking at porn, they are holding their partner up to a standard that cannot be met. If they are not in a relationship, then they may expect their potential partner to act in a way that porn stars act, which really does not happen in real life. Many of the women have been abused before, or are tricked into the industry, not realising how emotionally damaging it can be.
Dave, Bristol

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