Hello, Internet! Welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating column with a graduate degree from the Unseen University.

This week, we’re untangling tricky emotional issues. One reader wants to know whether his porn habit and his girlfriend are mutually incompatible. Another wants to know how to rebuild himself as a caring, honest individual after years of being a manipulative piece of crap. How can they thread these particular needles?

Let’s do this.

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Hi there Doc,

I’m in a relationship with a really awesome girl. Everything is amazing, buuuut...

She recently spotted the existence of porn on my computer (under my chrome “frequently visited sites” page) while we were surfing for air tickets, and she looked very very disturbed about it. She told me that it doesn’t bother her, but she definitely is. To be clear, this is a girl that I’m sleeping with and who has literally seen me taking a dump, so I don’t think this this is a boundaries/personal space issue. She’s just very disturbed by me looking at other people having sex.

Is there a good way to have this conversation? What do you think about going porn-free for a partner? I want to promise her I’ll scourge my computer of porn and never touch any of it again, but, let’s be honest, odds are good i’ll backslide and hurt the trust between us.

I’d love to hear from you; you seem like a really hoopy frood who knows where his towel is.

Internet Explorer

Here’s the thing about porn: pretty much everyone uses it, men and women. The biggest difference between men’s porn consumption and women’s porn consumption is generally the medium; men edge out on videos while women tend to consume more stories, although that’s changing.

Porn is, quite literally, one of our oldest art forms. As soon as humans developed abstract reasoning and symbolic representation, we promptly started drawing dicks, boobs and couples pounding it on every flat surface we could find. Cave drawings, statuary, pottery, tapestries, and paintings have all been part of the great history of humanity’s quest to get off by watching other people bone. People were taking nude daguerreotypes almost as soon as the process was developed and one of the first movies ever shown was the nudie cutie “What The Butler Saw” on Edison’s Kinetoscopes. Porn has also almost single-handedly shaped the direction of technology in the 20th and 21st century. If you enjoy watching Let’s Plays on YouTube, chatting with your friends on Skype and buying things from Amazon, then you can thank porn for pioneering plug-in free video streaming, secure credit card transactions via the web and two-way video conferencing.

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Porn has also been a great source of contention in many a relationship, as it may well be in yours. Right now, all we have is speculation; you’re pretty sure that your girlfriend isn’t cool with your watching porn but you don’t know for sure. This is why you should, y’know, use your words.

Sit down with your girlfriend and talk about it with her. Before you make any grand gestures like swearing off porn forever (and likely sneaking it on the side) you should find out how she actually feels. She seemed bothered, so ask her what it is that disturbed her instead of assuming she just default hates porn.

It could be that she has some legitimate gripes with porn: many porn companies exploit their performers, much of it is almost absurdly sexist and racist and, frankly, watching too much of it tends to make you a lousy lover.

Or it could be that she’s bothered by some of what she saw that you get off to. We tend to assume that en masturbation, veritas and assume that what people fantasize about is their “real” selves instead of just something that happens to get their engines going. If you were watching some gonzo facial abuse porn or hardcore BDSM, she might well think that this is what you actually want and worry that you’re about to ask her for something she’s uncomfortable with. Similarly, she may see a difference between her and the actresses and feel as though that you’re not satisfied with her.

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Or it could be that she’s upset that you’re watching it instead of being with her, which could well be a simple exercise in miscommunication. For many people, masturbation and partnered sex are two very different things; one is an intimate experience (even if you’re both just looking to fuck) and one is a simple “wham bam thank you glans” to get things out of the way.

She might see fantasizing about others as being a form of infidelity and believe that if you really loved her, she would be all you need. Which is nice in theory, but in practice, that’s not how monogamy works. A monogamous commitment just means that you won’t sleep with other people; it doesn’t say a damn thing about not wanting to. For many people, porn is a quick and easy way to get the sexual novelty they crave without betraying their partner’s trust.

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Or it could well be that she’s annoyed that you’re watching it without her. Plenty of women love watching porn with their partners.

But right now, you don’t know. You’re making assumptions, and that’s making an ass out of you and ‘mptions. So sit down, talk it out, and figure out where everybody stands before you make any grand sweeping gestures that you can’t actually live up to.

And if it turns out that she does have a problem with porn for porn’s sake? Don’t make promises that you already know you can’t keep; all that does is put a ticking timebomb into your relationship, waiting to blow up the trust she has in you. Talk it out; she explains how she feels, you explain how you feel, and then see if you can reach a compromise. That compromise could well be that you’ll pretend that you don’t watch porn any more and she’ll pretend to believe you. Then it’s on you to provide her with the plausible deniability that lets her keep the belief intact—no jerking it while she’s in the house, no files on your hard drive or your phone (that’s what Dropbox and PornHub are for), clear your browser history as soon as you’re done and get used to using incognito mode.

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Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove

I’ve treated women like crap. This isn’t a “I think I was a creep” e-mail, this is an “I know I was a creep” e-mail. I’ll preface this by saying I’ve only had safe, consensual sex my whole life, and that I’ve had a fair share of sexual partners (In the double digits) but very few actual sexual encounters (1 to 10 per partner). I’m trying my damnedest to transition out of being an f-boy and into being a genuinely good human being, but I haven’t found advice on how.

When I was young, I was a sweetheart. I was an absolute angel to my mother and had more female friends than male ones. I was very popular, and probably would have been a fantastic boyfriend if my life hadn’t spun around in Middle school.

My parents are first generation Americans, so my punishments as a child were old school. Old school as in belts marks and crying followed by weeks of being grounded. I had an older brother who picked on me over everything, from not being able to find a talent (he is a very talented artist) to my shifting sexuality. He frequently stole from me, and when confronting my father on the issue his advice was to “Not trust anyone, even family”. As the youngest I was easily excitable and emotional, so I was often told to shut up and calm down.

With time, I grew to believe that the only way to get anything was to get angry or get it myself. My parents were constantly threatening divorce, my father was frequently unemployed and cheating, and my older brother was more interested in knocking me down a peg then defending me. So I learned not to trust anyone, especially loved ones. Stack that with being Bi in the 90s and having the internet and television as one of few friends. All of this turned a latchkey sweetheart into a trouble child.

Fast forward to my early 20s and I’ve read PUA books, needed to be told “No” more than once, and have more broken relationships than solved ones. I hadn’t spoken to my family in over 7 years, and made my way through college and into a career as a game designer on my own. My friends tried to show me where I was screwing up, but after getting that far by myself I refused to listen. Everything came crashing down a few years ago after getting a bit too chummy with a close friend’s girlfriend and overstepping another mutual female friend’s boundaries. I ended up losing my job, a few friends, and my savings. With my back against a wall I moved in with my mother and have been rebuilding myself from the ground up since.

It’s been over a year and I’m improving. I’ve stopped making crass jokes, started reaching out for non-selfish reasons, started eating healthier and thinking positive. I’m pretty close to finding a new job in my field again, and am getting comfortable in my own skin, but I have to ask: How do I know I’m fixed? I still haven’t successfully won over anyone’s affections through being genuine. Looking back, all but one of my relationships came from purposefully distancing myself emotionally. A part of me thinks it’s impossible to win over a woman with honesty, since the only way I’ve gotten physical affection is by being a jerk. My friends are all in relationships built on trust and respect, but I’m scared I might not be able to.

How do I go from an emotionally unavailable P.U.A. P.O.S. to the boyfriend I want to be? The kind that can cuddle and cry over Doctor Who, and always knows how to cheer his girlfriend up? I think I can still be the man I want to be, but I’m scared that at 27 it might be too late. Is there any hope for a recovering scumbag?

Sincerely,

A Self Serving Hermit Asshole Transitioning

Let’s start with answering your biggest concern first: no, it’s not too late. As long as you’re still breathing, it’s never too late. In my experience, I’ve not encountered anyone who couldn’t come back from the Dark Side (as it were) if they truly wanted to. And it’s pretty clear that you want to.

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Honestly, you’ve done most of the work already; you’ve identified the causes of a lot of your behavior - toxic family members, the stress of being bisexual in a time when any form of being queer was a potentially life-threatening situation, a need to prove yourself by manipulating others - and started eliminating them from your life. That’s pretty damn huge; a lot of people don’t get through that on their own.

However, the next thing you need to do may well be the hardest: you have to forgive yourself. You did some shitty things to people, you’ve burned a lot of bridges and pushed away people who cared about you. Now that you recognize this and have taken ownership of it, you have to be willing and able to forgive yourself for having been human. For having taken your pain and externalized it onto others.

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It’s good to take responsibility for what you’ve done, but using it as a scourge to continually punish yourself means that you can’t heal. Make amends where you can (provided that doing so won’t cause more pain to people you’ve already hurt) but forgive yourself and let your past be your past. It’s who you were, not who you are or who you can be. The more you hold on to your past actions, the more you prevent yourself from growing past them.

When - and only when - you’re able to forgive yourself and let go, then you’ll be ready to rebuild your life and start unlearning what you’ve learned. The biggest obstacle in your way is that you’ve spent your life learning how to present yourself as something that you’re not, and you’re unused to being open and honest with people. And in fairness: being open with someone is fucking scary. You’re deliberately making yourself vulnerable to others. But there’s strength in vulnerability. It means learning to be your most honest, most authentic self and accepting that the guy who can be sweet and sensitive can also be someone confident and charming.

I won’t lie to you: it’s going to suck. It’s going to suck for a long time. You’re going to have to start back with the basics and build yourself back up again, working to undo so many of the bad habits you’ve developed over time. You’re going to be doing things that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to you at first and that’s going to hold you back. You’re going to fuck up. But that’s ok. Fucking up is how we learn. Because you’ll fuck up less and less over time and when you grit your teeth and make it through the pain period, you will get better.

Things suck right now, I know. But they can and will get better, just so long as you’re willing to believe in yourself and your ability to change.

You’re going to be ok. I promise.

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Good luck.

Did you negotiate a porn compromise in your relationship? Have you reinvented yourself after leaving your past behind? Share your experiences and tips in the comments section, and we’ll be back in two weeks with more of your questions.

Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.