Sex

How Pornography Use Affects Couples Sexual Health

Emerging research provides clues on how, and for whom, pornography affects sex.

Posted Jan 11, 2021

According to a 2018 Gallup poll, pornography use is seen as morally acceptable among a rising percentage of Americans, moving from 30 percent approval in 2011 to 43 percent by 2018. This trend follows overall movement toward more liberal beliefs across the boards. When it comes to pornography, the biggest changes were seen among unmarried people and adult males under age 49. Factors such as religion and political orientation affect porn acceptance, with a far smaller percentage of conservative and religious people finding porn morally OK.

Despite growing acceptance, there is serious concern that pornography causes real harm: exploitation and risk to performers, damage to the capacity for healthy relationship and interfering with relationship and sexual satisfaction, addictive potential, illegal activity supporting human trafficking and child abuse, and contribution to the general societal trend to objectify and present unrealistic expectations for physical attributes as well as what healthy sexual behavior is. These are public health and human rights concerns, overlapping with moral concerns and calls for ethical porn, just as trauma and moral injury overlap, requiring greater attention and activism

Pornography and long-term relationship

Of particular interest is the impact of pornography on marriage. According to a study in the Journal of Sexual Research (2018), pornography has a negative impact on most committed relationships. There are exceptions, but they are not typical. Looking at over 6000 couples, they found that anxiety about the relationship (anxious attachment) was associated with greater relationship satisfaction with own pornography use by men and lower satisfaction when women used porn.

Men were three times more likely to report porn use, and marginally more accepting of pornography. In general, they found that low pornography acceptance among porn users was associated with lower relationship satisfaction, though for men only higher acceptance was associated with greater relationship satisfaction. Pornography use was generally associated with anxious attachment and lower relationship satisfaction. However, work on how pornography use affects sexual satisfaction requires further study.

To understand the connection between pornography and sexual health, Vaillancort-Morel and colleagues, in their recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (2021) surveyed 217 couples, including 72 same-sex couples, together at least one year, and sexually active, who completed approximately one month of daily reports.

They estimated pornography use, and whether it was solitary, with their partner, or both; sexual satisfaction on days sexually active, using the Global Measure of Sexual Satisfaction; sexual distress using the Female Sexual Distress Scale-Revised (also validated for men) estimating distress about sex life, inferiority feelings because of sexual issues, and sexual worries; sexual function via the Monash Female Sexual Satisfaction Questionnaire (with men’s version), asking about sexual desire, receptiveness, ease of arousal, quality of erection or lubrication, orgasm and experience of pleasure; and frequency of masturbation.

Findings

In terms of basic statistics, in this convenience sample, over 35 days half of couples reported pornography use on the same day they had sex. By and large, pornography use was not related to sexual health on most study measures. While future research is warranted to look at a more diverse sample, pornography use here was not associated with sexual satisfaction, ease of sexual arousal, orgasm, or pleasure, and did not strongly relate to sexual distress overall. Masturbation was unrelated to one's own or partner's sexual satisfaction, distress or function.

However, there were two significant findings. First, solo pornography use on days when couples had sex was related to increased partner sexual distress. The negative impact on partner distress was true for both men and women, suggesting increased feelings of inadequacy and potential lower quality of sexual engagement (e.g. the partner who used porn may have had changes in behavior and emotions during sex) on those days they had sex when their partner used pornography without them.

Study authors note that some people using pornography alone on days they had sex might have had sex with partners before using pornography, in which case partner distress may be related to later pornography use.

Second, women reported better lubrication on the days pornography was used, whereas men did not report better quality erection, the analogous measure. Authors note that prior research points toward an entourage effect, where couples pornography use is associated with greater sexual openness, that it may help couples normalize, talk about and play out sexual fantasies, and general facilitate sex positivity.

This is in line with research showing that women's sexual satisfaction is directly related to how well women express what works for them (2017), and couples talk about and maintain a positive attitude toward, sex (2017). This can be further facilitated by couples groups in which couples speak together about intimate issues, thereby increasing overall relationship satisfaction (2017).

Further considerations

Sexual and relationship issues are on the rise, driven by COVID-19-related stress, loneliness and depression, with increased conflict and decreased intimacy (2020). For many couples, pornography has a corrosive effect, much like infidelity in some ways. As with infidelity (2019), open marriage, or parenting marriages, sexual activity outside the couple may also be stabilizing, a factor strongly affected by moral and social norms.

For other couples, those more accepting of pornography and generally sex positive, with more secure attachment to one another, pornography may be useful and pleasurable component of their sex life—as long as it does not cause insecurity in partners or negatively impact sexual behavior and attitudes. The research discussed here, while preliminary, serves as a springboard for discussion and may offer insight for some couples.

As pornography acceptance is a crucial factor, finding out how aligned partners are on pornography is a key part of talking about sexual and relationship satisfaction. Given that sexual satisfaction tends to decline in the majority of marriages over time (2019), it’s important to talk about sex openly for couples seeking long-term stability and satisfaction. 

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