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How Pornography Really Affects Relationships

New studies of men and women find complex effects, and it's not all bad.

Source: marvent/Shutterstock

The stereotypical pornography user is a single man who surfs the internet each night, representing the idea that pornography is for people who don’t have a partner—that it’s the ultimate solitary pastime.

Of course, people with partners view pornography, too, leaving many of us wondering whether pornography use among couples affects relationship quality.

Two studies recently published in Archives of Sexual Behavior attempt to answer this question, going beyond simple assumptions that pornography is detrimental to relationships.

Taylor Kohut and his colleagues from the University of Western Ontario decided that previous research was too “top-down,” or informed by theories of human behavior that assume pornography is harmful. This method often fails to identify any positive effects of pornography use. Instead, Kohut opted for an approach that was “bottom-up."

Kohut invited denizens of the internet to visit his website to tell him about their pornography use and how it affected their relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, men reported using pornography much more than women—three to four times per week, rather than one to three times per month. Almost all of the participants reported using pornography alone, but 65 percent of men and 70 percent of women also reported using pornography with their partner. [If these numbers seem high, remember that this is a self-selecting sample of people who are willing to click on a link to a survey about pornography use.]

When it came to self-reported effects on relationships, the vast majority of participants said there was no negative impact. The 430 respondents made this comment 621 times in response to Kohut’s multiple open-ended questions. Conversely, there were only 34 references to a lack of positive effects.

The next most popular response was to claim that pornography was a good source of information about sex. I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it’s good to be informed. But is learning about sex from pornography really such a great idea? Kohut’s self-selecting sample seemed to think so.

The respondents also thought that pornography use helped them to talk about sex more openly with their partners, and provided an alternative outlet if a partner was not in the mood for sex. Some respondents acknowledged that viewing pornography might lead them to develop unreasonable expectations, decrease their interest in sex, or increase their insecurities.

Although Kohut and colleagues concede that their sample may not be representative of all couples, they encourage future researchers to ensure that their “top-down” research questions take into account the possibility that pornography use can have both positive and negative effects on relationship quality.

The Long View

In another study, Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma takes the long view. He points out that most research on pornography use acts only as a snapshot: It asks how much pornography a person watches, and how good their relationship is, at one particular moment.

This isn’t ideal, says Perry, because "while the majority of…studies generally assume that pornography use is causing marital problems, it could be that marital dissatisfaction leads to the greater use of pornography." It’s only when a researcher tracks pornography use and relationship quality over time that we can have an idea as to whether one causes the other.

Perry analyzed data from the Portraits of American Life Study (or PALS), a nationally representative survey of American adults conducted in 2006, and again with the same respondents in 2012. Respondents answered a mountain of questions, two of particular interest to Perry:

  1. How would you consider your marriage relationship?
  2. How often do you view pornographic materials?

The results showed that, in 2006, men and women who viewed more pornography tended to be less happy with their relationship. There’s no way of knowing whether the pornography use reduced relationship happiness, or if people who were less happy in their relationship turned to pornography. But when Perry compared the 2006 data with the results from six years later, he saw that those who viewed more pornography in 2006 were less happy with their relationship in 2012.

Viewing pornography doesn’t seem to be a side effect of a poor relationship, but it may precede relationship decline. Still, it isn’t possible to know for sure whether pornography use causes unhappy relationships. It could be that those whose relationships are headed for the rocks for some other unknown reason also tend to use more pornography.

Perry says:

It appears that the marriages that were most negatively affected were those of married men who were viewing pornography at the highest frequencies (once a day or more). These levels...were statistically extreme and may be suggestive of an addiction or otherwise compulsive behavior that could itself have a negative effect on romantic relationships, even if it were another behavior entirely besides porn use.

It’s not all bad news. Perry also found that women who viewed pornography at least two to three times per month in 2006 reported being happier in their relationship six years later, with the greatest increases for women whose pornography habit was the strongest.

For an audio version of this story, see the October 25, 2016 episode of "The Psychology of Attractiveness" podcast.

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Kohut, T., Fisher, W. A., and Campbell, L. (in press). Perceived effects of pornography on the couple relationship: Initial findings of open-ended, participant-informed, “bottom-up” research. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–18. View summary

Perry, S. L. (in press). Does viewing pornography reduce marital quality over time? Evidence from longitudinal data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–11. View summary

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