Pornography and Broken Relationships
New research shows how they don't always mix well, and possible reasons why.
Posted July 17, 2017 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
Pornography is a growing industry: 60 to 70 percent of men and 30 to 40 percent of women younger than age 40 use porn yearly, and 45 percent of men and 15 percent of women use it weekly (Regnerus, 2016).
As reported by NBC, Kassia Wosick, a sociologist at the University of New Mexico, estimated that the pornography industry brings in $10 to $12 billion per year in the U.S. alone, and $97 billion per year globally. The industry is connected with other businesses which support and benefit from pornography use and associated behaviors and worldviews.
Concern is high about the impact pornography may have. The negatives are substantial, including misuse of industry workers and human trafficking, child pornography, pornography addiction, problematic influences on our views of sexuality and human relationships, and interference with bonding and attachment in romantic relationships—as well as contributing to the general objectification of, primarily, women, but also men.
However, pornography may also be used in relationships in ways reported as being predominantly positive and mutual, and some sexual behaviors outside of relationships may help stabilize some relationships under certain circumstances.
In a recent survey of Australians (Rissel, et al., 2017), researchers found that in the past year, 76 percent of men and 41 percent of women had looked at pornography. Four percent of men and 1 percent of women reported being "addicted." Of those, about half report that pornography has had a "bad effect" on them, representing a small fraction of the sample, but substantial numbers, given that there are well over 20 million people in Australia.
In addition to the effect on individuals and relationships, the societal effect is considered pervasive—with contributions to undermining women's rights, greater exposure of minors to pornography, lower jail sentences for sex offenders, and an increasing tendency toward violent and dehumanizing content (Zillmann & Bryant, 1984). Women exposed to pornography as children are more accepting of rape fantasy myths (Corne, Briere & Esses, 1992).
There are many studies with similar findings, but less understanding of how pornography may affect relationships. Many subsequent studies (e.g., Pornography and Men's Violence Against Women, Part 2 2016; Consequences of Pornography Use 2016; A quantitative and qualitative examination of the impact of online pornography on the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of children and young people, 2017) have examined the potential harmful effects of pornography use in different groups.
Likewise, according to Perry & Davis, the authors of a recent study about the effect of pornography, who examined the risk years later for breaking up from a romantic relationship, there is little research on the impact of pornography on the stability of long-term relationships (2017). They cite data that supports a correlation between pornography use and divorce in a few earlier studies. In theory, one would predict that pornography use would be connected with relationship instability, in terms of its use being a sign of intimacy issues, as well as in terms of potential negative effects of pornography use on attachment and bonding in romantic relationships.
To that end, Perry & Davis examined data from 2012 and 2016 samples of the Portraits of American Life Study (PALS; Emerson and Sikkink, 2006-2012), to see whether earlier pornography use predicted future relationship instability. The PALS sample of approximately 1,000 people from a diverse, over-18 background looks at many variables, including frequency of romantic breakup, pornography viewing, and many sociodemographic factors.
Citing multiple supporting studies, the authors sought to test the following hypotheses:
1. Viewing pornography at all earlier on will predict a greater likelihood of experiencing romantic breakup later on.
It is also worth exploring whether the potential connection between viewing pornography and experiencing a romantic breakup is due to a mere presence of pornography in someone’s life or may in fact be strengthened as pornography use becomes more habitual. In other words, if pornography use negatively influences Americans’ attachments to romantic relationships or the relationships themselves, it would be reasonable to expect that greater amounts of pornography use would be associated with higher likelihoods of relational disruption later on.
Stated more formally, it is predicted that:
2. Increases in the frequency of pornography use earlier on will correspond to increases in the likelihood of experiencing romantic breakup later on.
Most studies of pornography use and heterosexual romantic relationships find that the associations are gendered, most likely owing to different use patterns between men and women. Men are likely to view pornography more often than women and are more likely to do so alone for the purposes of solo masturbation, while women are more likely to view pornography within the context of a romantic relationship as a part of lovemaking.
Consequently, researchers often find that it is men’s committed relationships that tend to be more strongly and negatively associated with their relationship quality than women, whose pornography use is often unrelated or even positively related to their relationship quality. Men’s attachment to romantic relationships or their value of sexual fidelity is also more strongly associated with porn use compared to women.
In light of this research, it is expected that:
3. The association between pornography use and experiencing a romantic breakup will be stronger for men than for women.
The researchers found that in terms of basic statistics, in 2006, 37 percent reported viewing pornographic material at least once during that year. They found that pornography viewing in 2006 was significantly correlated with the risk of breakup in 2012. Protective factors against breaking up included being married, having kids, being older, having more education, and belief in religious text and divine inspiration.
Factors which increased the odds of a breakup included being single, cohabitating, being divorced or separated, being African American, and being religiously unaffiliated. They found that the chance of experiencing a breakup in 2012 for those who used pornography in 2006 was at least 86 percent overall, supporting their first hypothesis.
Using regression analysis to tease out individual values, they found that the dose of pornography did in fact predict greater odds of a later breakup, supporting their second hypothesis. They found that for each incremental increase in "unit" of pornography, there was a 14 percent higher chance of a breakup later on.
In terms of the third hypothesis, gender differences, they found that not only were men who viewed pornography more likely to break up, but the effect of pornography on men also appeared higher. That is, while for women the difference between not viewing and viewing went from a 15.4 percent to a 23.5 percent chance of breaking up, for men it jumped from 6.3 percent to 22.5 percent. That represents a 3.5-fold increase compared with women.
Note that the total breakup rate is similar between men and women: For men who don't view porn, the breakup rate is lower than it is for women. This may be in part due to the fact that men on average experienced fewer breakups.
The following graph from their study succinctly summaries the effect of the amount of porn used on future breakup risk:
While it is tempting and perhaps common sense to believe that porn use may cause relationship instability, the data from this study are only correlational and don't prove causality. It is quite possible that, at least partially, people who view pornography are also at risk of forming unstable relationships. That is, there are common factors which predict both pornography viewing as well as the tendency to develop unstable relationships.
Developmental factors might contribute to this—possibly issues in the family of origin, such as the quality of the parental relationship, as well as individual factors, such as difficulty with interpersonal relations, attachment style (such as a dismissive or withdrawn style), and preexisting differences in psychosexual experiences and values. This has not been systematically studied in terms of interaction with pornography viewing.
It also may be that pornography changes the user's perception of relationships, leading them to downgrade monogamy or to expect to have multiple partners with potentially limited attachment—possibly leading to infidelity and/or boredom with one partner. Pornography may lead viewers to have unrealistic expectations for sexual partners as well, in terms of appearance and in terms of sexual behavior—leading to dissatisfaction in real romantic relationships, or even gender-linked aggressive and degrading attitudes and behaviors.
Sexual relations, as depicted in pornography, are very different from and shape attitudes about sexual relations in actual relationships, and real people are very different from the people depicted in pornography, both in terms of appearance and behavior.
Importantly, as noted by the study authors, pornography use could be causing breakups, because porn viewers' partners may react negatively to porn use. Discussions about pornography use often get brushed under the rug (along with other relationship issues), leading to unresolved conflict and problems down the road. Partners may experience increased insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, feelings of betrayal and hurt, and resentment and anger.
The hiding of porn use, and of course dishonesty in general, damages many relationships due to creating and sustaining feelings of injury and mistrust. It may also be the case that some individuals are more prone to either inadvertently pick partners who view pornography through some intervening factor (such as tending to gravitate toward narcissistic or abusive people) or to downplay the significance of pornography use in potential mates.
Finding a compatible partner for those who seek long-term, monogamous relationships is challenging. Some are more inclined to repeatedly date unavailable or unsuitable partners for many, many reasons. According to the current study, pornography is likely to be one of those factors which influences relationship outcomes and co-occurs with other intimacy risk factors more commonly.
It would be wise to talk about pornography use early in a relationship, before forming a serious attachment to someone, if one is considering taking the emotionally risky step of forming a serious relationship. Ideally, there is agreement about and periodic revisiting of the topic from time to time.
According to the PALS study, for married couples, pornography use has less of an effect on breaking up. However, it can be a significant factor in the marriage, often kept secret or becoming an open secret, related to sexual activity outside of the couple (unless there is some consensus about it). Keeping silent is often damaging to intimacy and can erode and undermine attachment, though time may be needed to work up to addressing important issues.
For many, therefore, discussing pornography use, and important contributory and associated factors, may uncover barriers to intimacy. Working on these issues constructively, or working toward that if it is not yet possible, both as a couple and individually, plays a key role in deepening the connection and laying the foundation of a more stable future relationship for people who do end up staying together.
Please send questions, topics or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.
Corne, S., Briere, J. & Esses, L. (1992). Women’s attitudes and fantasies about rape as a function of early exposure to pornography. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7, 4, 454-461.
Emerson, M. O., & Sikkink, D. (2006–2012). Portraits of American Life Study, 2006–2012.
Perry, S.L. & Davis, J.T. (2017). Are pornography users more likely to experience a romantic breakup? Evidence from Longitudinal Data. Sexuality & Culture, July 2017. Pre-publication online access. DOI 10.1007/s12119-017-9444-8.
Regnerus, M. D., Gordon, D., & Price, J. (2016). Documenting pornography use in America: A
comparative analysis of methodological approaches. Journal of Sex Research, 53, 873–881.
Rissel, C., Richters, J., de Visser, R.O., McKee, A., Yeung, A., Caruana, T. (2017). A profile of pornography users in Australia: Findings from the second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Journal of Sex Research, Feb; 54(2): 227-240.
Zillmann, D & J. Bryant. (1984). Effects of massive exposure to pornography. In Malamuth, N and Donnerstein, E. (Eds), Pornography and sexual aggression. San Diego, Academic Press.