Pornography and Romantic Relationships

Porn may lead to unintended and unwanted consequences for couples.

Posted Apr 28, 2018

Does pornography help or hurt romantic relationships? Or does it do both? This current posting compares how popular media appraisals and psychological research differentially describe the impact of pornography on romantic relationships.

Montgomery-Graham et al. (2015) gathered news, magazine, and blog items concerning the impact of pornography on relationships.[i] Over one third of these sources described pornography as being beneficial for romantic relationships, including using porn as a means for exploring fantasies, reducing sexual boredom, and female empowerment.

In spite of the propitious influence of porn use on romantic relationships suggested by the popular press, empirical studies find less salubrious effects. As early as 2005, Mitchell et al. interviewed mental health professionals and found that internet pornography use was a recurrent and growing issue for their clients, including partner conflict over porn.[ii]

In an ingenious series of five studies, Lambert et al. (2012) empirically evaluated the influence of pornography on committed relationships[iii]:

  • Study one measured participants’ frequency of pornography use to their self-appraisal of their commitment to an existing romantic partner.  
  • Study two used an observational design in which trained observers watched couples complete a complex, collaborative task after being asked about their frequency of pornography use.
  • Study three separated frequent porn consumers into two groups. The first was directed to abstain from all porn for a total of three weeks, while the second group was instructed to abstain from their favorite food for the same period of time. Then the initial self-report ratings of commitment to a current romantic partner were compared to the post-study ratings.

In sum, the above three studies found that pornography consumption was associated with weakened commitment to one’s romantic partner — even surfacing in behaviors that were noticeable to trained observers.

The researchers then devised two additional studies:

  • Study-four participants (all of whom were in exclusive romantic relationships) were asked to describe their frequency of porn use. Three weeks later, they were asked to ostensibly test a new social networking service in which they would chat with an unknown person of the opposite sex for 10 minutes. The latter person was actual a study confederate trained to be engaging and flirtatious. The results indicated that higher pornography consumption was associated with more flirtatious behavior by the study subjects.
  • Finally, in study five, participants were asked about the frequency of their porn consumption, their commitment to a current relationship, and their infidelity during the past 12 months. The results indicated that porn consumption predicted greater infidelity.

Rasmussen (2016) reviewed empirical research on porn consumption and its impact on romantic relationships.[iv] While acknowledging a paucity of studies, he determined that there were three pathways by which porn use influences couples’ functioning. First, partners begin to see their mates as less attractive in comparison to the images in pornography. Second, pornography gives an impression that others outside the relationship would better provide sexual variety and satisfaction. Finally, pornography increases the acceptability of infidelity. In sum, he concluded: “The evidence for pornography’s influence on the stability of romantic and committed relationships is strong. The effects described are grounded in established theory and operate through well-defined processes, and the data produce remarkable agreement” (pg. 185).

In conclusion, mainstream and popular media are often in disagreement with empirical research as to the impact of pornography on relationship functioning. Exhortations to engage in porn use to increase relationship satisfaction might lead to just the opposite effect.

References

[i] Montgomery-Graham, Stephanie, Taylor Kohut, William Fisher, and Lorne Campbell. "How the Popular Media Rushes to Judgment about Pornography and Relationships While Research Lags Behind." The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality 24, no. 3 (2015): 243-256.

[ii] Mitchell, Kimberly J., Kathryn A. Becker-Blease, and David Finkelhor. "Inventory of Problematic Internet Experiences Encountered in Clinical Practice." Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 36, no. 5 (2005): 498-509.

[iii] Lambert, Nathaniel M., Sesen Negash, Tyler F. Stillman, Spencer B. Olmstead, and Frank D. Fincham. "A Love that Doesn't Last: Pornography Consumption and Weakened Commitment to One's Romantic Partner." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31, no. 4 (2012): 410-438.

[iv] Rasmussen, Kyler. "A Historical and Empirical Review of Pornography and Romantic Relationships: Implications for Family Researchers." Journal of Family Theory & Review 8, no. 2 (2016): 173-191.