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The Link Between Pornography and Loneliness

The impact of explicit content on emotional affect.

Key points

  • Viewing pornography could have a detrimental impact on relational depth and attachment, a 2018 study argues.
  • People who view pornography were found to be more apt to experience loneliness, and lonely people were more likely to view pornography.
  • People struggling with loneliness may find relief in support groups, therapy, or other "real-world" coping strategies, rather than pornography.

Pornography is a controversial subject in society. Opponents argue that the potential downsides of viewing sexually explicit material include personal impact, reduced productivity, and exploitation of the men and women who are employed in the industry. There are also downsides to pornography use among committed couples, whose expectations and self-confidence may be adversely impacted by what they see, as I have discussed in a previous column. But in terms of personal health and wellness, research suggests that viewing pornography may have more than just a relational impact.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Lonely in Lust

The urge to use pornography use is frequently tied to feelings of lust, not love. Especially when viewed solo, as it typically is for people who are secretive about their viewing habits, pornography may have a significantly detrimental impact on relational depth and attachment.

Mark H. Butler et al. (2018) investigated the link between pornography use and loneliness. [i] They adopted a research-based definition of loneliness as "an emotion that signals unsatisfied needs for proximity, love, and security due to the unavailability of attachment." They recognize that loneliness arises from a lack of meaningful relationships, particularly relationships of attachment—and that consequently, behavior that disrupts attachment relationships may render a person vulnerable to feelings of loneliness.

Butler et al. recognize sexuality as a powerful element of many human pair-bonds, and accordingly, examined how loneliness relates to pornography's relational scripting and potential for problematic use. Reviewing data from 1,247 participants, they found significant positive associations between pornography use and loneliness.

Butler et al. found that people who viewed pornography were more apt to experience loneliness, and lonely people were more likely to view pornography. In explaining the association, they note that pornography watching may create loneliness as a consequence of relationship distress and disruption of attachment, which may cause separation and emotional distancing within a pair-bonded couple. They also note that the sexual script of many kinds of pornography, which often consists of “eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny,” is contrary to secure attachment, which is associated with loneliness.

Butler et al. also note that because pornography may distort pair-bond sexuality, it could thwart healthy relationship functioning and secure attachment. They note that people who regularly watch pornography may endorse or enact the associated sexual script, creating stress within prospective or current pair-bond relationships.

Maladaptive Coping

Butler et al. note that the sexual response to pornography has the potential to function as a maladaptive coping strategy, which could be seen as qualifying within the psychological and behavioral contours of addiction. Viewed in this fashion, they note that pornography may “provide a self-soothing, autoerotic narcosis from real-life circumstances, an experience that mirrors a drug-like intoxication.”

Over the long term, however, Butler et al. argue that pornography use could increase feelings of loneliness and relational deterioration. They note that using explicit material as a temporary fix likely fails to address the root cause of loneliness, intensifies potential triggers, potentially making it a maladaptive method of coping and creating potential entrapment in a destructive cycle of pornography and loneliness.

Breaking the Cycle

This possible downside of pornography use may further motivate ongoing efforts to help people struggling with their use of explicit material to adopt alternative methods of alleviating loneliness and depression, through a combination of healthy coping strategies, counseling, and peer support. Through productive, prosocial solutions involving quality time with others, as opposed to visually self-medicating solo, loneliness could be averted or reduced, as healthy relationships thrive.


[i] Butler, Mark H., Samuel A. Pereyra, Thomas W. Draper, Nathan D. Leonhardt, and Kevin B. Skinner. “Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 44, no. 2 (February 2018): 127–37. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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