Relationships

How porn affects relationships

For good or ill, pornography use is now a mainstream sexual activity in Western society, especially among younger adults.

Much of the traffic on the internet involves the delivery of sexually explicit material to personal devices. Likewise, there are any number of internet sites condemning its use and offering advice for overcoming “porn addiction.”

Research so far on the effects of porn use has been colored by the biases the researchers already had at the outset. Psychologists who wish to find harm in porn viewing will certainly find it, while those looking for no harm or even potential benefits can easily discover evidence of these in their data as well.

And while there’s no doubt that some people who use porn suffer from psychological and relational problems, many people have found ways to integrate their porn use into their daily lives as a healthy component of their sexuality.

One of the greatest fears is that porn viewing will somehow interfere with or even replace sexual relationships with real human beings. But just how does porn use affect our ability to build and maintain intimate relationships with other people?

This is the research question that Canadian psychologist Marie-Pier Vaillancourt-Morel and her colleagues explored in an article recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

In fact, there already is an extensive literature examining the question of how porn affects relationships. However, as Vaillancourt-Morel and colleagues point out, all studies so far have suffered from a number of weaknesses.

First, most studies ask people to report on their porn use over some specified period in the past. This kind of response relies heavily on autobiographical memory, which is known to be unreliable. Furthermore, respondents may be biased toward either underestimating or overestimating their porn use, depending on their personal attitudes toward the subject.

Second, studies typically only survey one member of the relationship. Do you actually know how your partner feels about your porn use? Few couples ever have such open discussions about sensitive issues like this.

Third, studies that focus on the correlation between porn use and relationship satisfaction typically only measure these at one point in time.

If a study finds that frequent porn users are dissatisfied with their relationships, we don’t know which came first. It could be that porn viewing makes people less happy with their partners, but it could also be that they resort to porn to fill a void in their intimate relationships.

Finally, virtually all studies to date have only looked at heterosexual couples.

Prior research shows that men have more favorable attitudes toward and admit to using porn far more than women do. However, the dynamics may play out quite differently in same sex (male-male or female-female) relationships.

To overcome these weaknesses, the study conducted by Vaillancourt-Morel and colleagues recruited over 200 couples, which included both mixed-sex and same-sex relationships. Each partner in the relationship agreed to take part in a 35-day diary study in which they responded to a set of questions delivered to their smart phone each evening. These questions assessed four variables:

  • Whether they had used porn that day.
  • How satisfied they were with their relationship that day.
  • How much they desired to have sex with their partner that day.
  • Whether they had engaged in sexual activity with their partner that day.

By collecting data in this way, the researchers were able to tease out both causal relationships and inter-partner dynamics.article continues after advertisement

The most important finding to come out of the data analysis was the fact that porn use was completely unrelated to relationship satisfaction. In other words, there was no evidence that porn viewing led to decreases in how happy people are with their partners, nor did they seem to be using porn as a way of making up for deficiencies in their relationships.

The only exception was that people were less likely to use porn the day after they had had sex with their partner. This finding suggests a diminished interest in porn after sex, rather than using porn as a substitute for it.

A commonly expressed concern is that frequent porn viewing can lead people to perceive their partners as less attractive. After all, who can compete with the hard bodies and voracious sexual appetites we see in porn? However, the data from this study suggest a different—and more complex—dynamic is taking place.

Although women over all view porn less frequently than men, they’re also more likely to feel an increased desire to have sex with their partner on a day that they use porn, and they’re more likely to follow through with that desire. This finding that porn puts women in the mood for sex held for those in both mixed-sex and same-sex relationships. In other words, women seem to use porn as a sort of foreplay.

When it came to men and porn use, however, the outcome was more complex. Men in relationships with other men also showed increased desire for their partner and were more likely to have sex with them on days that they had viewed porn.

However, men in relationships with women were less likely to have sex with their partners when they had used porn that day.article continues after advertisement

This last result is in line with the bulk of research on how porn affects relationships, as is to be expected given that these studies have focused on heterosexual couples.

It’s quite possible that people in traditional mixed-sex relationships easily fall into socially accepted ways of thinking about sexuality and intimacy. In contrast, those in same-sex relationships, because they defy social norms, are also more likely to be open about their sexuality and discuss sexual issues with their partner more readily.

In the end, it appears that whether porn viewing helps or hurts intimate relationships depends instead on the attitudes the partners have about it.

If you already believe porn to be evil, you’ll likely suffer guilt and remorse over your own use, as well as feelings of anger and betrayal over finding your partner using it.

But if you have open and healthy attitudes about your own and your partner’s sexuality, then you’re likely to use porn in ways that enhance your relationship with your significant other.

References

Vaillancourt-Morel, M.-P., Rosen, N. O., Willoughby, B. J., Leonhardt, N. D., & Bergeron, S. (2020). Pornography use and romantic relationships: A dyadic daily diary study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407520940048