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Effects of Pornography on Relationships

Many individuals perceive pornography to have a negative effect on interpersonal relationships, satisfaction, and sexual functioning; however, findings on the topic are mixed. Pornography has never been so widely and universally accessible as it is today. As such, the consumption of pornography is on the rise, for both men and women. This unlimited access changes not only how individuals consume pornography, but how pornography can affect individuals and relationships. Pornography can impact many aspects of an individual’s life, and it is important to understand just what these effects are, as well as the extent to which these effects can reach.

pornography interpersonal satisfaction

1. Motivations and Patterns

1.1. Motivations

Pornography, while inherently sexual, may serve multiple purposes for the individuals consuming it. At the surface level, individuals give reasons for consuming pornography that fall into one of five general categories: masturbation, the sexual arousal of self/others, curiosity, fantasy, and distraction.[1][2] Individuals typically consume pornography for sexual purposes, such as using pornography as a masturbatory aid during self-stimulation, using pornography for the purpose of becoming aroused or arousing a partner, or using pornography in order to achieve some form of sexual pleasure through fantasies that would be impractical, if not impossible, in real life. However, people may also be attracted to pornography out of sheer curiosity, or even boredom.[1][2]

Four primary motivations for consuming pornography have been identified, categorized as “relationship” or relationship-serving, “mood management,” “habitual use,” and “fantasy.”[1] The first category refers to the social value of consuming pornography, and includes facilitating both romantic relationships, as well as platonic relationships. Pornography may be a way for individuals to develop and maintain their social relationships. For example, men are more likely to report consuming pornography with a platonic friend than women, while women most frequently report consuming pornography with a romantic partner.[3] The second category, “mood management,” involves utilizing pornography to improve one’s mood, relieve stress, or even as a source of entertainment.[1] “Habitual use,” the third classification, indicates that individuals may consume pornography out of a developed habit or routine, rather than genuine interest, or even arousal. This functions as more of a compulsion or obligation rather than a want or interest.[1] Finally, there is the fantasy element of pornography, which means that the viewer may fantasize about acts that are unrealistic or impossible, as well as picturing themself as an active participant in the depicted activities. Pornography may be an outlet to expressing sexual desires that cannot be actualized, either due to a lack of partner, a lack of opportunity, or perhaps another reason altogether.[1] Although these motivations presented similarly for both men and women, men tend to express motivation for pornography consumption more powerfully than women.[1] The motivation behind pornography consumption is key to understanding pornography’s effects on relationships and intimacy as a whole.

There are also significant differences regarding the type of pornography used. Most men prefer visual forms of pornographic media, including online images and videos, while women express a preference for chatrooms and written works.[1] Men also express a greater preference for pornography with multiple different actors, rather than those possessing a greater variety of sexual acts.[1] Men in general use pornography more often, and for longer periods of time, than women. Men also show a tendency to seek pornography out at a younger age on average.[1][3] In addition, men and women agree that pornography is often degrading to women.[4] This illustrates a confirmation bias in that, because pornography is largely geared towards a male audience, it is less appealing to female users of pornography.

1.2. General Perceptions of Pornography

Negative perceptions

Pornography consumption is associated with negative impacts on intimate relationships, both on the level of the individual and the couple. Men who consume pornography regularly have reported less stable mental health, specifically higher levels of depression.[5][6] Pornography consumption is also correlated with less relationship satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and in men, less sexual desire for their partner.[7][8][9] The consumption of pornography has also been shown to have an impact on sexual risk-taking, including less frequent usage of condoms and birth control, as well as more casual sexual encounters.[5][10] Pornography can be considered addictive and negatively impact sexual functioning, especially in men.[11]

Positive perceptions

Despite the proclaimed negative effects of pornography, pornography consumption has also shown to have benefits to individuals and their relationships. Couples who regularly consume pornography together frequently report feeling closer to their partners, expressing more open communication, and feel more comfortable discussing sexual topics like fantasies and kinks. In addition, pornography can function as an educational resource for individuals to improve their sexual knowledge.[5][12] Pornography’s impact on relationship satisfaction also comes under scrutiny, as findings range from negative correlations, to positive relationships. In addition, some research reports positive findings for women who consume pornography more regularly, including increased relationship satisfaction, decreased distress, and increased desire for sexual activity, indicating that pornography might be useful as a form of foreplay.[5][8] Overall, the findings on pornography consumption and the observed effects of pornography use on relationships are mixed and highly controversial.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1. Attachment Style

Current research often views relationship and sexual satisfaction through the lens of attachment theory. There are generally four styles of attachment: anxious, avoidant, fearful, and secure attachment. Individuals with anxious attachment styles report strong fears of abandonment and distrust in their partners, as well as jealousy.[13][14] Attachment style may be moderated by gender identity and sexual orientation, and both anxious and avoidant attached individuals report less satisfaction in their relationships, as well as sexual satisfaction.[15] An individual's attachment style may play a role in their acceptance of pornography, in their own pornography consumption, and in their views of a partner’s pornography consumption, however more research is needed to determine this relationship. One current hypothesis popularizes the idea that anxiously attached individuals will have more negative feelings towards the consumption of pornography.[13]

2.2. Sexual Scripting

Pornography research is also greatly influenced by script theory. Originally proposed by researcher Silvan Tomkins, script theory proposes that behavior is a series of “scripts,” or programs in order to achieve a goal.[16][17] These scripts provide meaning for specific behaviors in relation to a goal or desire. In 1986, Simon and Gagnon applied script theory to sexuality research, asserting that sexual scripts fall under a category of cultural scripts to regulate sexual behaviors.[17] Modern research has applied this concept to work with pornography, and specifically how pornography may influence sexual scripts and behaviors. Some studies argue that pornography functions as a sexual script, cluing people in to certain signals and behaviors and influencing their own sexual behaviors in later encounters.[4][16]

Pornography may alter individuals’ expectations regarding sexual activity, which then impacts their ability to form and maintain romantic, or sexual, relationships. Pornography functions as a cultural script, a media through which individuals may pick up on or learn sexual cues.[4][16] These cues lead individuals to express sexual behaviors and function in sexual situations at appropriate times. One concern is that, by relying on pornography for education on sexual cues or sexual scripts, individuals may have an altered sense of what sexuality and sexual intercourse truly entail, or how to behave sexually in a real-life scenario.[5]

2.3. Affection Exchange Theory

Affection Exchange Theory classifies human affection and interaction as innate acts which assist individuals in mating, reproduction, and survival, as well as in developing and maintaining healthy relationships.[18] This theory can be extended to sexuality to consider sexual acts as significant contributions to affection behavior. Humans express affection through a myriad of actions, including verbal affirmations and physical touch. This theory takes a more modern approach to traditional evolutionary theories, and extrapolates that affection communication plays a role in sexual selection and reproduction.[18] Furthermore, Affection Exchange Theory posits that, although often found together, affectionate expression is separate from affectionate emotion. An individual may express unauthentic affection (expression without emotion), or may feel affection that they suppress (emotion without expression). Beyond relationship findings, more affectionate people also report better overall health, including more self-esteem, less anxiety, less fear of intimacy, and greater satisfaction with their lives and their relationships.[18] Research on Affection Exchange Theory has been connected to pornography and couples research as a potential mitigator to relationship and sexual satisfaction, as well as sexual desire.[16]

3. Relationship Effects

The consumption of pornography has a large reach across various areas of relationships in life. Pornography can influence an individual's relationship and intimacy through a number of channels, including overall level of satisfaction in their relationships, communication within a relationship, and setting boundaries for infidelity within a relationship.

3.1. Relationship Satisfaction

The research on the relationship between pornography use and relationship satisfaction is vast and mixed. While some believe pornography consumption leads people to become less satisfied in their relationships, others believe it can have the direct opposite effect. Pornography consumption tends to accompany lower levels of satisfaction in long-term, heterosexual relationships. Most of the current research is correlational, indicating a connection but not a cause; however, one major trend is the rate of divorce. Couples who consume pornography are nearly twice as likely to divorce than couples who do not, with the rate rising from 5% to 11%.[19] One mitigator is the frequency of pornography consumption. More frequent pornography consumption is negatively associated with relationship satisfaction. Individuals who report more frequent use of pornography within a relationship also report low levels of satisfaction in their relationships.[7]

However, many reject the idea that pornography is inherently harmful to relationship satisfaction. Joint pornography consumption within a relationship has been connected to increased levels of relationship satisfaction for both partners. Couples who consumed pornography together expressed more satisfaction with their relationships than couples in which only one individual used pornography.[12] This suggests that there is more at play than simply the consumption of pornography, such as the role of honesty and partner perception. Individuals whose partners are honest about their own pornography consumption tend to feel more satisfied in their relationships, to a point. There is evidence for an “honesty threshold,” indicating that the relationship between honesty and pornography is not linear, and partners do not want to hear every detail about the other’s pornography habits.[20] This indicates that, although honesty and disclosure is important for pornography consumption, there seems to be a threshold of helpful honesty that, once surpassed, may cause more harm. In addition, when women consume pornography, they report lower levels of distress than their counterparts.[12] While women often consume pornography less often than men, men are fairly accurate at perceiving their partner’s pornography consumption. Women, on the other hand, are less accurate at perceiving their male partner’s pornography use.[5]

Some research suggests that there is no connection between relationship satisfaction and pornography use, whether individually or jointly. Although finding evidence in their second study for a negative correlation, a study of two independent male samples found no relationship between pornography and relationship satisfaction in their first sample.[7] Conversely, other studies found no relationship whatsoever between joint pornography use and satisfaction. When analyzing couples and their pornography consumption over the course of one month, researchers found no correlation between relationship satisfaction and pornography use.[8]

3.2. Communication

Communication is a vital component of any healthy relationship, and many researchers question how pornography may impact the ability of a couple to communicate openly. Honesty has been shown to be a mitigator in relationship effects of pornography consumption. Couples in which partners are honest about their pornography consumption report greater satisfaction than couples dealing with concealment, or dishonesty, surrounding pornography use.[20] Pornography consumption among couples leads to improved communication about sexual desires, and increased openness in communication.[12] Conversely, active concealment of pornography use habits can lead to less openness in communication and trust.[12][20]

Another important aspect is the communication of affection within relationships. Affection Exchange Theory establishes the inherent role of affection within romantic relationships, and even in the role of survival, reproduction, and sexual selection.[18] Trait attachment is positively associated with relationship satisfaction. Individuals who score higher in trait attachment report feeling and expressing greater sexual desire for their partners, compared to individuals who score lower in trait attachment.[16][18] Some evidence indicates that the connection between Affection Exchange Theory and sexual desire is, in fact, stronger than the connection to relationship satisfaction, suggesting that sexual desire may have a crucial moderating role between the two.[18] While this study found no correlation between pornography consumption and trait affection, researchers noted that increased feelings of guilt were related to lower levels of sexual desire for one’s partner. This is somewhat indicative of partner-imposed or communicated guilt, or possibly reflecting an effect of the sexual scripts of pornography creating unrealistic expectations that lead to magnified dissatisfaction.[16]

3.3. Infidelity

Many individuals and couples debate whether pornography constitutes a form of infidelity, or cheating. With strong support and opposition on both sides, the ultimate answer is that it depends. Whether or not consuming pornography is a form of cheating depends entirely upon the couple’s explicit and implicit rules for the relationship.[21] It is well established that women are significantly less supportive of pornography and express more negativity towards both pornography and the consumption of pornography.[5][13][22] However, the acceptability of pornography within the confines of a relationship is up to the couple themselves, not any arbitrary rule.

The acceptability of pornography itself is highly debated. Women express less acceptable opinions towards pornography than men do, with as many as 50% of women reporting that they consider pornography to be “unacceptable.”[5] Furthermore, nearly one third of women in the study believe that pornography is a form of cheating.[5]

4. Sexual Effects

The sexual effects of pornography on intimacy and relationships observe some of the most gendered differences. Men and women differ vastly in how they are impacted by pornography both within and beyond a romantic or sexual relationship. These differences will be addressed in each of the primary factors within sexual effects, including sexual desire, sexual function, sexual satisfaction, and sexual preference.

4.1. Sexual Desire

Sexual desire is one of the factors most strongly moderated by gender differences. In general, men experience the most detrimental effects from pornography in terms of sexual desire. Straight men report less sexual desire, both for their partner and in general, directly after consuming pornography.[8] Men also typically utilize pornography for masturbation and solo-sexual activities, rather than partnered or joint purposes.[3][7][23] Strong associations exist between increased pornography consumption, as well as frequency of pornography consumption, and problematic decreases in sexual desire for men. Men who more frequently use pornography report less desire for their partner, and less desire for sex in general.[7]

While most modern research on pornography focuses on men, the findings in women hold interesting information on pornography’s gendered impact on sexual desire. Women have found a positive correlation between pornography consumption and sexual desire, indicating that women who view pornography feel more positively about expressing their sexual desire.[23][24] In addition to increased sexual desire, women also express more sexual desire specifically for their partner on days when they watch pornography, indicating pornography may function as a form of foreplay.[8]

Although men and women do differ in many significant ways with respect to pornography consumption and sexual behavior, they share one important similarity: brain activity. Men and women’s brain activity while watching pornography is nearly identical, suggesting that both men and women experience similar arousal while watching pornography.[1][25] Further, both men and women report significant support for female-centric pornography, though men express similar levels of arousal to both traditional male-centric pornography as well as female-centric pornography. While women report more general negativity towards traditional, male-centric pornography, women express stronger support and higher levels of self-reported arousal for female-centric pornography.[4] This may open the gateway for pornography that appeals to female viewers, rather than assuming a male-centric audience.

In general, pornography consumption in couples has been associated with greater sexual desire.[12] Although research in the way of same-sex relationships is limited, available findings indicate that pornography use is connected to an increased level of sexual desire. Men partnered with women report less sexual desire in general with increased pornography consumption, whereas women in both mixed-sex or same-sex relationships report greater sexual desire overall. Along a similar vein, individuals were less likely to consume pornography the day after engaging in sexual intercourse.[8]

In 2016, model and actress Pamela Anderson and Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach co-authored a viral Wall Street Journal opinion piece, in which they called online pornography a "public hazard of unprecedented seriousness."[26][27][28][29] The two called for a "sensual revolution" to replace "pornography with eroticism, the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships."[28] The two also wrote a book together, Lust for Love (2018), about how meaningful, passionate sex has been declining, and calling for a new sensual revolution that emphasizes partners connecting in the bedroom.[30][31]

4.2. Sexual Function

Sexual function is a rising concern with pornography consumption. Primarily thought to affect men, there is a notable relationship between pornography consumption and sexual function problems.[24] Commonly reported problems include erectile dysfunction, delayed ejaculation, anorgasmia, and a lack of sexual desire.[24] Erectile dysfunction is most commonly found in older populations, usually after the age of 50.[32] Recently, rates of sexual dysfunction have been increasing in younger age brackets.[24][33] Medical professionals suspect pornography may be one factor contributing to this increase, however there is little causal evidence of such an effect.[24] Another issue is delayed ejaculation, during which men may experience a large disconnect between their orgasm and ejaculation, or difficulty achieving ejaculation. Overarching research shows little evidence of pornography having any effect on delayed ejaculation.[24] Despite the lack of evidence for more physical issues with sexual function, pornography is related to problematic decreases of sexual desire and sexual satisfaction, though the direction of this relationship remains up for debate without additional causal research.[7][9][24]

In women, there is little evidence for pornography-induced sexual dysfunction. The most commonly observed effect is increased anxiety or distress, which may then lead to issues of sexual function. The most commonly reported issue for women is arousal dysfunction, indicating a difficulty in achieving or maintaining arousal during sexual activity.[24] This could potentially lead to physical issues, such as painful penetration or vaginismus, making sexual intercourse painful and unpleasant.[24] Women also tend to report more negative affect with regards to pornography, including strong feelings of shame or guilt.[24][34]

For both men and women, pornography may lead individuals to make riskier decisions with their sexual health. A study analyzing the use of barrier contraceptives by German adults found that, when pornography is viewed as an educational resource, there is an inverse relationship between pornography consumption and condom usage; people who viewed more pornography tended to not use condoms as frequently.[10] Overall, the most frequently reported issues with sexual function that relate to pornography are decreases in sexual desire for men, and decreases in sexual satisfaction overall.[7][24]

4.3. Sexual Satisfaction

Research on pornography’s effect on sexual satisfaction is highly varied. Numerous studies looking at both individuals and couples have found different, at times contradictory, results. One study found a negative relationship between pornography consumption and sexual satisfaction across two samples of men.[7] In addition, frequency of pornography consumption, rather than the type of pornography consumed, is negatively correlated with sexual satisfaction; the type of pornography an individual consumed had no effect on sexual satisfaction.[7] When considering couples and their pornography consumption, couples with a greater discordance reported being more sexually dissatisfied than couples who watched pornography together, as well as couples who jointly abstained from pornography altogether.[12]

Despite the negative findings, studies are far from decisive. In general, less than a quarter of regular pornography users report negative effects to their sexual satisfaction due to pornography, while the overall majority reported no negative effects, suggesting pornography may not be universally problematic.[34] When looking at women, there is a positive correlation between pornography consumption and sexual satisfaction. Some suggest the connection between male pornography use and sexual dissatisfaction may be the other way around, with men resorting to pornography due to sexual satisfaction, or even perhaps a cyclical effect.[20] An indirect, yet positive, effect on sexual satisfaction has been found when looking at sexual preference.[7]

4.4. Sexual Preferences

The use of pornography is extremely varied, especially in the United States. Consumption rates —including general consumption, frequency of consumption, length of time, and type of pornography— vary by gender, age, and relationship status, as well as frequency of consumption, which all factor into overall pornography consumption rates. In general, men consume more pornography, and consume pornography more frequently, than women.[1][3][5][35] A vast majority of men report having consumed pornography, with rates ranging from 50% to 90%, usually plateauing in the upper 80% range. Women, however, report significantly less and significantly more varied consumption of pornography, with between 30% and 80% of women saying they have viewed pornography in their lifetime.[35] This variation reflects differences in nationality and culture in terms of sex positivity and pornography acceptance, as well as the unreliability of self-reporting. Despite the variation and lower reports of pornography consumption for women, female viewership of pornography is steadily increasing. As of 2019, approximately 30% of PornHub’s viewer base consisted of women.[34] Women tend to prefer less hardcore porn compared to men, and men report consuming pornography in conjunction with masturbation more frequently than women.[3]

One of the more current findings revolves around how pornography impacts sexual preference. Theories speculate that increase pornography consumption may alter an individual’s preferences during sexual intercourse to more closely resemble what is depicted in pornography. This may include both the acts depicted, as well as the behaviors displayed by actors. Among men, there is a positive relationship between pornography consumption and a desire for more porn-like sexual experience.[7] Frequency of consumption and type of pornography consumed are related to increased desire for more porn-like sex, which is measured by items indicating an expressed preference for “kinkier sex,” “hotter sex,” and a more porn-like “sexual appearance.”[9] The latter includes grooming habits, as well as hair color and body type. While correlational, the findings do present evidence that pornography consumption has a role in sexual preferences, though causal relationships cannot be confirmed. This effect is mitigated by both the type of pornography consumed, as well as the frequency of pornography consumption, and the finding holds for both men and women.[7][9]


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