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As more couples use pornography, these challenges arise

BYU Wheatley national survey says 1 in 4 men hide porn use, and 1 in 3 women worry about the impact on intimacy

Viewing pornography has become common in committed relationships, but, for 1 in 5 couples, it’s a source of conflict, according to a national study released this week. A quarter of men reported hiding their pornography use from their partner, while a third of women said they worry about how pornography impacts their intimacy with their partner.

The Porn Gap” calls pornography “part of the new frontier of modern dating, courtship and marriage relationships,” but notes there’s little understanding of how couples navigate the trend — particularly given “well-documented differences between men’s and women’s use of pornography.”

The report was released Wednesday by The Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University and the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. While it found more than 70% of adults are “at least somewhat accepting” of viewing pornography, it also showed that a third of coupled adults feel anxious discussing pornography with their partners.

Pornography’s impact on relationships could be substantial. Experts estimate 80% to 90% of young adults have had some exposure to pornography, and the first exposure often comes between the ages of 10 and 13.

“You’ve got this behavior almost all couples are dealing with in some form,” said report lead author Brian J. Willoughby, professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and research fellow at The Wheatley Institution. “We have something that most couples should be talking about, but they’re not. It’s something that’s clearly having an influence for a lot of couples on what their relationship is.”

The report said roughly a third of the women worry their partner could be more attracted to pornography than to them and might be thinking about pornography during sex. The same share of women worry their partner is not truthful about his pornography use.

Men consistently overestimate how much women view pornography — and women consistently underestimate, by about half, how much men do, according to the research.

Meanwhile, the highest levels of relationship stability, commitment and satisfaction were reported by couples in which both partners said they don’t view pornography. As frequency of pornography viewing climbed, relationship stability, commitment and satisfaction slipped. When both partners reported daily pornography viewing, they reported a 45% decrease in stability and a 30% decrease in commitment compared to couples who said they didn’t view pornography at all.

But 1 in 5 men — whether dating or married — say they don’t feel able to stop using pornography. That’s compared to 4% of dating and 3% of married women.

And not very many men or women are discussing their use of pornography, including to set boundaries and expectations.

Wide gender differences

Studies have typically looked at pornography as either a risk behavior for teens or as a personal component of sexual behavior among adults, the researchers said. They launched what they call The National Couples and Pornography Study because they wanted to explore other aspects of pornography use, including gender differences and how it influences heterosexual relationships, said study co-author Galena K. Rhoades, a research professor of psychology at the University of Denver, adding that future research is needed to learn pornography’s impact on people in other romantic relationships.

The findings are based on two datasets, separately collected by Qualtrics in 2020. The first involved 3,750 adults in committed heterosexual couple relationships. The second included 713 matched heterosexual couples where both completed the survey.

Rhoades said this study’s findings highlight that differences are not just between men and women in general, but also within couples. A paired husband and wife often report very different pornography viewing habits and also have different ideas about one another’s pornography viewing.

Among the findings:

  • One in 3 men, whether married or in a committed dating relationship, said they viewed pornography at least weekly, compared to 1 in 8 of the women who were dating and 1 in 16 of the married women.
  • One-fourth of married men said they had not viewed pornography in the last year, compared to just over half of married women.
  • About half of those in dating couples report using pornography together at least sometimes. Among married couples, half of the men reported watching pornography with their wife, while one-third of the women said that.
  • While just over half of the couples said they talk about pornography openly in their relationship, most said they haven’t discussed expectations or boundaries for pornography use.
  • The study found that just over 17% of men under age 30 report using pornography daily, compared to just under 7% of men 30 and older.

Impacting couples?

The research questions were very specific to help define the types of pornography are viewed and accurately pinpoint what was being measured, Willoughby said.

He told the Deseret News he was most startled by the number of couples who agreed that “Sometimes I feel that my partner wants me to act out sexual fantasies that come from pornography.” Between 30% and 40% of each group reported that dynamic in their relationship.

“That was significantly higher than I think any of us expected. It speaks to me as someone who studies this area about how salient pornography has become in modern relationships,” said Willoughby, noting more research is needed to explore the degree to which people feel pressured or coerced.

The researchers classified pornography as softcore, hardcore (including actual sex and nudity) and extreme (including violence, degrading women or lack of consent). The distinctions are important, Rhoades said, “because if you think about pornography, that might be essentially like a rated-R movie, versus hardcore or extreme pornography. It seems like a very different experience. I don’t think our society has figured out a way to categorize or talk about differences that might be very real in terms of how they impact individuals in a relationship.”

They found that, on a weekly basis, men are three times more likely to watch extreme pornography, four times more apt to watch hardcore pornography and five times more likely to view softcore pornography compared to women. But while women view all three categories of pornography less often than men, 45% said they had viewed hardcore or extreme pornography within the past year.

Roughly half of participants overall agree it’s acceptable if adults choose to view pornography, though married women are less accepting than men in general or women who are dating.

The study also explored adult respondents’ attitudes about teens viewing pornography, finding 1 in 4 men say that’s acceptable. Just 1 in 10 women agree.

Willoughby thinks the gap likely reflects experience. “We know that most of these guys probably started to watch pornography as a teenager. There’s this natural human element of, well, that was me and I don’t think it really affected me that badly. And so I’m much more willing to say I’m OK with this.” Females have much less exposure to pornography as teenagers, he added.

Talking about it

That partners don’t talk about their pornography use could pose problems in their relationship, according to the report. “Such conversations may be especially important when it comes to what pornography means to each partner and how pornography use may influence their feelings of trust and attachment to each other. Such conversations may help partners to set mutually agreed-on boundaries in their relationship, boundaries that may help more couples navigate the gender gap in pornography use that seems common for many heterosexual couples.”

Important conversation topics include “use, acceptance and concealment” of pornography, researchers wrote

Pornography usually isn’t talked about, “even in settings where we’re talking about couple relationships. So in therapy, it rarely comes up. In relationship education workshops, it rarely comes up,” said Rhoades.

“Pornography is something we need to talk about more in our society in general, and how it is impacting relationships and families. We need to encourage partners to talk about what pornography means to them, and be sure that their expectations are clear and communicated,” she added.

The issue isn’t salient solely to those who have a pornography addiction or who might be dealing with unwanted pornography, Willoughby said. Pornography has become “really part of the fabric of modern relationships in a lot of ways. It’s something almost all couples have to navigate and negotiate and communicate about, but I think most couples don’t really have any resources and skills.”

Most resources are in the therapeutic pornography recovery area, he said. “If I just want even a brochure that says ‘Here are the five questions you should talk about with your partner about negotiating pornography in a relationship,’ it doesn’t exist.”

The research team also included Jason S. Carroll, a professor in BYU’s School of Family Life and associate director of The Wheatley Institution. Rhoades said they plan future studies on pornography and relationships.

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