Use of pornography — whether mainstream or aggressive — is associated with lower relationship satisfaction and less stability. And that holds true even when you account for potential variables that might have an impact, like gender or religiosity or whether you think you’re addicted to it.
Those factors just amplify the negative association.
But folks who want a long and healthy romantic relationship should avoid pornography entirely, according to a study by Brian J. Willoughby, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, and Carson R. Dover, a graduate student, published in The Journal of Sex Research.
The impact seen was particularly strong in terms of relationship stability. Pornography destabilizes.
“Couples should know that viewing pornography is a risk factor in their relationship,” Willoughby said. He added that people who care about each other and their future should avoid it. “It’s not just aggressive pornography that leads to negative outcomes.”
The study design
When one of her own studies was published in late 2021, Galena K. Rhoades, a research professor of psychology at the University of Denver, told Deseret News that distinctions in types of pornography are important because watching an R-rated movie is likely different than watching hardcore or extreme pornography. Rhoades wasn’t involved in this study.
Among the historic limitations in research on the effects of pornography use is that studies tend to be either small with good measurements or there are really big samples that ask very few questions, Willoughby said. The BYU researchers tried to overcome those challenges by asking a lot of questions of a lot of people: This study involved a U.S. sample of 3,500 people in committed relationships. The survey was conducted online by Qualtrics.
They didn’t show pornography to the participants, but rather asked very detailed questions about use of pornography, including what kind. They also asked how people feel about their romantic relationship and how they think things are going.
“We got really strong details about pornography, their relationships and the dynamics in their relationships,” Willoughby said
Background material from BYU noted that in the past, “many scholars argued that too many competing factors were at play to suggest that pornography use harms healthy relationships — making it difficult for the public and policymakers to get a clear sense of the impact pornography has on relationship health.”
Willoughby said discussions of findings often get tangled up in a discussion of what aspects are responsible: Is it viewing pornography or the person who is doing the viewing? Is it gender or how religious someone is? Or is the notion that you’re addicted what causes the negative outcomes?
He said their sample was big enough and the questions specific enough that they decided to look at the factors in relation to each other. The researchers were also able to separate out 20 types of pornography, Willoughby said, “so we have a very good understanding that when we say pornography, we actually know what we are assessing.”
They separated what they called “mainstream” pornography — explicit depictions of consensual sex, either individuals alone or couples together — from what they called “aggressive pornography” — including different acts “that were more violent and were depicting nonconsensual behavior,” Willoughby told the Deseret News.
The simple and the complex
Willoughby sees two layers in the findings.
The simple version is that even when all the factors — gender, aggressive or mainstream pornography, the perception of pornography addiction or not and how religious one is — “none of that got rid of the simple negative relationship from watching any kind of porn.”
He added, “One of the really interesting things for me is I assumed we were going to find it was maybe the aggressive, nonconsensual pornography that was affecting relationships. We found there was no difference. Any pornography use or increase was always linked to less stability and less satisfaction in the relationship — no matter what other things we looked at.”
The complex story is how those other factors compounded negative effects researchers found pornography had on romantic relationships. Being religious made it worse. Being male made it worse. If you watched more porn, the perception of addiction rose and that amplified the negative impact.
“Those factors matter — and in important ways. The other important storyline is that even with all those things controlled for, there are still negative relationships,” Willoughby said.
Religious men were the most impacted in some way and while they could not measure why that is, the researchers theorize that religious men who use pornography feel conflicted because they are going against their own moral beliefs, which troubles them.
Why men are more affected than women is something else Willoughby and Dover pondered.
“The general thought is that so much of mainstream pornography is geared toward heterosexual men — that’s kind of the core audience. So perhaps they will be more affected by comparing themselves to other men, creating unrealistic expectations for themselves, their body, what they think their partner should be doing,” Willoughby speculated.
Rhoades has noted differences in pornography use not just between men and women, but within couples. A husband and wife not only report very different pornography viewing habits, but may also differ greatly in how each sees the other’s use of pornography, she told Deseret News.
She emphasized the need for couples to talk about pornography use and how it might impact them. Most often, pornography isn’t broached, even in couples’ therapy or in relationship workshops, though its impact can be large.
The study has some research limitations. The researchers said while the sample was large and geographically diverse, it likely underrepresents minority and low-income populations and it was not balanced in terms of gender.
But Willoughby said he hopes that studies like this that show pornography is a risk factor for harm in relationships will get policymakers and others to consider the need to educate the public and create resources for those who are navigating this topic.