Ever since the invention of pornography, politicians and the public alike have expressed concerns about the potential negative effects that porn has on those who view it. In particular, many people worry that exposure to porn is destructive to people’s romantic and sexual relationships. This concern was seemingly validated by a recent study reporting that Playboy magazine was the “cause” of up to 25% of all divorces that occurred in the United States in the 1960s and 70s.1 Could this really be the case? Is exposure to porn destroying our love lives?
Although pornography has certainly been implicated in the downfall of some relationships, it does not appear to have created the epidemic some have claimed. First, let’s examine that Playboy study. The scientists who conducted this research compared the sales rates of this adult magazine to the U.S. divorce rate between the years 1962 and 1979. They found a positive correlation, such that as Playboy sales went up, so did the number of divorces. Based upon this information, the authors made the claim that Playboy was the “cause” of somewhere between 10 and 25% of all divorces. In doing so, these researchers made a fundamental error: it is simply not possible to infer causation from correlational data. We cannot say that Playboy sales caused those divorces with any more certainty than we can say those divorces caused an increase in Playboy sales (and that would seem to be an equally plausible interpretation of the data—for example, when men get divorced, they may increase their porn consumption because they no longer have a regular sex partner). It’s also possible that there’s some unmeasured third variable that explains the association between Playboy sales and divorces (e.g., perhaps both increases are attributable to the “free love” and swingers’ movements that took place in the 60s and 70s). Thus, it is probably wise not make too much of this finding.
I am unaware of any other research suggesting that pornography causes divorce. But does that mean that porn and relationships are a good mix? Not necessarily. Pornography’s effect on a relationship depends upon how both of the couple members feel about porn. In general, men find porn more sexually arousing than women,2 and they also watch it more frequently. For example, one scientist who wanted to study men who had never seen pornography before could not find even one guy who was a porn virgin! In light of men’s greater affinity for pornography, it is probably not surprising that women are more likely than men to see porn as a potential relationship problem, and there are indeed many women who find their male partner’s porn watching highly distressing.3 At the same time, however, there are many women who have a positive attitude toward porn and there are some couples for whom watching pornography is a mutually enjoyable activity that actually increases rather than decreases intimacy.
In short, it seems unwise to make a blanket statement that pornography is either bad or good for relationships. For some couples, porn is indeed destructive (particularly in cases where one partner uses it compulsively), but for other couples, porn can be a positive, shared experience that benefits the relationship. If you have particularly strong feelings about pornography one way or the other, it’s probably best to discuss them with your partner up front in order to avoid future relationship conflict.
1Daines, R. M., & Shumway, T. (2011). Pornography and divorce.
2Kingston, D. A., Malamuth, N. M., Federoff, P., & Marshall, W. L. (2009). The importance of individual differences in pornography use: Theoretical perspectives and implications for treating sexual offenders. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 216-232.
3Bridges, A. J., Bergner, R. M., & Hesson-McInnis, M. (2003). Romantic partners’ use of pornography: Its significance for women. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 29, 1-14.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.