- Sexual outcomes of pornography use may consist of short-term erotic satisfaction, while long-term sexual quality suffers. Tweet This
- Securely attached relationships confer physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual benefits vital to individual and couple well-being. But porn’s explicit narratives inherently undermine secure relationship connections. Tweet This
- Pornography’s scripts “liberate” sexual coupling, programming participants to obsess over individual erotic experience rather than on the person or relationship. Tweet This
Pornography is a cultural icon of the sexual revolution, and many in society have been wisely wary of both. But not so much anymore, as a recent nationally representative survey shows that overall acceptance of pornography has jumped in the last few years to reach over 70 percent. The ubiquity of internet porn, with its triple-A engine of accessibility, anonymity, and affordability, both highlights and heightens this acceptance, while simultaneously increasing and intensifying debate about whether pornography represents a real public health risk—to relationships and a stable society.
Contradictory research findings and conflicting clinical views provide a blurry report of whether pornography use is helpful or harmful. Is pornography the liberating sexual aphrodisiac its purveyors, defenders, and even some couple therapists have supposed—just the thing to resuscitate a couple’s sexual satisfaction and revive the “wow” factor? Is any anxiety still felt about pornography just the last residue of “uptight” religious morality that leaves individuals uneasy about sex? Or, rather, is pornography a couple cancer, as some research indicates?
Making Sense of the Research
Academic analysis suggests that measures and surveys of “sexual quality” can represent either erotic pleasure or emotional intimacy, and a 2018 synthesis of research on pornography’s influence on sexual quality notes that these separate factors distinguish short-term sexual satisfaction from long-term sexual quality. Yet pornography research fails to differentiate between these factors and their distinct influence on short-term sexual satisfaction versus long-term sexual quality.
This synthesis by sexuality expert and researcher Dr. Nathan Leonhardt suggests that sexual outcomes of pornography use may consist of short-term erotic satisfaction, while long-term sexual quality, anchored to relationship factors, suffers. Leonhardt and colleagues assert that pornography’s scripting may be congruent with the pursuit of short-term sexual satisfaction (i.e., physical gratification and sexual hedonism) but incongruent with the pursuit of long-term sexual quality (i.e., intimacy, attachment, relationship quality). They specifically highlight eroticism (a focus on sexual excitation), objectification (separating sexual experience from the person), and promiscuity as pervasive themes of pornography. Leonhardt et al. suggest that these scripts are antithetical to the intimate emotional and relational factors needed to sustain long-term sexual quality and relationships themselves.
Pornography’s defenders and accusers may thus focus on different outcomes. Proponents tend to focus on short-term erotic experience, while those who see relational problems with pornography focus on long-term emotional intimacy. Measuring unspecified “sexual satisfaction” fails to decipher whether respondents are referring to erotic satisfaction or emotional intimacy. Consequently, our understanding of the impact of sexual media gets muddled in this conflation.
Securely attached relationships confer physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual benefits vital to individual and couple well-being and societal survival. But porn’s explicit narratives and sexual programming inherently undermine secure relationship connections.
Porn’s Anti-Attachment Scripts
My (Mark) own perspective of 25 years of clinical observations coincides with porn content analysis in an indictment of pornography for its pervasive scripting of self-gratification-obsessed eroticism, objectification, and promiscuity. Pornography’s scripts, like the sexual revolution, “liberate” sexual coupling, programming participants to obsess over individual erotic experience rather than focus on the person or relationship.
Where do pornography’s mainstream scripts lead, though, when sexual liberation means being liberated from interpersonal connection, responsibility, fidelity, and belonging? Scholars of human attachment have documented that securely attached relationships confer physical, psychological, relational, and spiritual benefits vital to individual and couple well-being and societal survival. But porn’s explicit narratives and sexual programming inherently undermine secure relationship connections and promote a self-absorbed sexual adventurism counter to the other-focused sexuality in which secure attachment thrives. Annually, people are paying the pornography industry $13 billion in the U.S. and $100 billion worldwide, only to hinder their most important relationships!
Contradictory findings regarding pornography use may also be due to failure to recognize how sexual and relationship values, priorities, and purpose shape what kind of satisfaction and quality is sought in sexual relationships. If heightened arousal and erotic experience are what a person seeks, pornography does a good job of supporting that—although, in a drug-like way, over time its users become desensitized and experience diminishing returns. Conversely, if secure, satisfying, quality long-term relationships are what individuals and couples want, pornography’s messaging does a poor job of promoting that aim or showing the way.
The measure and meaning of sexual quality are not the same for everyone. Is the purpose of sex the physical “wow” factor? Or the relationship? If sex is purely for pleasure and has no other meaning or relational significance, then sexual satisfaction is all about that—a here-today, gone-tomorrow hedonistic sensuality. Alternatively, if sex is to build and strengthen relationships, then sexual quality is about the long haul: relationship intimacy, attachment, and bonding. Fortuitously, this latter relationally focused sexuality is actually shown to cultivate the most optimal sexual passion and pleasure. These differences of purpose must be brought into our conversation about pornography to foster more clarity and constructive dialogue focused on our most valued and significant sexual outcomes.
Promoting Long-Term Sexual Quality
Leonhardt and his colleagues suggest several ways to counter and dilute the impact of pornography’s harmful programming. For one, it is important for young people to obtain information about sexuality from sources other than sexual media. Parents can make efforts to educate their children on the importance of emotional and relational factors involved in healthy sexuality which shape long-term sexual quality. Pro-relationship sexual scripts provided by families, churches, and communities can provide a stabilizing scaffolding of alternative messaging to mitigate the influence of pornography’s programming on attitudes and behavior. Ultimately, promoting relationally-focused sexual attitudes, aims, and behaviors will help sexual quality to flourish in relationships—both today and tomorrow.
Mark Butler, Ph.D. Marriage & Family Therapy, is a Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. Misha Crawford, M.S. Marriage, Family, and Human Development, Brigham Young University, is a Family Life Educator.