While there are a number of forces threatening the quality and stability of family life today, one of the major hazards to marital well-being is the widespread availability and use of pornography. Some research has linked regular porn use to sexual attitudes and behaviors that can be harmful to long-term intimate relationships, leading well-known marriage therapist John Gottman to reverse his previous stance on porn use for couples and declare it “a serious threat to couple intimacy and relationship harmony.” Still, as Nicholas Wolfinger has pointed out on this blog, there a number of unanswered questions in the research connecting pornography to negative relationship outcomes.
I recently discussed these issues with a scholar who is seeking to answer some of these questions: Samuel Perry, an assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Perry has authored or co-authored a number of large-scale studies on pornography use and relationship stability, and he is currently finishing up a book that considers the consequences of pornography for conservative Protestant individuals, families, and communities.
In part 1 of my interview with Professor Perry (part 2 will be published next Monday), he summarizes the research on pornography use and relationship quality, including findings from his own recent studies. For those who want to dig further into this research, please note the hyperlinks to various studies in his answers.
Alysse ElHage: An increasing number of studies have examined the impact of porn use on relationships. Give us a brief summary of what the research shows, so far, about how porn use might negatively impact relationship outcomes?
Samuel Perry: While there are a number of important gaps in the literature, the vast majority of studies that examine the connection between pornography use and relationship outcomes find that men who view pornography more often tend to report lower relationship quality by a variety of different measures. This tends to be the case whether men are in marriages or otherwise committed romantic relationships. The findings are often different for women, however. Most research, including my own, finds that pornography use tends to either be unassociated or even positively associated with women’s relationship quality.
There should be nothing controversial in what I just stated. Most people well-versed in this literature would, I think, agree with my summary. And notice that I haven’t said anything about causality yet. That’s because one of the key limitations of most research is that the vast majority of studies have been cross-sectional and therefore unable to determine what’s causing what here. Specifically, is it pornography use that contributes to poorer relationship outcomes? Or do people who are already in struggling relationships tend to seek out pornography because they’re frustrated or dissatisfied with their sex lives? Or perhaps both?
The few studies we do have that use experimental or longitudinal data find that there does seem to be a directional “effect” of pornography use on relationship outcomes, particularly for men. Not so much for women.
Alysse ElHage: What are some of the theories about why porn use is associated with negative relationship outcomes, and why is this more true for men than women?
Samuel Perry: Much of the theorizing about this argues that there are a few possible pathways. First, “scripting theory” suggests that porn use might shape our conscious or unconscious expectations about body image and how sexual relationships actually work in ways that might make us dissatisfied with our actual romantic partner. In this case, porn use may influence men more because they’re viewing it more often than women and thus, perhaps, are more susceptible to its influence. A second argument suggests that it’s really all about the discrepancy in porn use within the couple. The issue is perhaps not so much that porn use changes people but that couples don’t talk about it and perhaps hold different opinions on it. So, it becomes a tremendous source of tension and conflict. Most likely, some combination of both is happening.
The vast majority of studies that examine the connection between pornography use and relationship outcomes find that men who view pornography more often tend to report lower relationship quality by a variety of different measures.
Alysse ElHage: Religious belief and pornography use was the focus of one of your studies. What impact does religious belief have on pornography use and marital stability?
Samuel Perry: My own contribution to this ongoing conversation, and what is ultimately a large part of my forthcoming book, is that porn use is particularly damaging for the marital relationships of deeply religious Americans (I focus on conservative Protestants), primarily because of what porn use means to those men and women.
Several recent studies (mine included) show that the negative association between pornography use and marital quality is a lot stronger (or we could say worse) for those who (1) are more connected to church and the Bible and (2) are married to spouses who are more conventionally religious as well. And there’s also some data that suggest conservative Protestant women are twice as likely to report divorcing their husband because of his porn use compared to women who are not conservative Protestants. How can we explain these findings? Isn’t conventional religion supposed to make marriages stronger?
Conservative Protestants don’t view pornography more often than anyone else. In fact, the really devout ones tend to view it a lot less. So it’s not because they’re all “porn addicts.” But rather, because pornography use is such a fundamental violation of their own sexual ethic, conservative Protestant men who view pornography with any sort of regularity (even if it’s infrequent by the standards of other American men) often experience significant guilt and shame associated with it that ends up impacting their intimate relationships in negative ways. They hide. They lie. Especially if they’re married to a spouse who draws a hard line about pornography use. There is little communication about pornography use because it’s a complete non-starter for conservative Protestants. It’s morally unjustifiable to them and therefore serious enough to become a deal-breaker for a number of conservative Protestant women.
By contrast, a lot of my research suggests that among married couples who are not very religious, pornography use doesn’t have quite the dramatic effect on their relationships. I’m not saying that pornography is a great thing for these couples. It probably isn’t on the whole (though situations vary). But they don’t seem to experience the guilt and hiding and conflict that deeply religious couples do over that issue.
Alysse ElHage: Your latest study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, is the third in a series of three studies focused on the impact of pornography use on relationship stability. Tell us briefly about all three studies and what you found?
Samuel Perry: These studies examined the potential influence of pornography use on relationship stability, from three different angles. The studies were an attempt to overcome the problems of previous research by using panel data, where we could try to isolate whether porn use temporally preceded the relationship outcome in question. In this case, all studies were interested in some form of relationship dissolution or breakup.
The first is published in the Journal of Sex Research and in that study, my co-author and I use General Social Survey panel data finding that married Americans who began pornography use between survey waves were basically twice as likely to get divorced by the next survey wave. We also find that married women who stopped using pornography between waves were significantly less likely to get divorced than those who kept on using it.
The second study, published in the journal Sexuality & Culture, used panel data from the 2006-2012 Portraits of American Life Study (PALS). In that article, my co-author and I found that Americans who used pornography more frequently in 2006 (and particularly men) were more likely to experience some sort of romantic breakup within the next six years. Even though we couldn’t necessarily demonstrate that the earlier pornography use was the “cause” of the breakup, the finding itself was fascinating because it was almost perfectly linear. In other words, with every increase in porn viewing frequency earlier on there was a corresponding increase in the likelihood that a male respondent would experience a romantic breakup in the next six years.
The third and most recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior also uses the 2006-2012 PALS data and focuses on Americans who were all married in 2006. Here, I find that pornography use in 2006 predicted a greater likelihood that a respondent would experience a marital separation in the next six years. This was even after controlling for how happy they were in their marriage earlier on and even how satisfied they were with their sex lives. In other words, the association I observe between pornography use and marital separation doesn’t seem to be due to the fact that these respondents were already in bad marriages or dissatisfied with their sex lives. So it’s more likely to have been something about the porn use itself (and all that potentially goes with it).
Look for the remainder of our interview with Samuel Perry next week.