Last week, we shared the first part of our extensive interview with University of Oklahoma sociology professor Samuel L. Perry about the latest research on pornography use and relationship outcomes. In part two, he discusses findings from his most recent study and the questions that he would like to see addressed in future research exploring the effects of pornography on relationships.
Alysse ElHage: In your latest study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, you found that a small group of individuals who used porn more frequently were less likely to experience marital separation than those who used it less or not at all. It seems like the opposite would be true. How do you explain this finding?
Samuel Perry: That finding was a bit curious in that there didn’t seem to be a linear pattern between porn viewing frequency and marital separation like we saw with the general breakup study. While those who viewed porn in relatively moderate amounts (between once a year to several times a month) were more likely to be separated later on compared to those who never viewed it, those married Americans who viewed it the most often (weekly or more) were not significantly more likely to experience a marital separation over time. But, as you note, this group of Americans was such a small proportion of the sample that they were not significantly different from either porn abstainers or moderate porn users in their likelihood of experiencing a separation. They could have been outliers, or they could have been among the few couples who actually communicate about their porn use and bring it into the bedroom. Studies show that the relationship outcomes for this latter group are as not bad compared to those couples in which only one partner is viewing porn in isolation.
This last study was also interesting in that I didn’t find a big gender difference like I had for previous studies. But this might have been because of the smaller sample size, and also because breakup or marital separation is a different outcome in some regards from other measures of relationship satisfaction. But more research needs to be done to see if pornography use really influences relationship stability similarly across genders.
Alysse ElHage: Just because there is a correlation between porn use and poor relationship quality doesn’t necessarily mean that porn is the cause of these negative outcomes. Why is this an important distinction for people to understand about this research?
Samuel Perry: Absolutely. While I think the fact that we’re using longitudinal data gets us closer to establishing a directional effect of porn use than previous studies that use cross-sectional data, they are not traditional experimental studies where we can randomly assign married couples to a treatment condition (like viewing porn) and see what happens. And such a study wouldn’t be possible anyway for ethical reasons.
But that being the case, we always should make causal claims with great caution. I do, however, think we do our best to control for the usual suspects in terms of what would cause a breakup or divorce, and pornography use still seems to have a robust association with breakup over time. So, while we cannot definitively demonstrate causation, I think our studies are moving us further toward establishing that porn use (and all that this means for diverse couples) is contributing to relationship outcomes in important ways.
While we cannot definitively demonstrate causation, I think our studies are moving us further toward establishing that porn use (and all that this means for diverse couples) is contributing to relationship outcomes in important ways.
Alysse ElHage: As porn becomes more widespread, its impact on marriage and relationship quality will likely increase. What kind of future research do we need—what questions would you like to see answered?
Samuel Perry: I think we need better data that could track these sorts of trends over time for a large and representative sample of Americans. And it would be great if such data were dyadic—meaning that for those Americans in a romantic or marriage relationship at wave 1, we ask similar questions for both members of the couple at different waves and see whether we can isolate some influence that pornography use is having on their lives over time.
One interesting idea, proposed by Nick Wolfinger, is that we could use an instrumental variable approach to get us further down the road in terms of determining whether porn use has a causal effect on marital stability. While I know of one study in particular that uses such an approach to show that pornography sales predict divorce rates at the state level, I don’t know of any studies that have used this approach to predict divorce or breakup at the individual level. (Interestingly, another study uses the instrumental variable approach to show that porn use predicts that young men won’t get married in the future.) But I would certainly be open to running this study if Nick knows where we could find the appropriate data.
As far as the future of pornography use and relationship outcomes, I could see the association going either way, honestly. If pornography use continues to be something that causes tension among couples and presents an occasion for lying or hiding, then yes, I could see the greater accessibility of pornography causing more problems for marital relationships in the future. On the other hand, porn use is becoming more widely accepted in society at large (except for more conservative religious groups). If pornography use becomes something that couples can actually talk about openly with grace and understanding, perhaps some of the marital conflict we see over the issue could dissipate.
But, of course, this last scenario assumes the most of the relational problems associated with pornography use are due to the self-isolation and conflict that it can engender. Relational problems that may stem from the unrealistic or even misogynistic messages of mainstream pornography could certainly increase as people consume more porn. Ultimately, only time (and hopefully better data) will tell.