If marriage equality is the Stalingrad of the culture wars, then perhaps pornography is its Gallipoli. Porn usually flies under the radar, but when push comes to shove it's no less divisive than marriage or abortion. Liberals are typically indifferent, generally treating porn as either innocuous or an unseemly test case for the First Amendment. In contrast, social conservatives view porn as a scurrilous threat to marriage and family. Similarly, some feminists, most notably the legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon, believe that porn is responsible for violence against women.
To date, most of the pornography scholarship has been less than convincing. There's no way of knowing whether the endless laboratory studies connecting porn to sexual aggression have anything to do with the real world. And most of the studies linking pornography consumption to diminished relationship quality have all been based on small convenience samples that may reflect nothing more than disgruntled singles mouthing off about their porn-addled exes.
Into this research void step two energetic young scholars, Sam Perry and Cyrus Schleifer. Together they've conducted what appears to be the first-ever study on the effects of porn consumption on divorce rates based on national longitudinal data. They find that porn is bad for marriage, but the full story is far more complicated.
Perry and Schleifer's results were presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Drawing on the General Social Survey (GSS), the authors explore whether starting porn consumption or ending it increases or decreases the odds of dissolving a marriage. Their study found that men's pornography consumption has no statistically significant impact on marital stability, but porn does make divorce more likely when women watch it. Unfortunately, the GSS is a sample of adults, not couples. We don't know if porn enthusiasts marry each other at high rates, or whether survey respondents consume pornography alone or with their partners.
The gender difference is fascinating. The conservative narrative about pornography is that its male consumers come to prefer it to intimate encounters with their wives. Perhaps wives compare invidiously to the buxom starlets of porn films. Inevitably, the marriage suffers as the women come to feel neglected and undersexed. Maybe this sometimes happens, but not enough to actually swing divorce trends. Therefore, it's hard to lend much credence to the critics who aver that porn is as bad as adultery.
Is a causal relationship between pornography and divorce conceivable?
And it's hard to see the conservative narrative about invidious comparisons holding for women. Unlike the women portrayed in porn, male porn stars aren't always attractive (the rotund Ron Jeremy, this generation's best known male adult film actor, has never been described as handsome). Nor is the degradation of women sometimes depicted in X-rated movies a common selling point for female viewers. These findings seemingly point to the left's usual explanation for research findings that link porn with marital dysfunction: sample selection. In layman's terms, people look at porn because their marriages are in decline, not the other way around. It's also possible that the same kind of people ill-suited to succeed at marriage—say, those who are sexually rapacious—are also more inclined to consume pornography. It's evidence for this understanding that divorce rates don't decline when men discontinue watching porn. If porn did vitiate marriage, surely its absence should make things better? But this doesn't appear to be the case.
However, Perry and Schleifer's results don't sit foursquare with this interpretation. Women who discontinue viewing porn have lower divorce rates than do women who watch it continually. Is a causal relationship between pornography and divorce conceivable? Sure: watching it actively worsens a marriage, so discontinuing it improves the relationship. But sample selection is just as possible here. According to this narrative, female porn viewing is just a symptom of connubial discontent. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that many women find pornography so compelling that it causes them to lose interest in their husbands.
One way Perry and Schliefer tried to address these issues is by seeing if the porn-divorce connection held for both happy and unhappy married couples. Strikingly, they found that porn only increases the odds of divorce for women when their marriages are happy—porn doesn't make an unhappy marriage any more likely to break up. The authors speculate quite reasonably that unhappily married people presumably have more important problems, so porn doesn't make that much difference.
Even more curious is the role of religion. Porn only seems to threaten marital stability for couples who don't attend church regularly. One might expect that pious spouses would be more disapproving of pornography, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Much more likely is the fact that religion provides considerable support for marriage, enabling it to better withstand challenges.
Although porn doesn't imperil religious marriages, it does make them less happy (and certainly some religious marriages do end over porn use). Elsewhere Perry finds that pornography is especially prone to reducing the quality of religious marriages. It seems almost a foregone conclusion that most religious spouses view porn negatively and are therefore less likely to be approving. And it's not a contradiction that marriages can be both less happy AND less likely to dissolve. In my 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle, I show that marital happiness and divorce proneness sometimes operate as parallel processes. Other things being equal, less happy marriages are more likely to end. But in many cases, it takes more than discord to end a marriage, and that seems to be the case when it comes to porn and religion.
Indeed, porn affects marital quality differently than it affects marital stability: according to an article Sam Perry published recently in Archives of Sexual Behavior, relations are less harmonious when the man consumes pornography, whereas women's consumption makes no difference. This finding makes sense given our received understanding of how porn can sometimes weaken a marriage.
The final consideration is how porn might affect marriage when couples view it together. Here the existing research also makes sense: porn seems to present comparatively fewer problems for couples who view it together. It may fan the flames of Eros that would otherwise naturally subside as spouses age together. And it might not arouse feelings of jealousy that may emerge when porn consumption is individual and clandestine.
Sam Perry and Cyrus Schleifer are doing the first really methodologically rigorous work on pornography and marriage. Their research has yielded many interesting findings but nonetheless raises new questions. If porn makes couples less happy when men watch it and more likely to divorce when women watch it, and improves the sex lives of some couples who watch it together, there is clearly a lot more we need to understand. Fortunately, we have scholars who are up to the task.