Pornography—Sexuality, Addiction, Loneliness and Divorce

Fear is the great enemy of intimacy. Fear makes us run away from each other or cling to each other but does not create true intimacy.

—Henri Nouwen

The impact of pornography on relationships, individual health and society is in the public eye more than ever before. Pornography use is wide-spread, and often problematic, and has been shown to generally have a negative impact on couples and gender relations, leading men and women to devalue one another. While there may be exceptions in which pornography depicts healthy sexual activity and respectful gender relations, the rule is that pornography is dominated by hostile sexism, frequently violent, and generally dehumanization and objectification. Because of how sex impacts the brain, pornography essentially short-circuits other systems, becoming not only addictive but also undermining secure attachment, mutual relatedness, and intimacy. As with other similar behaviors, pornography use may also be stigmatized, responded to with judgment and criticism, rather than from a potentially more constructive, curious and non-judgmental point of view.

On the rise.

As pornography evolves, it becomes stronger, driven by easy internet access and advancing technology—though old-fashioned pre-recorded videos are still the most commonly used form of porn. When virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) really kick-off, pornography will become an even more powerful genie, almost impossible to get back into the bottle. As with so many technologies our culture produces, in spite of growing research and awareness, there is very little foresight in preventing future harm.

Especially for younger generations, so-called “digital natives”, as the internet and advanced computer tech has become part of the fabric of day-to-day life and identity, the risk presented by unchecked pornography grows ever greater. While it is possible to imagine VR and AR being used to enhance intimacy and sexuality, porn appears to mainly be driving us further and further apart from one another. Sex is still largely closeted, and sex education limited. Educational institutions and families often gloss over sex, even more of an issue nowadays as kids often have free and unsupervised access to the internet, including getting into vast troves of pornography earlier and earlier in psychosexual development. It is incumbent on parents to pay attention to what kids are doing, more important and more difficult now than ever before.

Pornography is used by a majority of both men and women, though men are more frequent consumers of pornography. While pornography is accepted by some couples and in some cultures more than others, by and large pornography use, within the context of a committed long-term relationship, is interpreted as a form of infidelity. More consistent pornography use is generally seen as a sign of relationship and sexual dissatisfaction, a form of infidelity for starters, as individuals turn away from one another and increase the chance of breaking up by using porn. For some couples, pornography may stabilize an unsatisfying sex life, but research suggest that porn is not generally good for relationships.

New research.

Four recent studies provide useful information about how pornography affects relationships, investigating the role of pornography in sexual satisfaction, loneliness and divorce.

Sexual satisfaction.

Examining the effect of pornography on sexual satisfaction, Wright, Bridges, Sun, Ezzell and Johnson (2018) in Personal Pornography Viewing and Sexual Satisfaction: A Quadratic Analysis look at a sample of 1,500 young adults to develop a more refined understanding of how the “dose” of pornography use is correlated with sexual satisfaction. Overall, they found that more frequent porn viewing was associated with lower sexual satisfaction. Using statistical tools to derive a more granular understanding of how the use of frequency tracks with sexual satisfaction, they report interesting findings. They found that individual differences were associated with differences in the negative impact of porn use. For factors including male gender, being in a committed relationship, and being more religious, this research showed that sexual satisfaction began to decline with pornography use of a few times a year. For factors including female gender, not being in a relationship, and for less religious people, decreased sexual satisfaction started to show up with porn use of once per month. Notably, under no circumstances was pornography use associated with greater sexual satisfaction. These findings, while correlational, suggest that even infrequent use of pornography has negative effects on sexual satisfaction.

Popular porn.

Why might sexual satisfaction decrease with increasing pornography use? Séguin, Rodrige and Lavigne (2018) in Consuming Ecstasy: Representations of Male and Female Orgasm in Mainstream Pornography, reviewed the top 50 most popular videos on Porn Hub, a popular website with which provides free and paid access to pre-recorded videos, which is estimated to have had over 23 billion visits and 92 billion videos viewed in 2017 alone. Researchers analyzed the videos for specific sex acts, focusing on how orgasms were depicted, and if they were achieved. Within the top 50 videos, they found 45 showed a heterosexual couple, and the other 5 showed variations of group sex. The actors comprised 60 women and 50 men. Only 18 percent of the women were shown having orgasms, as contrasted with 78 percent of the men.

Researchers note that orgasm was implied for most of the men, however, as videos without male orgasm were edited to exclude climax scenes to encourage viewers to move to paid content. For males, half of orgasms were finally induced by self-stimulation, a quarter by vaginal intercourse, and the remainder by other means. Of those induced by manual stimulation, orgasm was most often preceded by some kind of penetrative intercourse, not necessarily vaginal. Orgasm was typically represented by ejaculation.

For women, orgasm was induced by vaginal intercourse 45 percent of the time, anal intercourse 35 percent of the time, and by other means less frequently. These findings suggest several reasons why pornography may result in decreased sexual satisfaction. First of all, women typically experience more orgasm through means other than or in additional to penetrative vaginal intercourse (link). Equally important, pornography suggests that women rarely experience orgasm, as represented by a mere 18 percent of female actors in the most popular videos climaxing. If porn is taken as a “how-to” manual for sex, it does a bad job, to say the least. When it comes to instructing viewers on sexual pleasure, porn is generally inaccurate and likely to lead to low quality sex and infrequent orgasm, especially for female partners, and one-dimensional likely unsatisfying sex for males.

Loneliness.

Furthermore, pornography use begets loneliness, and loneliness begets pornography use. Butler, Pereyra, Drap, Leonhardt, and Skinner (2018) in Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation surveyed 1,247 participants in English-speaking countries around the world to develop a sophisticated statistical model of how various factors related to loneliness and pornography use. Overall, they found that porn use was significantly associated with loneliness. In addition, loneliness was significantly associated with pornography use, suggesting a two-way relationship. In fact, for each “unit” of porn use, loneliness increased significantly by a factor of 0.20. For each unit of loneliness, porn used increased by a factor of 0.16. In addition, as shown in prior research, pornography use was greater for men and was lower for married people. Greater religiousness reduced pornography use, and higher educational level was associated with reduced loneliness. The authors discuss that pornography use is associated with relationship distress, disrupted attachment, and strain on pair bonding. Harm to relationships is due to pornography’s “sexual script, consisting of eroticism, objectification, promiscuity, and misogyny [which] is on its face antithetical to secure attachment… conceptually linked to loneliness”—a perspective supported by the analysis of Porn Hub videos’ depictions of sexuality. 

Butler and colleagues go on to describe pornography addiction as arising from maladaptive efforts to use porn to alleviate loneliness and other negative feelings. In this view, pornography use is a two-phase process of arousal and euphoria during sexual stimulation followed by relief and comfort after completion. Pornography provides temporarily relief, but ultimately induces greater feelings of loneliness and isolation, disrupting normal attachment behavior, leading to greater difficulty forming stable, satisfying relationships and further increasing the likelihood of using pornography as a substitute for intimacy with close others.

Divorce.

Finally, Perry and Schleifer (2018), in Till Porn Do Us Part? A Longitudinal Examination of Pornography Use and Divorce, conducted a longitudinal study of married individuals spanning 2006 to 2014. Surveying 2,120 married adults, they found that overall the chance of divorce doubled for both men and women who started using porn after getting married. Across the whole sample, the divorce rate was 6 percent for non-porn users, and 11 percent for porn users. Rates of divorce with porn use were higher for women who started using porn, nearly tripling from 6 to 16 percent, whereas for men porn use was associated with an increase from 5 to 10 percent in divorce rates. Stopping porn use was associated with reduced risk of divorce only for women. For women who stopped using porn, the divorce rate was 6 percent, compared with 18 percent for women who continued to report porn use for the duration of the study.

Finally, researchers found that the association between pornography use and divorce was much higher for younger people. Half of 20 year olds who began using pornography after marriage divorced (vs. 6 percent who did not start using porn), 28 percent of 30 year olds, and 12 percent of 40 year olds. By the age of 50, beginning pornography use did not significantly affect divorce rate. For those who attended religious services at least once per week, pornography consumption did not affect divorce rate. For those who reported being happiest about getting married, beginning porn use was associated with higher divorce rates, 12 percent versus 3 percent for those who did not begin using porn.

While this study is correlational, and does not prove that beginning to use porn causes marriages to break up, it suggests that pornography use is at least an indicator of marital problems. Taken together with prior research, this study suggests that beginning pornography use has at least some direct negative impact on marital stability, and that controlling porn use may, for some couples (and especially when women begin using porn) be an important intervention to prevent divorce and improve relationship satisfaction. The authors suggest that especially for women, who use pornography less than men in general, beginning to use porn may be an indicator of marital dissatisfaction, infidelity, or both. Future research will look at causal relationships between porn use and relationship stability, including factors such as what kind of porn is used, differential effect by gender, heterosexual and homosexual couples, how often porn is used, how it is used and perceived by the couple (e.g. as infidelity versus to enhance sexual pleasure), and related factors.

Food for thought.

American culture is always in tension between individual liberty and societal constraint, a difficult balance to strike, and right now things are especially stirred up. Social media and information technology catalyze rapid, unregulated change. We are in unknown territory, living in a largely uncontrolled experiment we have set up by creating technology which moves faster than our minds can move. Pornography is just one area in which we are trying to catch up with ourselves.

Sexuality and intimacy are more important than ever, and if anything in spite of better understanding the psychology and biology of sexuality and attachment, more problematic than ever. While some people advocate for pornography and may use it in healthy ways, the growing evidence is that, at least in its current incarnation, pornography is probably doing more harm than good and is heading in the wrong direction. While it may be many years, if ever, before society as a whole address issues with pornography—even if porn addiction becomes a diagnostic category—parents and educational institutions need to pay close attention to what is happening, and take appropriate action to prevent negative developmental consequences from pornography use, as a growing body of research suggests that unrestricted access to pornography is already negatively shaping beliefs and behaviors for both young men and women, and for gender relations.

Couples interested in long-term stability and closeness would do well to talk regularly and constructively about their relationships, discussing sexuality as well as non-sexual relationship issues in detail. Because people tend to shy away from talking about sexual beliefs, activities and fantasies, it’s especially important to consider the role of pornography alongside other relationship factors. Individuals who consume pornography frequently, especially those who feel lonely and run into difficulty when they do want to grow closer to others, should strongly consider the impact that porn may be having not only on their relationships, but on their own capacity for bonding and normal sexual function.

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