Pornography and Romantic Relationships

Does pornography help or hurt romantic relationships?  Or does it do both?  This current posting compares popular media appraisals to psychological research as to how they differentially describe the impact of pornography on romantic relationships.

Montgomery-Graham et al. (2015) gathered news, magazine, and blog items concerning the impact of pornography on relationships.[i]  Over one third of these sources described pornography as being beneficial for romantic relationships, including porn as a means for exploring fantasies; reducing sexual boredom; and female empowerment.

In spite of the propitious influence of porn use on romantic relationships suggested by the popular press, empirical studies find less salubrious effects.  As early as 2005 Mitchell et al. interviewed mental health professionals and found internet pornography use was a recurrent and growing issue for their clients, including partner conflict over porn.[ii]

In an ingenious series of five studies Lambert et al. (2012) empirically evaluated the influence of pornography on committed relationships[iii]:

  • Study one measured participants’ frequency of pornography use to self-appraisal of commitment to an existing romantic partner.  
  • Study two used an observational design in which trained observers watched couples complete a complex collaborative task after being asked about their frequency of pornography use.
  • Study three separated frequent porn consumers into two groups.  The first was directed to abstain from all porn for a total of three weeks, while the second group was instructed to abstain from their favorite food for the same period of time.  Initial self-report ratings of commitment to a current romantic partner were compared to post-study ratings.

In sum, the above three studies found pornography consumption was associated with weakened commitment to one’s romantic partner and even surfaced in behaviors that were noticeable to trained observers.

The researchers then devised two additional studies:

  • Study four participants (all of who were in an exclusive romantic relationship) were asked to describe their frequency of porn use.  Three weeks later they were asked to ostensibly test a new social networking service in which they would chat with an unknown person of the opposite sex for ten minutes.   The latter person was actual a study confederate trained to be engaging and flirtatious.  The results indicated that higher pornography consumption was associated with more flirtatious behavior by the study subjects.
  • Finally, in study five, participants were asked about frequency of porn consumption, commitment to a current relationship, and infidelity during the past twelve months.  Results indicated porn consumption predicted greater infidelity.

Rasmussen (2016) reviewed empirical research on porn consumption and its impact on romantic relationships.[iv]  While acknowledging a paucity of studies, he determined there were three pathways by which porn use influences couples’ functioning.  First, partners begin to see their mates as less attractive in comparison to images in pornography.  Second, pornography gives an impression that others outside the relationship would better provide sexual variety and satisfaction.  Finally, pornography increases acceptability of infidelity.  In sum, he concluded, “The evidence for pornography’s influence on the stability of romantic and committed relationships is strong. The effects described are grounded in established theory and operate through well-defined processes, and the data produce remarkable agreement.” (pg. 185)

In conclusion, mainstream and popular media are often in disagreement with empirical research as to the impact of pornography on relationship functioning.  Exhortations to engage in porn use to increase relationship satisfaction might lead to just the opposite effect.

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