Loneliness

4 Ways Porn Use Causes Problems

New research on sexual satisfaction, loneliness, and relationship stability.

Posted Mar 05, 2018

     "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 widespread, 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, frequent violence, and general 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 nonjudgmental point of view.

Porn 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 could become an even more powerful genie, almost impossible to get back into the bottle. As with so many technologies, in spite of growing research and awareness, there is very little foresight in preventing future harm.

Especially for younger generations, the so-called "digital natives," 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 is limited. Educational institutions and families often gloss over sex, which is even more of an issue today, 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—and it's more important and more difficult now than ever before.

Stokkete/Shutterstock
Source: Stokkete/Shutterstock

Pornography is used by a majority of both men and women, though men are more frequent consumers. While pornography is accepted by some couples, and in some cultures, more than others, by and large, its 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 and clinical experience suggest that porn, at least in its present incarnation, is not generally good for individuals or relationships because of how it tends to interfere with intimacy and set expectations regarding sexuality.

New Research

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

1. 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 frequency of use 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.

2. Popular Porn

Why might sexual satisfaction decrease with increasing pornography use? In Consuming Ecstasy: Representations of Male and Female Orgasm in Mainstream Pornography, Séguin, Rodrige, and Lavigne (2018) reviewed the top 50 most popular videos on Pornhub, a popular website that 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 that 45 showed a heterosexual couple, and the other five showed variations of group sex. The actors were comprised of 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 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 addition to penetrative vaginal intercourse. 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, as well as one-dimensional, likely unsatisfying sex for males.

3. Loneliness

Pornography use begets loneliness, and loneliness begets pornography use. In Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation, Butler, Pereyra, Drap, Leonhardt, and Skinner (2018) 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 Pornhub 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 temporary 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.

4. Divorce

Finally, in Till Porn Do Us Part? A Longitudinal Examination of Pornography Use and Divorce, Perry and Schleifer (2018) conducted a longitudinal study of married individuals spanning from 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. The 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 a 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 the 20-year-olds who began using pornography after marriage divorced (versus 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 the divorce rate. For those who attended religious services at least once per week, pornography consumption did not affect the 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

In American culture, there is always a 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. Pornography may have a role as part of a healthy sex life, but it's associated with many problems.

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 addresses the 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 relationship, discussing sexual 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 also on their own capacity for bonding and normal sexual function. Those who use porn excessively or problematically may consider seeking help if they can't control use on their own, and couples and individuals who choose to use porn may consider doing so thoughtfully.

Please send questions, topics, or themes you'd like me to try and address in future blogs, via my PT bio page.

References

Mark H. Butler, Samuel A. Pereyra, Thomas W. Draper, Nathan D.

Leonhardt & Kevin B. Skinner (2018) Pornography Use and Loneliness: A Bidirectional

Recursive Model and Pilot Investigation, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44:2, 127-137, DOI:

10.1080/0092623X.2017.1321601

Samuel L. Perry & Cyrus Schleifer (2018) Till Porn Do Us Part? A Longitudinal

Examination of Pornography Use and Divorce, The Journal of Sex Research, 55:3, 284-296, DOI:

10.1080/00224499.2017.1317709

Léa J. Séguin, Carl Rodrigue & Julie Lavigne (2018) Consuming Ecstasy:

Representations of Male and Female Orgasm in Mainstream Pornography, The Journal of Sex

Research, 55:3, 348-356, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2017.1332152

Paul J. Wright, Ana J. Bridges, Chyng Sun, Matthew B. Ezzell & Jennifer A.

Johnson (2018) Personal Pornography Viewing and Sexual Satisfaction: A Quadratic Analysis,

Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 44:3, 308-315, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1377131