Why a Committed Partner May Watch Porn

A new study sheds light on this contentious issue.

Posted Jul 22, 2019

Finding out that your partner has secretly been watching porn can be a stressful, sometimes even traumatic, experience. People in such a situation often report feelings of shock, disappointment, and even betrayal, as they consider porn use to be the moral equivalent of infidelity. If this is your experience, whatever feelings you have are legitimate and need to be expressed to your partner.

At the same time, an emotional outburst certainly won’t resolve the issue and will likely make things worse. A better approach is to wait for a time when you and your partner can talk calmly. Likewise, you’re likely to have a more successful outcome to the discussion if you try to understand your partner’s perspective beforehand. Showing a willingness at least to listen to your partner’s point of view will go a long way toward helping them open up about a very sensitive, personal issue.

Why do people in committed relationships use porn? This is the question that psychologists Colin Hesse and Kory Floyd explored in a recent article in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Their findings can provide guidance for couples who are struggling with one partner’s porn activities.

Hesse and Floyd conducted their study within a framework known as affection exchange theory. This is the proposal that all humans have a need for positive social interactions with other people, and this includes bodily contact as an important means of showing affection. Plenty of research supports the contention that social interaction and exchanges of affection yield all sorts of physical and psychological health benefits.

Japanese psychologists have long used the made-up English word “skinship” to describe interpersonal relationships that include bodily—and often skin-to-skin—contact. It’s important to understand that skinship relations aren’t necessarily sexual. Babies and young children especially need plenty of skin-to-skin contact with caregivers, which they get through being held, kissed, hugged, and cuddled.

After puberty, we begin seeking sexual partners to help meet our affection needs. As we transition into long-term, committed relationships, we come to rely on our spouse as the main source of affection—and the sole source of sexual intimacy—in our lives.

Still, we also have skinship relations that aren’t sexual in nature. We hug friends and family members when we meet and say farewell to them. Women may even kiss each other on the cheek as a sign of affection. Likewise, men during emotional events such as sporting activities will hug or pat each other on the back or buttocks to show their affection for one another. Non-sexual bodily contact is pleasing and soothing, and it appears to involve the release of the same hormones that occur during sexual encounters.

Affection exchange theory predicts that when our personal relationships don’t provide the level of affection we need, we experience a deficit and seek out substitutes. The feelings produced by an affection deficit are essentially the same as those experienced in loneliness. The only difference is that loneliness typically results from a lack of social relationships. Affection deficit, then, is the experience of loneliness within a well-constructed social network that nevertheless fails to meet the person’s affection needs.

When people experience affection deficit, they seek out substitutes that can help reduce feelings of loneliness. For example, consuming substances like chocolate and alcohol can at least provide dopamine rushes that make lonely feelings go away for a while. Substance use isn’t necessarily problematic, especially if it doesn’t negatively impact the user's quality of life. Nevertheless, there’s ample evidence that substance abuse stems from severe affection deprivation, especially in early childhood.

Another means of alleviating affection deprivation is the creation of what’s called a parasocial relationship. This is an imaginary affiliation with a fictional person or a celebrity, and it’s speculated that engaging in these can lead to the release of the same pleasant and soothing hormones that real affectionate relationships do.

Parasocial relationships are quite common. Teenage girls work themselves into a frenzy at the sight of their favorite male pop singer, and many women turn to romance novels to soothe their feelings of affection deficit. In recent years, popular TV series such as Game of Thrones, with the actors' beautiful bodies and steamy sexuality on full display, provide both men and women with ample opportunities for forming parasocial relationships.

Of course, the question of whether affection substitutions are helpful or harmful to the individual or the relationship is still unanswered. Hesse and Floyd take the reasonable position that affection substitutions can be either beneficial or detrimental depending on many factors.

For instance, it’s inevitable that spouses will differ in their need for affection, including sex. To the extent that the higher-need partner can make up the difference through affection substitutions, their use is probably beneficial to the marriage. In contrast, when affection substitutions are used to avoid confronting important problems in the relationship, their use can indeed be harmful, not just to the relationship as a whole, but also to each of the individual partners.  

In their study, Hesse and Floyd ask whether people in committed relationships use porn—particularly for the purpose of masturbation—as an affection substitution. After all, pornography with its depiction of intimate sexual acts appears to lend itself readily to the creation of parasocial relationships.

Furthermore, the resulting orgasm from self-stimulation leads to the release of affection-related hormones, such as dopamine, prolactin, and oxytocin. Given these facts, it seems reasonable to suppose that people in committed relationships might watch porn in response to feelings of affection deficit.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited 357 participants—with roughly equal numbers of males and females—to respond to an anonymous survey. All respondents were in committed, long-term relationships. They responded to a number of questions regarding the amount of affection they experience in their lives, their degree of relationship satisfaction, and how much loneliness, depression, and affection deprivation they felt.

The respondents also indicated how frequently they viewed porn. They then ticked off items on a list of 19 reasons why people watch porn that had been culled from other sources. Among these reasons were the formation of parasocial relationships (“I feel like I’m interacting with the persons in the videos”) and sexual gratification. Others included escape from loneliness or other personal problems, as well as boosting life satisfaction.

Among the responses, there were a few gender differences. It probably comes as no surprise that the men reported a much higher frequency of porn viewing than the women. On average, the women said they watched porn about twice a month, while the men averaged around three times a week. In contrast, the women reported slightly more affection than did the men. However, none of the rest of the measures yielded a gender difference.

Overall, the results supported the hypothesis that people in committed relationships use porn as a substitute for affection. In particular, the respondents indicated that they view porn in conjunction with masturbation as a means of releasing sexual tension, escaping loneliness, and creating parasocial relationships. Porn consumption can serve as a coping mechanism when people aren’t getting the affection they need in their relationships.

Despite all the hype on the Internet, porn isn’t the cause of problems in a relationship. In fact, porn consumption can even have beneficial effects. For example, many people in loving relationships use porn and masturbation to meet their sexual needs when their partner is unavailable due to distance or other temporary issues. Also, many individuals view porn to increase arousal before sex with their partner. Likewise, some couples watch porn together to enhance their intimacy.

However, especially when spouses are secretive about their viewing practices, porn use can be a symptom of other problems in the relationship. And it’s these problems, not pornography consumption per se, which need to be addressed. As the current research suggests, it could be that your partner is watching porn, because they feel they aren’t getting their affection needs met.

Your partner’s feelings of loneliness are just as valid as your own feelings of betrayal at their furtive porn practices. So approach the situation with a willingness to listen and a desire to improve the relationship, rather than with the guns of righteousness a-blazing.

Facebook image: TheVisualsYouNeed/Shutterstock

References

Hesse, C. & Floyd, K. (2019). Affection substitution: The effect of pornography consumption on close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0265407519841719