“We have a distorted view of our fantasies … because we don’t talk about them enough.” —Sasha Grey, actor and former porn performer
Pornography is becoming ubiquitous and ever more sophisticated. Long gone are the days of erotic wood carvings. Gone are the days of XXX cinemas in seedy neighborhoods with furtive and lurid shapes in the fog. Gone are the days of print magazines and pin-up girls. Pornography plus the internet equals a “sexplosion” of erotica — prerecorded, real-time, virtual reality, and more — confronting flesh-and-blood interpersonal relationships with compelling alternatives, which for some prove more desirable, ultimately superior, and equally, if not more, clandestine. I predict that by the end of the 21st century, sex will finally come out of the closet — and fundamentally change what being a human being means.
In their recently published work, Daspe, Vaillancourt-Morel, Lussier, Sabourin, and Ferron (2018) investigate important questions regarding pornography use, which is going up in frequency and plays an increasingly significant and pervasive role in society. Setting aside questions of morality and direct and indirect harm, pornography use is seen by many relationship experts as being potentially healthy or potentially destructive to individuals and couples.
How Do Relationship Circumstances Shape Pornography’s Impact?
However, up until now the research on pornography has not looked at how overall relationship and sexual satisfaction affects the frequency of pornography use, or the extent to which pornography users experience distress associated with pornography use. More abusive and violent pornography also shapes attitudes about gender and sexuality, and can negatively affect relationships and contribute to harm, though men reporting both positive and negative effects from pornography attribute greater positive effects overall, and young men greater negative effects than older men (Miller et al., 2017). Studies have also shown that pornography use may mis-wire reward circuits, causing sexual dysfunction and reinforcing dependence on porn (Park et al., 2016).
Daspe and colleagues note many points which are now common knowledge. Pornography use is on the rise and diversifying. When it becomes destructive, it leads to distress and loss of control, and negatively impacts relationships. For some, internet pornography use becomes persistent. According to researchers, 17 percent of pornography users are compulsive (Cooper, Delmonico & Berg, 2000), leading to distress and dysfunction. In other work (Grubbs et al., 2015; Blais-Lecours et al., 2016), feeling out of control is only partly due to a higher frequency of use, with correlations between the two ranging from weak to strong.
But we don’t know why that is, or what factors connect frequency and perceived loss of control. It’s easy to understand why someone who uses porn more than they want to, or who feels conflict about it or fears consequences, would perceive losing control even with relatively low levels of porn use. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t have any problem with pornography may be a frequent user and be as happy as can be. In the research review here, the role of relationship and sexual satisfaction for couples is examined as a factor in determining how frequency of use and perceived lack of control connect.
Zoom in on Pornography, and Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction
To better understand how these factors interact, Daspe and colleagues (2018) recruited people in relationships to complete an online survey about pornography use, relationship and sexual satisfaction, and other factors. They surveyed 1,036 people, about 50 percent women, mainly between the ages of 18 and 35. Most had been in a relationship over a year; 30 percent were going out, but did not live together; 54 percent lived together; and 15.6 percent were married. A third had children, and the majority were male-female couples.
They completed measures including: internet pornography use; frequency of use; type of pornography used; perceived lack of control over pornography use; relationship satisfaction; and sexual satisfaction. The data were analyzed first to look for significant correlations, and then in more detail to understand the complex moderating effects among factors of interest.
In terms of basic results, they found that 73 percent of women and 98 percent of men reported internet porn use in the last six months, for a total of 85 percent of respondents. For porn use within the last week, the numbers were lower: 80 percent of men and 26 percent of women. Prerecorded videos were the most common type of online porn used. For both men and women, those who reported using porn more often noted a greater perceived lack of control.
For men, lower sexual satisfaction correlated with greater frequency of porn use, and perceived lack of control was associated with both lower relationship and sexual satisfaction. There were interesting correlations for relationship duration — for women, longer relationships were associated with less porn use. For men and women, longer relationships were associated with decreased relationship and sexual satisfaction. Importantly, men reported higher frequency of use, higher perceived lack of control, and lower relationship and sexual satisfaction. People who cohabited said they experienced both lower relationship and sexual satisfaction. Finally, people with kids also reported lower relationship and sexual satisfaction, but having children did not affect the relationship between frequency of porn use and feeling out of control.
When they dug into the data more deeply, there were several useful insights. In the presence of lower relationship satisfaction, frequency of use was more highly correlated with perceived lack of control. This suggests that using porn to compensate for relationship issues as a maladaptive coping strategy is more likely to become distressing. For men only, having no children enhanced perceived lack of control in the presence of both lower relationship and sexual satisfaction. This suggests that having children “protects” against excessive porn use, as accessing porn is usually more difficult with children in the household.
Good relationship satisfaction, for both men and women, reduced the connection between perceived lack of control and frequency of use, suggesting that porn use is not as likely to be destructive for satisfying relationships. Lower sexual satisfaction predicted more frequent porn use, as well as greater perceived lack of control.
Working with Pornography in Relationships
What can we do with research findings to improve relationship quality and sexual satisfaction and limit the damaging effects of pornography, while enhancing arguably constructive pornography use? When pornography use is problematic, it can damage relationship and sexual enjoyment for both partners, worsening problems already present. For both partners in a less satisfying relationship, pornography use is more likely to feel out of control, suggesting major relationship issues are being avoided. When children come into the picture, women may find satisfaction in providing care, as women are still more often the primary caregivers, and the couple’s relationship may suffer if additional steps are not taken to prevent that from happening. For many couples, children draw partners closer.
Women may end up having fewer resources available for the couple, expending more time and energy with children. Men may turn to pornography, further widening the intimacy gap and potentially causing sexual dysfunction (Park et al., 2016). Pornography may also stabilize unhappy relationships by providing an alternative to infidelity. Porn use tends to be kept secret, a source of fear and shame (perhaps echoing childhood attitudes about self-stimulation), making it even harder to talk about relationship and sexual issues. In addition to sexual frustration, pornography may also be used to cope with other stressors in life, both within and outside of intimate relationships.
When couples decide to work on their relationship issues, pornography needs to be approached thoughtfully. Couples need to understand each other’s beliefs and attitudes. If there are major gaps in how they view pornography, it is going to be difficult to discuss sexuality and the relationship in general without coming to some consensus about those conflicts; if there is an absolute moral prohibition, it may even be a non-starter. Partners may also differ in whether they see porn use as infidelity. One person may see themselves as being innocent of any transgression, while the other feels betrayed. That betrayal then becomes the main issue, especially if it is already a theme in the relationship or part of the either partner’s past (e.g., a personal history of cheating, or being cheated on, and/or a parental infidelity history).
Partners may also hold different views on the morality of pornography. One person, for instance, may believe that pornography actors are generally abused and coerced vulnerable young people who are possibly fleeing problematic home situations; women being taken advantage of in a male-dominated industry. The other may argue that porn actors are aware of their choices and able to give full informed consent. It varies from person to person, and people who make porn vary in how they select actors. The meaning of being viewed as complicit in abuseby virtue of pornography consumption is a recurring theme for many couples, a discussion which often doesn’t go well.
Being clear about what constitutes infidelity and betrayal is also at the heart of the conversation. To complicate matters, people may be unaware of how they really feel about something until it happens. We could agree in principle, for example, that it’s OK to use porn, and that it isn’t cheating — only to find out we feel very differently when we catch our partner with it. This can lead to confusion and conflict, as each sees the other as culpable in different ways.
Getting clear with one another about porn is part of a larger effort to improve relationship and sexual satisfaction. Talking through sexual issues improves both sexual and relationship quality, and can include a detailed discussion of partners’ sexual wishes, which is shown to enhance women’s pleasure. It can also help to include close other couples in relationship conversations as well. Individual factors, such as attachment style and sexual self-concept, are additional important factors to consider. When couples are avoidant and/or don’t have the tools, they should strongly consider whether they are ready to make a serious commitment to dealing with their issues and seek appropriate assistance.
Blais-Lecours, S., Vaillancourt-Morel, M.-P., Sabourin, S., & Godbout, N. (2016). Cyberpornography: Time use, perceived addiction, sexual functioning, and sexual satisfaction. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and SocialNetworking, 19(11), 649–655. doi:10.1089/cyber.2016.0364
Cooper, A.,Delmonico,D. L., & Burg, R. (2000). Cybersex users, abusers, and compulsives:New findings and implications. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 7(1–2), 5–29. doi:10.1080/10720160008400205
Daspe M, Vaillancourt-Morel M, Lussier Y, Sabourin S & Ferron A (2017): When Pornography Use Feels Out of Control: The Moderation Effect of Relationship and Sexual Satisfaction, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2017.1405301
Grubbs, J. B., Stauner, N., Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., & Lindberg, M. J. (2015). Perceived addiction to Internet pornography and psychological distress: Examining relationships concurrently and over time. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 29(4), 1056–1067. doi:10.1037/adb0000114
Miller D, Hald, J, Martin & Kidd G. (2017). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption among heterosexual men. Psychology of Men & Masculinity. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, May 8. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/men0000112
Park BY, Wilson G & Doan AP. (2016). Is Internet Pornography Causing Sexual Dysfunctions? A Review with Clinical Reports. Behavioral Sciences, 2016 Sep; 6(3): 17.