There is a classic study in psychology which reported that men who viewed Playboy centerfolds were less in love with their wives than men who viewed artistic paintings.1 Despite being conducted over two decades ago, this study is frequently cited today by politicians and the popular media as conclusive evidence that exposure to pornography is harmful to relationships. However, the results of this study are often mischaracteried and what this research really says about the effects of porn is far from definitive.
Let me first explain how the study worked so that you can better understand my critiques. Married, heterosexual college students of both sexes were recruited for a study of “aesthetic and artistic judgment.” Half of the participants were assigned to view nude centerfolds (men saw images from Playboy or Penthouse and women saw images from Playgirl), while the other half viewed images of abstract art. After viewing 16 porn or art photos, participants filled out a survey that asked how much attraction and love they felt for their spouses. Results indicated that women’s ratings of attraction and love for their partner were the same regardless of the type of images they viewed. In comparison, men reported lower feelings of love and attraction after viewing porn than after viewing art. So porn is therefore bad for men’s relationships, right? Not so fast.
First, the average attraction and love score were very high for both men and women, regardless of the type of images participants were exposed to. Thus, it’s not like men reported being unattracted to their wives or fell out of love after seeing the centerfolds—on average, men still felt very positively about their spouses. Related to this point, no matter what type of image they viewed, men reported levels of love and attraction that were just as high (if not higher) than the women. Thus, even after watching porn, men still reported as much love for their partners as did women!
Second, it’s important to keep in mind that no baseline measure of love was taken, which means we cannot say whether any actual changes in love and attraction occurred among the men. Without knowing the baseline, we can’t rule out the possibility that the men who viewed the abstract art just had better relationships (or better looking wives) to begin with than the men who viewed centerfolds.
Finally, and this is the most important point of all, the love and attraction measurements were taken immediately after exposure to the images. Thus, it could very well be the case that we’re talking only about very short-lived, temporary effects that aren't very meaningful in the bigger scheme of things. Would any alleged loss in attraction or love still be there in an hour? A day? A week? Based upon just this very brief pornography exposure, probably not.
In short, while this is indeed a “sexy” study, it hardly provides definitive evidence that exposure to pornography harms men's relationships. This is not to say that porn is completely benign. We know that porn causes problems for some couples, especially when one partner uses it compulsively. There’s also the possibility that repeated exposure to porn over a long period of time may reduce relationship intimacy and erode attraction to one’s partner, pehaps by creating a contrast effect (e.g., if pornography constantly exposes you to extremely sexy people, your actual partner may start to look less appealing in comparison). However, at least at this point in time, there is not a ton of scientific evidence indicating that this happens. Porn is and probably always will be a controversial subject, but as far as the question of harm goes, it is not clear whether porn is as detrimental to relationships as some politicians and media personalities have made it out to be.
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1Kenrick, D. T., Gutierres, S. E., & Goldberg, L. L. (1989). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159-167. doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(89)90010-3
Image Source: http://i309.photobucket.com/albums/kk377/patrickramjoy3/01playboy2.png