There is a classic study in psychology which reported that heterosexual men who viewed Playboy centerfolds were less in love with their wives than men who viewed artistic paintings . 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 mischaracterized 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 highlight that the total number of men included in this study was extremely small--there were just 30 guys in total! Caution is warranted in drawing sweeping conclusions based on any study with such a small sample because it turns out that they're often unreliable.
Finally, and perhaps 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. However, when it comes to using this particular study as the basis for arguing that porn has negative relationship implications, it's important to be mindful of the many limitations of this study and to consider it in the context of the broader scientific literature on pornography.
To read other articles about how people respond to pornography, see here.
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 Kenrick, 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: iStockphoto.com
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