Till Porn Do Us Part: Why You Should Be Skeptical of the New Study Claiming Porn Kills Love

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A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research reports that when married people start using porn, their odds of getting divorced double. In other words, the results would appear to suggest that porn is inherently destructive to relationships.

Though the findings are provocative and based on longitudinal data from the General Social Survey (which is often a great source of information), I’m not sold on the conclusion. Here’s why.

First, the question used in this research to measure porn consumption is fundamentally flawed: “Have you seen an X-rated movie in the last year?” It doesn’t actually inquire about porn use—it asks about “X-rated movies” instead, whatever the heck those are. I mean, what "counts" as an X-rated movie? Needless to say, it probably doesn’t capture everyone who watches porn—and I suspect that’s why relatively few people answered yes to this question (for more elaboration on these points, check out my latest article over at Playboy).

The bigger issue, however, is that this study doesn’t demonstrate cause-and-effect. It’s correlational, which means we can’t say with any degree of certainty whether porn causes divorce or whether both porn use and divorce are symptoms of something else. To me, there’s good reason to suspect the latter because sexual satisfaction and frequency tend to decline over the course of a relationship, which could explain trends toward both more porn and more divorce (again, for more on this, check out my article in Playboy).

What we really need to look at if we want to establish whether porn has a causal effect on how people feel about their partners or relationships is experimental data—and we do have some we can consider, including a set of three studies published last year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. What these studies revealed was that, for both men and women, exposure to pornographic images had no effect on how much love or attraction they felt toward their partners compared to people who viewed images of abstract art instead. If porn were inherently destructive to marriages, we would probably expect to see a very different pattern of results here.

In short, there’s good reason to be skeptical of this “till porn do us part” narrative. However, to be perfectly clear, this isn’t to say that porn can never be harmful to relationships. It may very well be sometimes, especially if one partner is using porn compulsively. But at the same time, porn can also be good for other relationships, such as when couples use it together as a form of sexual novelty. The truth of the matter—and what the broader scientific literature suggests—is that if we want to understand the effects of pornography on relationships, we need to look at who’s using it, why, and what kind of porn they’re watching. Different people might experience different effects based on their personalities and motivations, not to mention what’s on their screen. As a result, simple stories like “porn is bad” or “porn is good” just aren’t an accurate reflection of reality. The effects of porn are far more complex than most of us are willing to give it credit for.

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