Porn: Does it Damage your Relationship?

A spot of nocturnal surfing never hurt anyone, right? Caden Crawford/Flickr

The stereotypical pornography user is a single man, who nightly surfs the internet for smut and works his way through more Kleenex than an influenza ward. At the very least, there’s the idea that pornography is for people who don’t have a partner — that it’s the ultimate solitary pastime.

Of course, people with partners view pornography too. But is this a problem? Does pornography use among couples affect relationship quality?

Two studies recently published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior (my favorite!) attempt to answer this question, and to go beyond simple assumptions that pornography is detrimental to our relationships.

Bottoms up!

Taylor Kohut and his colleagues from the University of Western Ontario, decided that previous research was too “top down”: informed by theories of human behavior that assume pornography is harmful. This method often fails to identify any positive effects of pornography use. So, instead, Kohut opted for an approach that was “bottom up” (no sniggering!).

He invited the denizens of the internet to visit his website and tell him about their pornography use and how it affected their relationships.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, men reported using pornography much more than women: 3–4 times per week, rather than 1–3 times per month. Almost all of the participants reported using pornography alone, but 65% of men and 70% of women also reported using pornography with their partners. If these numbers seem high, remember that this is a self-selecting sample of people who are willing to click on a link to a survey about pornography use.

When it came to self-reported effects on the relationship, the vast majority of participants said there was no negative impact. The 430 respondents made this comment 621 times in response to Kohut’s multiple open-ended questions. Conversely, there were only 34 references to a lack of positive effects.

The next most popular response was to claim that pornography was a good source of information about sex. I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, it’s good to be informed. When I was a kid, you had to piece everything together based on schoolyard rumor, a copy of Mayfair you found in a hedge, and one afternoon of government-mandated sex education in which a school nurse demonstrated how to put a condom on a cucumber. Perhaps anything is better than that. But is learning about sex from pornography really such a great idea? Kohut’s self-selecting sample seemed to think so.

The respondents also thought that pornography use helped them to talk about sex more openly with their partners, and provided an alternative outlet if their partner was not in the mood for sex. Some respondents did acknowledge that viewing pornography might develop unreasonable expectations, decrease their interest in sex, or increase their insecurities.

Although Kohut and colleagues concede that their sample may not be representative of all couples, they encourage future researchers to ensure that their “top down” research questions take into account the possibility that pornography use can have positive as well as detrimental affects on relationship quality.

The long view

In another study, Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma, takes the long view. He points out that most research on pornography use acts only as a snapshot. In other words, it asks how much pornography a person watches, and how good their relationship is, at one particular moment.

This isn’t ideal because, says Perry:

“while the majority of … studies generally assume that pornography use is causing marital problems, it could be that marital dissatisfaction leads to the greater use of pornography”.

It’s only when a researcher tracks pornography use and relationship quality over time that we can have an idea as to whether one causes the other.

Perry analysed data from the Portraits of American Life Study (or PALS), a nationally representative survey of American adults conducted in 2006 and again with the same respondents in 2012. Respondents answered a mountain of questions, two of which were of particular interest to Perry: “How would you consider your marriage relationship?” and “How often do you view pornographic materials?”

The results showed that, in 2006, men and women who viewed more pornography tended to be less happy with their relationships. There’s no way of knowing whether the pornography use reduced relationship happiness, or if people less happy in their relationships turned to pornography. But, when Perry compared the 2006 data with the same data from six years later, he saw that those who viewed more pornography in 2006 were less happy with their relationships come 2012.

Viewing pornography doesn’t seem to be a side-effect of a poor relationship, but may precede relationship decline.

Still, it isn’t possible to know for sure whether pornography use causes unhappy relationships. It could be that those whose relationships are headed for the rocks for some other unknown reason also tend to use more pornography.

As Perry points out:

It appears that the marriages that were most negatively affected were those of married men who were viewing pornography at the highest frequencies (once a day or more).These levels of porn use were statistically extreme and may be suggestive of an addiction or otherwise compulsive behavior that could itself have a negative effect on romantic relationships, even if it were another behavior entirely besides porn use.

However, it’s not all bad news. Perry also found that women who viewed pornography at least 2–3 times per month in 2006 reported being happier in their relationship six years later (with the greatest increases for women whose pornography habit was the strongest).


Kohut, T., Fisher, W. A., & Campbell, L. (in press). Perceived effects of pornography on the couple relationship: Initial findings of open-ended, participant-informed, “bottom-up” research. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–18. View summary

Perry, S. L. (in press). Does viewing pornography reduce marital quality over time? Evidence from longitudinal data. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1–11. View summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 25 October 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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