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Pornography and Romantic Relationships 2

Abstract

This article provides a broad overview of pornography’s effects on romantic relationships since

the late 1960s, examining the literature through the family impact lens and focusing on

pornography’s potential influence on relational stability. Pornography’s effects are relevant for

consumers, public officials, and family scholars concerned with the stability of committed

relationships. In particular, findings suggest that pornography can reduce satisfaction with

partners and relationships through contrast effects, reduce commitment through increasing the

appeal of relationship alternatives, and increase acceptance of infidelity. Evidence connecting

pornography to rape or sexual aggression remains mixed, although these effects continue to have

important implications for how romantic partners interact. The theoretical perspectives

underlying these effects are discussed.

Keywords: Family impact, pornography, rape, romantic relationships, sexism


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 3

An Empirical and Historical Review of Pornography and Romantic Relationships: Implications

for Family Researchers

Social science has produced a variety of evidence connecting pornography consumption

with a series of social harms, as well as arguments critiquing, downplaying, and dismissing that

evidence (Brannigan, 1991). These arguments have been primarily concerned with whether

pornography can cause consumers to perpetrate violence and rape (Malamuth, Addison, & Koss,

2000), although other effects—including effects of consumption on families and relationships—

have received relatively little attention. The purpose of this article is twofold: a) to examine the

history of the academic study of pornography, discussing why studies relevant to family impact

have been late to arrive on the scene, and b) to provide a broad overview of the effects of

pornography consumption through the family impact lens (Bogenschneider, Little, Ooms,

Benning, Cadigan, & Corbett, 2012). I argue that attempts to censor pornography have focused

attention away from effects on families and relationships, and that the current literature provides

strong evidence regarding pornography’s negative influence on family stability.

The Family Impact Lens and Important Limitations

Pornography is not the only policy topic exhibiting relative neglect of the effects on

relationships and families (Bogenschneider & Corbett, 2010). When governments implement

policies, they are often quick to consider harms and benefits to individuals, but are slower to

think of how families might be affected (Normandin & Bogenschneider, 2005). In such cases,

governing bodies may consult economists to determine the economic impact of a policy, or an

environmental lobby to examine its environmental impact, but, even though lip service is paid to

the importance of families, governments rarely put systematic effort toward determining family
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 4

impact, despite the various unintended effects that social policy can have on families

(Bogenschneider et al., 2012).

From the perspective of ecological family systems theory, Bogenschneider and her

colleagues have formulated five core principles of the family impact approach: a) family

responsibility, b) family relationships, c) family diversity, d) family engagement, and e) family

stability (2012). This article will focus on the last of these principles. The family impact lens is

concerned with stability because families characterized by instability (e.g., though dissolution,

separation, or divorce) are more prone to negative developmental outcomes for children as well

as economic and emotional difficulties for adults (as summarized in Hawkins & Ooms, 2012).

To assess the family impact of pornography, I conducted a systematic literature review,

searching Google Scholar for the terms “pornography” and “effects,” examining titles and

abstracts for studies published prior to the date of the search (August 1, 2014). I then compiled a

database of relevant articles, reading each in more detail and examining reference sections for

studies my initial search missed. The final database included 623 articles on a variety of topics

relevant to pornography, though I limit this particular review to studies that concern adult

heterosexual romantic relationships1. Since few studies identify differences based on relationship

status, I do not attempt to differentiate between the effects of pornography on married vs.

unmarried or exclusive vs. casually dating couples (although there is one notable exception;

Bridges, Bergner, & Hesson-McInnis, 2003). In addition, since none of the articles I review

sampled sexual minority couples, it would be inappropriate to prematurely generalize any of the

findings across sexual orientation. I also do not cover the effects of pornography consumption on

1
For a greatly expanded draft with additional references, please contact the author.
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 5

children or parent/child relationships, though others have provided summaries of those effects

(Manning, 2006; Horvath, Alys, Massey, Pina, Scally, & Adler, 2013).

Another important limitation of this review is culture, particularly in terms of sexuality.

Much of the history—and much of the empirical research—that I review has taken place in the

United States, where individuals typically are less accepting of alternative sexual practices

relative to other Western societies (Hofstede, 1998). These cultural differences help provide

context, for example, for studies in Australia (McKee, 2007a) or the Netherlands (Hald &

Malamuth, 2008) in which participants emphasized the positive aspects of pornography

consumption, or for government commissions in the United States (e.g., Attorney General’s

Commission on Pornography; 1986) that have shown pornography in a particularly unfavorable

light (Einsiedel, 1988).

Definitions of Pornography

Historically there has been considerable controversy over the word “pornography” and

the kind of materials it should describe. Based on a Greek term for ‘writing about whores’ (porno

= whore, graphy = writing), its modern application has been inconsistent (Short, Black, Smith,

Wetterneck, & Wells, 2012) and often pejorative, (Johnson, 1971), leading some to abandon the

term in favor of the phrase “sexually explicit materials” (e.g., Peter & Valkenburg, 2010). Early

anti-pornography feminists contributed to this confusion, defining pornography as:

…the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that

also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities, enjoying

pain or humiliation or rape, being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt, in

postures of sexual submission or servility or display, reduced to body parts, penetrated by

objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture, shown as


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 6

filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context that makes these conditions

sexual. (MacKinnon, 1985, p. 1)

This definition was a means of expressing abhorrence for particular kinds of sexual material

while protecting displays of sexuality that portrayed equality between men and women

(otherwise termed ‘erotica’; Steinem, 1980). Yet this definition allowed for substantial flexibility

in how the term pornography could be applied. Pornography could include scenes that

“dehumanized [women] as sexual objects” or that displayed women “in postures of sexual

submission” or “reduced [women] to body parts” absent of overt violence or degradation (which

describes much mainstream pornography then and now). This definition gave some writers

license to condemn all kinds of sexually explicit material as pornographic (Itzin, 2002), and led

others to further redefine pornography (i.e., as depictions of overt rape and degradation) in an

attempt to delineate it from (supposedly) benign erotic depictions (O'Donnell, 1986; Willis,

1993).

Yet there has been a consistent effort to maintain “pornography” as a more general term

covering a large variety of sexual materials (e.g., United States, 1972; Hald & Malamuth, 2008;

Mosher, 1988). Such use has not seemed inappropriate nor particularly pejorative, given its

general acceptance both among pornography consumers (McKee, 2007a) and the industry itself

(Taube, 2014). I use the term in this spirit, adopting a working definition of pornography as

audiovisual (including written) material that typically intends to arouse the viewer and depicts

nudity or sexual activity. I also distinguish violent pornography (depictions of sadomasochism,

bondage, rape, or other forms of violence against women; Donnerstein, 1980b) from erotica

(non-violent sexual material characterized by equal pleasure and participation between partners;
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 7

Steinem, 1980) as well as degrading pornography (non-violent sexual material that that

characterizes women as insatiable sex objects; Zillmann & Bryant, 1982).

A Brief History of Pornography Research

In this section, I summarize the history of academic inquiry on pornography’s effects,

discussing the social and political context prefacing the study of pornography, as well as the

considerations that guided the first major empirical studies and shaped academic debate through

the 1980s and ‘90s. I conclude this section by summarizing how a historical concern with

censorship has diverted attention away from pornography’s impact on romantic relationships.

Social and Political Context

The decades following World War II were a time of cultural and political turmoil, defined

by prominent struggles such as the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement. Many

established societal restrictions began to be lifted, and various illegal activities became

championed by strengthening counter-culture elements, including the production and distribution

of pornography (Marwick, 1998). Governments exercised a responsibility to intervene in these

cultural debates, as indicated by the Civil Rights Act (Orfield, 1969) and government

commissions examining crime, violence, and law enforcement (United States, 1967; 1970).

These years were also characterized by substantial gender inequality, sparking a new wave of

feminist activism in the United States and throughout the Western world (Friedan, 1963).

Movement toward greater sexual freedom did not stand unopposed. Groups such as

Morality in Media, founded in 1962, used the relative consensus of the “moral majority” to slow

the influx of pornographic material (Wilson, 1973). These forces were joined by the radical

feminist movement, which critiqued pornography as reinforcing male power over women

(Millett, 1970). Exposure to pornography was commonly believed to be harmful to an


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 8

individual’s character and social functioning, as well as a factor in sexually deviant behavior,

sexual violence against women, and criminal activity in general (Wilson, 1973).

Although family and marriage professionals engaged in vigorous debate on sexuality

(e.g., Groves, 1938; Rubin, 2012), pornography remained a topic of philosophical discussion

rather than of experimentation. Family-related research was itself in its infancy, and few were in

a position to fully understand how pornography could impact romantic relationships (Rubin,

2012, Wilson, 1973). Studies of pornography in the 1960s were largely descriptive in nature

(e.g., Thorne & Haupt, 1966), identifying variables related to the viewing of or arousal to

pornographic images (e.g., Byrne & Sheffield, 1965). Although empirical research on sexual

topics was expanding (e.g., Kinsey, 1953), studies examining the effects of pornography

consumption were essentially non-existent prior to the 1970s.

It was not until 1969, when the Supreme Court struck down state laws policing the

private possession of obscene materials (Stanley v. Georgia, 1969), that social scientists began to

examine pornography’s effects (for an in-depth summary of these legal issues, see Funston,

1971). The court’s decision clearly defined the type of evidence required for pornography to be

banned—it would need to negatively impact the lives of others, even when confined to private

use. If proof could be found that pornography caused men to commit violence, either sexual or

physical, toward women, this would certainly constitute the type of negative externality required

by the court’s ruling. The U.S. Congress quickly voted to create the 1970 President’s

Commission on Obscenity and Pornography (referred to hereafter as the 1970 commission;

United States, 1972), mandated to provide a scientific assessment of the effects of pornography.

The 1970 commission. Despite facing intense time pressure (i.e., commissioned

researchers had a period of nine months to furnish a full report), exacerbated by the lack of a
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 9

methodological or theoretical foundation (Wilson, 1971), the commission concluded that there

was “no reliable evidence to date that exposure to explicit sexual materials plays a significant

role in the causation of delinquent or criminal sexual behavior among youth or adults” (United

States, 1972, p. 169). This focus on criminal behavior may have been due to the prevalent

“liberal normative” view of media effects (Linz & Malamuth, 1993), which opposed censorship

unless direct evidence could be found that media caused violent harm. Other effects, such as

effects on divorce and sexually transmitted disease, were initially considered for inclusion, but

the commission ultimately chose topics for which they felt causal evidence could be readily

collected (Johnson, 1971). Harm to the stability of romantic relationships was of secondary

concern since it did not directly inform this debate. Though the commission did include one

study assessing the short-term effects of pornography use among married couples (Mann, 1970),

these issues received far less attention than studies of rape, crime, violence and aggression.

Effects related to gender equality (which would later become more prominent; Dworkin, 1985)

also received little attention, perhaps due in part to the relative lack of female committee

members2.

The study of pornography after 1970. Although the politicians who voted to form the

commission rejected its conclusions (Tatalovich & Daynes, 2011; Nixon, 1970), many in the

academic community accepted them. Some scholars presented strong critiques of the

commission’s methods and findings (e.g., Cline, as stated in the minority report of United States,

1972) but these challenges received little attention, both in academia and with the general public

(Simons, 1972). Many social scientists agreed that the question of pornography’s harm was

2
Two exceptions were Barbara Scott, a deputy attorney for the MPAA, and Cathryn A. Speits, an
English professor.
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 10

effectively settled (Malamuth & Donnerstein, 1982), and scholars began a wave of research on

pornography that did not seem concerned with examining the negative effects of consumption

(e.g., Brown, Amoroso, Ware, Pruesse & Pilkey, 1973).

It would be aggression researchers, concerned with a link between arousal and aggression

noted in the commission’s technical report (Mosher and Katz; 1971), who would move research

on negative effects forward. For example, participants who were exposed to pornographic films

administered more intense electric shocks against confederates who had provoked them relative

to those not exposed (Zillman, 1971), and researchers interpreted these more intense shocks as

increased aggression. These researchers incorporated radical feminist critiques of pornography

(Malamuth, 1978), which maintained that pornography could be linked to rape, aggression, and

gender inequality (Brownmiller, 1975; Russell, 1988). These studies on aggression seemed to

provide the evidence of pornography’s social harm that the 1970 commission failed to uncover,

particularly when pornography included depictions of violence (Donnerstein & Linz, 1986).

Experimental designs also allowed the researchers to draw causal connections between violent

pornography and aggression, tenuously implicating pornography in violence against women.

Pornography debates in the 1980s. As the experimental link between pornography and

aggression strengthened in the early ‘80s (Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981; Linz, Donnerstein, &

Penrod, 1984; Zillmann & Bryant, 1982), three government committees were convened (the

Williams committee in the UK in 1979, the Fraser Committee in Canada, and the Attorney

General’s commission in the U.S., both in 1986) that took this research into account (Einsiedel,

1988). These committees drew sharp criticism from scholars concerned with civil liberties

(Brannigan, 1991; Fisher & Barak, 1991; Segal, 1990) and some aggression researchers

themselves spoke out, appalled at the thought of their own data giving license to government
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 11

censorship, (Linz, Penrod, & Donnerstein, 1987; Wilcox, 1987). As a result, many lost

confidence in the literature connecting pornography use and aggression, with some citing these

researchers’ critiques to demonstrate a lack of credible evidence for pornography’s social harm

(Rubin, 1993).

Throughout this ongoing struggle, the central question remained: could social science

find incontrovertible, causal evidence linking pornography consumption to violence or sexual

assault? The consensus, both then and now, is that it cannot (Boyle, 2000; Jensen, 1994). Even if

such a link existed, ethical restrictions made finding strong experimental evidence difficult, as

researchers would never knowingly provoke real acts of rape or violence, either in the laboratory

or in the field (Zillmann & Bryant, 1986). Since the available evidence was not the appropriate

kind, the debate ebbed with little consensus on pornography’s effects, and many continued to

view pornography as harmless (Fisher & Barak, 1991). Research exploring the connection

between pornography and aggression ebbed as well, with a few notable exceptions (e.g.,

Malamuth et al., 2000).

Feminist sex wars. As pornography came to the fore in the 1960s, feminist voices were

quick to condemn its highly distorted portrayal of women (i.e., the idea that porn is a lie that

depicts women as enjoying acts of violence and rape committed against them; Brownmiller,

1975; Millett, 1970). These voices (e.g., Dworkin, 1985; MacKinnon, 1985) organized in the late

1970s as Women Against Pornography, were dedicated to decreasing the influence of

pornography in society (Kirkpatrick & Zurcher, 1983). They argued that pornography was both a

symptom and a cause of the male domination of women through rape and violence and that it

helped perpetuate gender inequality, violating women’s civil rights. This position enjoyed a great
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 12

deal of public favor over the next decade, with increasing influence in both political (Fraser

Commission, 1985), and academic arenas (Russell, 1988).

Yet not all feminists were comfortable with the positions and tactics of anti-pornography

activists. These feminists often took an anti-censorship stance, admitting that pornography was

distasteful, but not distasteful enough to invoke government restriction (Rubin, 1993; Strossen,

1993). Many were also uncomfortable joining forces with moral and Christian conservatives,

however, who actively opposed feminist principles and values on other issues (Ellis, O'Dair, &

Tallmer., 1990; Rubin, 1993; Strossen, 1993). Education, they argued, was a better solution than

censorship, and the marketplace of ideas would eventually lessen pornography’s influence,

reducing its detrimental impact (Carse, 1995).

There were some scholars, however, who recognized the need for a stronger defense of

pornography:

If the feminist critique is correct, then to champion the marketplace of ideas in the face of

the “real harms” caused by pornography is an empty and unresponsive argument. If

pornography deserves to survive the feminist attack, a justification beyond that of liberal

tolerance is required. (Sherman, 1995, p. 667).

By the late 1990s, various feminists were prepared to provide this justification, arguing that

pornography helped to encourage healthy and uninhibited female sexuality (Lubey, 2006).

Pornography, to them, was media worth celebrating in its own right (Chancer, 2000).

Although it is difficult to determine a clear victor in these debates, the influence of

radical feminists has waned in recent years, particularly following the death of Andrea Dworkin

(Boulton, 2008). Although the radical feminist perspective on pornography has far from

disappeared from academic discourse (Bianchi, 2008), female attitudes toward pornography had
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 13

begun to lean in a positive direction (Carroll, Padilla-Walker, Nelson, Olson, Barry & Madsen,

2008).

Implications for Family Impact

The desire to restrict or censor pornography has led to a laser-like focus on its connection

to rape, violence, and sexual assault, leaving little room for effects which do not speak to issues

of censorship, such as effects on the stability of romantic relationships. The connection between

pornography use and rape has been examined a number of times since the 1970s (Diamond,

2009), but the association between pornography use and divorce remained unexamined until the

mid-2000s (Shumway & Daines, 2011; Kendall, 2006; Wongsurawat, 2006). Similarly, dozens

of experiments have examined pornography and attitudes toward rape (Mundorf, D'Alessio,

Allen, & Emmers-Sommer, 2007), but only two have had direct implications for pornography’s

family impact (Gwinn, Lambert, Fincher & Maner, 2013; Zillmann & Bryant, 1988a). This

means that our understanding of pornography’s impact on families has been slow to mature,

although recent research has been reversing this trend. In addition, studies on aggression and

rape continue to have unexplored implications for family stability.

A Review of Pornography’s Effects

Synthesizing research on pornography’s effects is a difficult endeavor. The aims and

methods employed by pornography researchers have been diverse, and any categorization of

these effects is an inherently subjective process. Nonetheless, I proceed based on how

researchers have framed their findings, examining beneficial effects first, followed by harmful

effects.

In making use of the family impact lens, it is important to identify aspects of romantic

relationships that pornography could potentially influence. Scholars have identified attributes
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 14

that describe satisfying, stable relationships, including trust, expectations of fidelity,

communication, shared values, frequency of positive and negative interactions, frequency and

quality of sexual activity, and assumptions of permanence (summarized in Manning, 2006). Not

all successful relationships embody these characteristics to the same degree, but if pornography

can be shown to impact these characteristics, it would be evidence that pornography can impact

the stability of romantic relationships. I describe specific ways that pornography might impact

these characteristics, including a) the beneficial effects of pornography on sexual satisfaction

through increasing sexual variety, b) contrast effects that reduce sexual satisfaction, c) altered

perceptions of relationship alternatives, which reduce commitment, d) increased acceptance of

infidelity, and e) harmful effects on behavior (e.g., aggression, sexual coercion, or sexism),

which might increase negative partner interactions. These connections, and the theoretical

perspectives that underlie them, are depicted in Figure 1. (insert Figure 1 about here)

The Beneficial Effects of Pornography Consumption

Self-perceived benefits. Although most research has focused on negative effects, a few

studies have catalogued the beneficial effects of pornography consumption. The most

comprehensive effort was conducted by McKee and his colleagues (McKee, Albury, & Lumby,

2008), who asked Australian pornography subscribers what they felt the effects of pornography

were in their own lives. A majority indeed felt that pornography had positive effects, including:

a) making consumers less repressed about sex, b) making them more open-minded about sex, c)

increasing tolerance of other people’s sexualities, d) giving pleasure, e) providing educational

insight, f) sustaining sexual interest in long-term relationships, g) making them more attentive to

a partner’s sexual desires, h) helping consumers find an identity/community, and i) helping them

to talk to their partners about sex. These perceived benefits were corroborated in a large Dutch
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 15

sample of young adults (Hald & Malamuth, 2008), who reported that pornography had

substantially more positive than negative effects on their sex life, their attitudes toward sex, their

attitudes toward the opposite gender, and in their life generally, though the effects were larger for

men than women. Furthermore, in a survey of women whose partners used pornography, a

majority felt that their partners’ use added variety to their sex lives (Bridges et al., 2003). In this

study, some respondents reported using pornography together as a couple, which they saw as a

positive experience.

Limitations of self-perceived benefits. Although the positive experiences of consumers

are not to be discounted, these self-perceptions are limited. The samples in these studies are not

necessarily representative of the population of pornography consumers. Respondents subscribed

to a pornographic magazine, for example, naturally should attend to effects that would justify

involvement in pornography (Flood, 2013). Additionally, samples of young adults might

underrepresent consumers, such as older adults in committed relationships, who might feel

differently about pornography (Bergner & Bridges, 2002). Such benefits describe an idealized

form of consumption, with pornography used primarily for educational or relational purposes,

which may not be the modal experience (Cooper, Morahan-Martin, Mathy, & Maheu, 2002).

In addition, pornography’s harmful effects may lie outside of consumers’ conscious

awareness (Hald & Malamuth, 2008). To focus on self-perceptions would provide a skewed

picture of pornography’s effects, one that emphasizes benefits while shrouding potential harms.

This tendency is reflected in pornography’s well-established third-person effect—individuals are

more comfortable with pornography negatively affecting other consumers than they are with it

affecting themselves (Lo, Wei, & Wu, 2010).


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 16

Arousal and education. Empirical evidence corroborates pornography’s use as a) a sex

aid, and b) a sex educator. As the earliest studies of pornography concluded, the viewing of

sexually explicit materials can be arousing and often pleasurable (United States, 1972).

Pornography use among women has been associated with positive experiences with sex (Rogala

& Tydén, 2003), may increase communication between partners regarding sexual fantasies and

desires (Daneback, Traeen, & Maansson, 2009), and can expand women’s sexual horizons

(Weinberg, Williams, Kleiner, & Irizarry, 2010). Pornography also can be a means of sexual

release when partners are absent or unavailable (Hardy, 2004; Parvez, 2006). In terms of

education, pornography provides information about sexual positions and techniques (for men

more than women; Donnelly, 1991), though it is unclear if the education provided by

pornography is truly beneficial, as pornography appears to educate in other ways, encouraging

risky sexual behavior (i.e., most sex portrayed in pornography is unprotected; Stein, Silvera,

Hagerty, & Marmor, 2012), instrumental attitudes toward sex (Peter & Valkenburg, 2006), and

rape myths3 (Allen, Emmers, Gebhardt, & Giery, 1995). Studies examining the sexual

knowledge of individuals who do and do not consume pornography would help better assess the

extent and value of pornography’s educational effects.

Presumed cathartic effects. Researchers have long presumed that pornography could

play a cathartic role, helping release sexual tension that would otherwise encourage aggression or

sexual assault (Wilson, 1971). Although researchers find that the cathartic hypothesis is

unconvincing and generally unsupported (Allen et al., 1995; Ferguson & Hartley, 2009), state-

3
Rape myths are “attitudes and generally false beliefs about rape that are widely and persistently
held, and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women” (Lonsway &
Fitzgerald, 1994, p. 133).
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 17

level data from 1998-2003, when the availability of internet pornography increased

exponentially, reveal that rape rates decreased substantially among 15-19 year old males—an age

group who would have had difficulty acquiring pornography without the internet (Kendall,

2006). These findings suggest that pornography may serve as a substitute for rape for male

adolescents. Similarly, when examining child molestation rates in areas where child pornography

was legal for a time, a decrease in molestation was documented during the time such

pornography was available (Diamond, 2009). These studies provide initial evidence of

circumstances where pornography use may have a cathartic effect, at least in the aggregate.

These findings may not translate well to an individual level, however, since those convicted of

possessing child pornography are also very likely to have molested children, at least according to

one study (Bourke & Hernandez, 2009).

Implied benefits for relationships. These benefits have important implications for

sexual satisfaction in romantic relationships. Studies have examined whether pornography use is

associated with increased sexual satisfaction by increasing sexual variety (Johnston, 2013;

Štulhofer, Buško, & Schmidt, 2012). Although these studies examine individual rather than

couple satisfaction, their findings suggest that this may indeed be a viable benefit.

Harmful Effects in a Romantic Context

Despite early work examining pornography use in a romantic context (Mann, 1970) it is

only in the last five years that substantial quantitative data have become available (e.g., Gwinn et

al., 2013). As a result, pornography’s effects on committed relationships are becoming clearer. I

begin by reviewing three pathways for pornography’s influence on romantic relationships: (a)

contrast effects; (b) upward valuations of relationship alternatives; and (c) the acceptance of

infidelity. I follow with an assessment of problematic pornography use in committed


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 18

relationships, as well as the association between pornography consumption and divorce, and I

conclude this section with an assessment of effects that have not been examined in a romantic

context, but that nonetheless have important implications for how romantic partners interact:

effects on aggression, sexual coercion, and sexism.

When considering this research, it is useful to draw a distinction between two separate

patterns of pornography consumption in romantic relationships. The first is a more idealized

mode of consumption, where partners watch pornography together to enhance their sexual

experience. The second, likely more common mode (Cooper et al., 2002), is solitary

consumption—often characterized by secrecy and deceit as consumers hide their pornography

use from the non-consuming partner (Bergner & Bridges, 2002). Evidence suggests that the first

mode is considerably less harmful to committed relationships than the second, although mutual

consumption continues to have risks (Maddox , Rhodes, & Markham, 2011).

To be more specific, Maddox and colleagues compared couples who had never viewed

pornography with those who consumed pornography together as well as those where one partner

consumed pornography alone. On measures of communication, relationship adjustment,

commitment, sexual satisfaction, and infidelity, couples where neither partner viewed

pornography reported higher relationship quality relative to those where one or both partners

viewed pornography alone. Couples where partners only consumed pornography together,

however, reported similar relationship quality to those who never viewed pornography (with the

exception of infidelity, where the likelihood of infidelity among mutual consumers was almost

double that of non-consumers; 18.2% vs. 9.7%), and reported higher dedication to the

relationship and sexual satisfaction than solitary consumers. When individuals combine mutual
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 19

and solitary consumption the outcomes more closely align with the latter rather than the former

(Maddox et al., 2011).

Contrast effects. When judging the attractiveness of romantic partners, we often to refer

to a common standard, one informed by other individuals we encounter (Kenrick & Gutierres,

1980), as well as the media we watch. When males view images of attractive females, and then

judge the attractiveness of their own mates, we observe contrast effects—they see their mates as

less attractive than those not exposed (Kenrick, Gutierres, & Goldberg, 1989). This same

principle might also apply to other aspects of relationships: “Free-spirited, varied sexual

encounters in pornography produce a sharp contrast versus the restrictions, commitment, and

responsibilities associated with family and relationships and make the latter appear as

particularly restricting” (Mundorf et al., 2007, p. 85).

Zillmann and Bryant (1988b) tested these contrast effects by exposing individuals to six

hours of non-violent pornographic material over six weeks, measuring satisfaction with their

(mostly dating) partners, not only in terms of attractiveness but also with affection, sexual

curiosity, and sexual performance. Compared to controls, those exposed expressed substantially

less satisfaction on each of these measures. These findings are supported by correlational data

connecting pornography to decreased satisfaction with physical intimacy in a relationship

(Bridges & Morokoff, 2011; Poulsen, Busby, & Galovan, 2013). Real life, it seems, does not

compare favorably with pornography.

Relationship alternatives. Rather than altering how consumers perceive the

characteristics and behavior of their own partners, pornography might give the sense that others

outside the relationship would better provide sexual variety and satisfaction (Zillmann & Bryant,

1984). As these alternatives become more appealing, commitment to the current relationship
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 20

erodes, as indicated by Rusbult’s Investment Model (1980). This idea was supported in two sets

of studies. First, Lambert and colleagues (2012) demonstrated that (a) increased pornography

consumption (pornographic website views in the last 30 days) was correlated with lower

commitment to a current romantic partner; (b) that pornography use was associated with

increased flirtation with an opposite-sex individual in an online chat; and (c) that decreased

commitment mediated a positive association between pornography use and infidelity4. Gwinn

and colleagues (2013) also found that (a) individuals primed with pornographic materials report

higher quality romantic alternatives relative to controls; and (b) pornography consumption (in the

last 30 days) predicts extra-dyadic behavior (flirting, kissing, cheating, etc.) 12 weeks later, with

the perceived alternative quality mediating this association. Pornography consumption is thus

causally implicated in extra-dyadic behavior through perceptions of relationship alternatives.

Increasing acceptance of infidelity. Scholars were quick to point out the potential for

pornography to alter “sexual scripts”— our expectations for how sexual activity (and romantic

relationships generally) should proceed (Berger, Simon, & Gagnon, 1973), informing

relationship norms (e.g., how often oral sex should occur), and characteristics (e.g., fidelity).

This influence was first presented in a positive light, with pornography ostensibly creating more

effective sexual scripts (Berger et al., 1973). It is possible, however, given that pornography

generally portrays uncommitted—and often explicitly infidelitous—sexual encounters, that

4
The article also presents an experiment that claims to have detected significant differences in
relationship commitment between those who abstained from pornography for a two-week period
and those who continued normal pornography consumption. However, the small sample size (N
= 20), and the nature of the effect do not lend credibility to this particular result (i.e., they
concluded that continuing current pornography habits was responsible for a substantial drop in
commitment over a two week period for relationships that had presumably been characterized by
a given level of consumption for months/years).
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 21

exposure can foster a permissive sexual script, increasing acceptance of extra-dyadic behavior

(Braithwaite, Coulson, Keddington, & Fincham, 2014).

The available data is in strong support of the assertion that individuals exposed to larger

amounts of non-violent pornography evidence an increased acceptance and estimated frequency

of extramarital sex (Zillmann & Bryant, 1988a) relative to controls, and are more likely to

believe that promiscuity is natural and that marriage is less desirable. Also, males who watched a

pornographic movie within the last year were more likely to be accepting of extra-marital sex,

had an increased number of sexual partners, and are more likely to engage in paid sex behavior,

relative to those who did not (Wright & Randall, 2012). Pornography consumption also predicted

casual sex behavior (including extra-marital sex) three years later, with no evidence of reverse

causality (Wright, 2012).

Outcomes of problematic pornography consumption. Regardless of the general effects

of pornography use, it seems clear that there are cases where pornography use can be perceived

as problematic, either by the consumer or a consumer’s partner. These partners are often women

concerned with consumption as part of a larger pattern of seemingly compulsive sexual behavior

(Schneider, 2000). The narratives produced by these women present a picture of what happens

when pornography use becomes problematic (Bergner & Bridges, 2002; Schneider, 2000).

Schneider, for example, examined the narratives of 91 women (and 3 men) who had

experienced adverse effects of a partner’s cybersexual activity (2000). These experienced severe

emotional distress with their partners’ behavior, feeling betrayed, abandoned, humiliated, hurt,

and angry. They also felt sharp contrast effects, comparing themselves unfavorably with the

women in pornography and feeling unable to compete with them in terms of sexual performance.

Individuals who attempted to compensate by having more sex with their partners were often
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 22

unsuccessful. Furthermore, participants often lacked desire to engage sexually with partners who

they felt had betrayed them, and their partners also withdrew sexually in favor of pornography.

Many ultimately reassessed the relationship itself, seeking separation or divorce as their

relationships progressively deteriorated. Similar findings have been obtained by other

researchers (e.g., Bergner & Bridges, 2002). However, an important confound in these studies is

the conflation of pornography use with dishonest and deceptive behavior (Resch & Alderson,

2013). Spouses spent considerable effort hiding and lying about their online activities, and this

dishonesty triggered hurt and betrayal as much as or more than pornography use.

Although these narratives evoke sympathy, they do not tell us how widespread such

experiences are. However, one survey (Bridges et al., 2003) found that a substantial minority of

women (30 out of 100) reported their partner’s pornography use as distressing. Their distress

increased as the consumption increased and was felt more by married and older women

compared to dating and younger women. This finding demonstrates that the experiences reported

by Schneider, although far from ubiquitous, may be common enough to elicit concern.

Connecting pornography use and divorce. Data from the General Social Survey (GSS)

shows consistent correlations between pornography consumption (viewing a pornographic video

or website in the last 30 days) and divorce for all years between 1973-2010, with the relationship

gaining in strength over time (i.e., those who consumed pornography were, on average across the

data set, 60% more likely to be divorced than those who did not, with the most recent years

showing the strongest association; Doran & Price, 2014). In addition, a longitudinal analysis of

state-level data over three decades (Shumway & Daines, 2011) shows a strong time-lagged

correlation between divorce and subscription rates for popular pornographic magazines (r = .44),
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 23

even when controlling for a variety of factors. The authors estimated that 10% of all divorces

occurring in the 1960s and ‘70s can be attributed to pornography consumption.

Aggression. A prime concern of many pornography researchers has been the connection

between exposure to pornography and overt aggressive behavior, a concern highlighted by the

apparent increase in depictions of aggression in pornography over time (Bridges, Wosnitzer,

Scharrer, Sun, & Liberman, 2010). Though findings connecting pornography and aggression can

appear contradictory, a remarkably consistent story emerges in the light of meta-analytic data

(Allen et al., 1995; Mundorf et al., 2007). Exposure to non-violent pornographic film primes

increase aggression, particularly when the target individual is same-sex, but only when

participants are provoked (e.g., Donnerstein & Hallam, 1978). This suggests that exposure only

incites aggression when participants might confuse sexual arousal for anger, consistent with an

excitation transfer hypothesis5. Exposure to violent pornography has also been shown to

facilitate aggression. Meta-analyses reveal stronger effects relative to non-violent pornography

(Allen et al., 1995), though this effect is substantially moderated by the gender of the target

person, facilitating aggression only when males are provoked to aggress against females (e.g.,

Donnerstein, 1980a). This sexual violence appears to encourage aggression over and above

exposure to other forms of violence, suggesting that sex and violence combine in synergistic

ways to facilitate aggression against women (Donnerstein, 1983). These distinctions led

researchers away from an excitation transfer hypothesis, explaining violent pornography in terms

5
This hypothesis (Zillmann, 1971) posits that physiological arousal is not specific to the stimuli
that induces it, and that residual arousal (e.g., from consuming pornography) can be associated
with other stimuli (e.g., a provocation) with the potential for those stimuli to elicit a more intense
behavioral response (e.g., aggressive behavior).
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 24

of the social learning6 theories put forward by Bandura and other behavioral researchers

(Bandura, 2011; Bandura & McClelland, 1977; Mundorf et al., 2007).

Limitations and implications for romantic relationships. These results should be

interpreted with caution. Even if findings from the laboratory can be applied to the real world, it

is unclear how long the effects of pornography exposure last (longer than 20 minutes; Zillmann,

Hoyt, & Day, 1974; but less than a week; Malamuth & Ceniti, 1986), and the average aggressive

effects of pornography exposure are notably weak, particularly for non-violent pornography (r =

< .2; Allen et al., 1995). Given such limited effect sizes, it would make sense to look for subtle

effects on aggression which may be found within romantic relationships, where conflict between

partners can be relatively common (Fitness, 2001). Individuals need not react with overt physical

aggression for such reactions to damage their close relationships—they might instead react with

a harsh or vindictive turn of phrase, an insult, or a cold shoulder (Metts & Cupach, 2007).

Pornography exposure might lead consumers to be slightly less kind, slightly more defensive, or

a little more vengeful when provoked by a romantic partner, increasing negative partner

interactions. Future research could examine this possibility, as these effects may be enough to

alter the course of a romantic relationship, making such relationships gradually more unstable

and less satisfying (Rusbult, 1986).

Sexual assault and sexual coercion. Although the connection between pornography

exposure and aggression is well-supported, at least within the confines of the laboratory, the

connection between pornography use and sexual assault is much more equivocal. Large-scale

data indicates that the legalization of pornography does not increase the incidence of rape

6
Social learning is defined, in short, as the view that people learn various attitudes and behaviors
by observing the attitudes and behaviors of others (Bandura & McClelland, 1977).
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 25

(Wongsurawat, 2006), but individual level analyses present a different account, with

consumption of violent (but not non-violent) pornography associated with an increased rated

likelihood of rape and the use of force to obtain sex (Demaré, Lips, & Briere, 1993).

Consumption was also correlated with recalled acts of sexual coercion (Boeringer, 1994), and

individuals exposed to non-violent, degrading pornography in the lab also reported a greater

likelihood of rape than those not exposed (Check & Guloien, 1989). Males exposed to film

depictions of rape felt that the female victim was more responsible for what happened, though

only if the video ended with a female orgasm (relative to a violent end; Donnerstein &

Berkowitz, 1981), and meta-analyses of correlational and experimental data find that violent and

non-violent pornography both increase the endorsement of rape myths (Allen et al., 1995;

Mundorf et al., 2007).

Pornography, in this context, appears to communicate female enjoyment and

encouragement of coercive sexual activity, but these attitudes are not irrevocably altered by

exposure to pornography. Such effects essentially disappear when pornographic depictions are

accompanied by debriefings, prebriefings, or other educational materials that dispel rape myths

(Check & Malamuth, 1984; Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981), an assertion that is supported by

meta-analytic data (Mundorf et al., 2007). Such findings give hope that deleterious effects can be

controlled or eliminated through concerted sex education efforts.

The ongoing conflict between aggregate and individual-level findings remains the largest

hurdle in the connection between pornography and rape. Only research that examines both levels

simultaneously—likely through the application of multi-level linear modeling (MLM; Snijders &

Bosker, 2011)—would be able to truly reconcile these disparate findings. Some researchers,

however, use a confluence model to resolve this discrepancy, suggesting that the expression of
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 26

sexual assault requires a confluence of various impelling factors. If pornography is among such

factors, we should only see a substantial effect in those already at risk for aggressive behavior,

and this is precisely what some have found (Malamuth & Huppin, 2005). The risk of committing

a sexual assault is generally low regardless of pornography consumption, except for those whose

risk of violent behavior is high—pornography subscribers have a greatly increased risk over non-

subscribers among those high in hostile masculinity and sexual promiscuity, both predictors of

violent behavior (Malamuth & Huppin, 2005).

Implications for romantic relationships. These findings, though equivocal, have

implications for family impact. If there is a connection between pornography use and sexual

assault generally, then there may also be a connection to date or marital rape (for a discussion of

date and marital rape, see Clinton-Sherrod & Walters, 2011), which is no less harmful and may

be far more common than stranger-rape (Bergen, 1996), and would certainly qualify as a

negative partner interaction. Although there is little data that speaks directly to pornography’s

effects on date/marital rape, various studies have noted that husbands who habitually coerce their

wives into sex often attempt to re-enact pornographic scenes (e.g., Finkelhor & Yllo, 1983;

Moreau, Boucher, Hebert, & Lemelin, 2015). Further research in this area would be a welcome

addition to the existing literature.

Sexist attitudes and behavior. Some experimental research has connected pornography

with sexist behavior and attitudes. For example, researchers theorized that pornography would

encourage sexist behavior through priming a heterosexual self-schema (McKenzie-Mohr &

Zanna, 1990). Male participants viewed either non-violent pornography or a neutral control

video and were then interviewed by a female confederate. Sex-typed men exposed to

pornography had greater recall for the confederate’s physical features and less recall for her
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 27

intellectual qualifications. The female interviewer, blind to experimental condition, rated those

exposed to pornography as more sexually motivated than those exposed to the neutral video. A

conceptual replication led to similar results7 (Jansma, Linz, Mulac, & Imrich, 1997), and showed

effects only with degrading pornography rather than non-degrading erotica.

These experimental effects are supported by studies on pornography and sexist attitudes.

Pornography consumption is positively associated with thinking of women in sexual terms

(Burns, 2001), as well as measures of benevolent (Garos, Beggan, Kluck, & Easton, 2004) and

hostile sexism (Hald, Malamuth, & Lange, 2013). Hostile sexism scores can also be increased

by experimental exposure to non-violent pornography (e.g., Hald et al., 2013). Lastly, studies

have connected pornography use to less egalitarian attitudes (Burns, 2001; Hald et al., 2013;

though some find no relationship between pornography use and such attitudes, e.g., Barak &

Fisher, 1997), with longitudinal data showing that pornography use predicts increased opposition

to affirmative action for women, with no evidence of reverse causality (Wright & Funk, 2013).

The main theoretical perspective underlying these associations is social learning. As they watch

women being treated as sexual objects, consumers come to form attitudes and behavior that

reflect sexually objectification (McKenzie-Mohr & Zanna, 1993).

Implications for romantic relationships. Sexism can exert influence on the dynamics of

romantic relationships. Pornography consumption may lead men to place greater value on the

physical characteristics of their partners (which invariably degrade over time) rather than their

intellectual attributes, which might lead to greater dissatisfaction with the relationship as time

passes. Hostile sexist attitudes may also promote attempts to coercively control romantic partners

7
Males exposed to pornography viewed confederate women as less intellectually competent,
though the confederates could not discriminate between those assigned to each condition.
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 28

(which is associated with intimate partner violence; Whitaker, 2013), suggesting another way

pornography could increase negative partner interactions.

Conclusion

The evidence for pornography’s influence on the stability of romantic and committed

relationships is strong. The effects described are grounded in established theory, operate through

well-defined processes, and the data produce remarkable agreement. Social learning theory

(Bandura, 2011) suggests that as pornography consumers watch acts of aggression and violence

or view sexist or degrading portrayals they can adopt attitudes supportive of those behaviors and

learn to enact them with their own partners (though they may also learn more varied sexual

techniques in the process). Similarly, pornography may inform sexual scripts that increase the

likelihood of infidelity (Braithwaite et al., 2014), and consumers may unfairly compare their

romantic partners or their own relationships to those they see in pornography (Zillmann &

Bryant, 1988b) or perceive those outside the relationship as better able to fill sexual needs

(Gwinn et al., 2013). Taken together, these effects have the potential to be problematic in the

context of a committed romantic relationship (Schneider, 2000), and may increase the likelihood

of divorce (Shumway & Daines, 2012).

In weighing the evidence of pornography’s family impact, an important question remains

unanswered: how should those concerned with the effects of pornography—whether they are

scholars, public officials, or actual consumers—interpret this widening catalog of evidence?

Contemporary anti-pornography activists might use evidence of pornography’s relational harm

as ammunition in the fight to censor pornographic material, lobbying governments directly. In

addition, they might instead incorporate these findings into educational efforts, attempting to
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 29

change the hearts and minds of individual consumers or those close to them. Both approaches

deserve brief discussion.

Recent restrictions on the content of U.K.-produced pornography, as well as an “opt-in”

filter system that requires consumers in the U.K. to specifically request access to pornographic

websites (Hawkins, 2013), have shown that governments may yet be able to curb pornography’s

influence through legislative action, particularly with a compromise between censorship and civil

liberties. The history reviewed here, on the other hand, suggests that attempts to censor

pornography are not without risk. Past examples of government intervention on pornography

have largely backfired, accomplishing little except to raise the ire of anti-censorship forces.

Scholars and activists concerned with government censorship have fallen (and likely will fall

again) on the same standards of social harm established by the U.S. Supreme Court. The effects

on romantic relationships described in this review will likely fail to meet that standard, as they

do not demonstrate a causal connection between pornography use and violent harm. As with

earlier findings connecting pornography to aggression and sexual coercion, there is a risk that

evidence of family impact will be downplayed and dismissed.

Educational efforts represent another way to ameliorate pornography’s harms. Large

scale educational initiatives have been tried before, particularly by anti-pornography feminist

groups (Ciclitira, 2004), but evidence of family impact may provide a fresh and compelling angle

through which people may come to recognize pornography’s harmful influence. Consumers who

place value on their committed relationships may have substantial reason to rethink their

pornography habits. Such evidence may also spur governments overtly concerned with family

stability (e.g., Japan and Russia are working hard to encourage single individuals to get married

and raise families; McCurry, 2011; Rhodin, 2008) into supporting education on pornography’s
Pornography and Romantic Relationships 30

family impact. Furthermore, pornography education could be folded into marriage education

programs currently being provided by religious and nonprofit organizations, and marriage and

relationship researchers could consider adding a component on pornography into evidence-based

education programs (e.g., Barnes & Stanley, 2012). Whether such efforts could be effective

remains an empirical question, though educational successes in other public health arenas (e.g.,

anti-smoking public awareness campaigns; Durkin, Brennan, & Wakefield, 2012) provide some

encouragement.

Given recent findings, those who argue that pornography is harmless (e.g., Diamond,

Jozifkova, & Weiss, 2011) will need to firmly qualify what they mean by harm, unless they

affirm that divorce and infidelity are universally positive or neutral phenomena (which they may

indeed be willing to do; Christensen, 1986). The proclamation of pornography’s harmlessness by

the 1970 commission served to stifle further inquiry—many scholars felt that the questions of

pornography’s effects were effectively settled (Zillmann, 2000), and it was only evidence of

aggressive effects that spurred further inquiry. Accumulating evidence of pornography’s family

impact has the potential to do the same today, and I hope that this review will stimulate further

research and debate among family scientists on pornography’s effects—effects on individuals,

but also on the relationships they share.


Pornography and Romantic Relationships 31

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