SEX

Study Links Watching Porn To Divorce

But some researchers and therapists are questioning the results

SEX
Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Aug 22, 2016 at 12:00 AM ET

The union of marriage and porn has typically been seen as an uneasy one—especially by trend stories linking adult content to infidelity and relationship-destroying addiction. Now, a new study purports to show that married people who start watching, as the authors put it, “X-rated movies,” have an increased chance of divorce. But some outside researchers and couples therapists who reviewed the study raised questions about its methodology and suggested the findings contradict what they see with clients.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed or published, was presented Saturday at the 111th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma analyzed longitudinal data from 2006 to 2014 on more than 5,000 adults. The data, which includes information on marital status and reported porn watching, is taken from three different three-part surveys, each conducted over the course of four years by the General Social Survey.

The key group of interest here, though, is the 373 married people who reported not watching porn at the start of the survey, but who subsequently began watching it. Porn watchers were defined as those who answered “yes” to the question, “Have you seen an X-rated movie in the last year?” Believe it or not, 71 percent of the total sample reported not having watched pornography at any point in the three-part survey, and just 15 percent reported watching porn throughout all phases of the survey. Only 7 percent reported starting watching porn, after not watching it, during the survey.

More Study Suggests Porn Addiction Isn’t Real

In an attempt to isolate the effects of watching porn on divorce, the researchers used several variables, including marital happiness, to create balanced samples of survey participants who changed their porn viewing habits and those who did not.

What they found was that starting to watch porn after not watching it during the first survey nearly doubled the likelihood of divorce, from 6 percent, among those who did not start watching porn, to 11 percent. The likelihood of divorce was almost tripled for women, from 6 percent to 16 percent. The increased risk of divorce was higher for younger adults but was not present for those who attended religious services every week. They also found the risk of divorce decreased when participants stopped watching porn after reporting they watched it in the first phase of the survey.

“Our results suggest that viewing pornography, under certain social conditions, may have negative effects on marital stability,” lead author Samuel Perry said in a press release.

With this in mind, Vocativ asked outside researchers and couples therapists to review the study. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist who has studied the impact of consuming sexual material and challenged the concept of porn addiction, says there are several problems with the study. For one, she takes issue with the fact that it doesn’t control for masturbation. “Since masturbation almost always occurs with sex film viewing, this is a gross oversight,” she said. Prause argues that this makes it impossible to attribute the changes the researchers observed to X-rated films, as opposed to masturbation.

More Does Porn Make You More Aggressive?

She also suggests that it would be appropriate to control for employment status, or anything else that might indicate that someone suddenly had “greater free time that would allow more masturbation, but also stress the relationship.” For example, she says losing a job and being out of work for an extended period of time could lead to both divorce and viewing porn. Without controlling for the lost job, it might look like divorce was linked to the porn watching.

Then there’s the fact that the study doesn’t control for the amount of time spent watching porn. “Having accidentally opened an internet window versus viewing 20 hours per week are very different, and this study pretended like they were the same,” she said. The study does in fact acknowledge this limitation.

Responding to Prause’s concerns, Perry argues that few studies on porn and marriage control for things like masturbation or employment, and adds that he and his fellow researchers weren’t “necessarily making that claim that pornography use was all about masturbation.”

Prause, however, also points to research suggesting that sexual satisfaction and marital happiness are independent variables for women—meaning marital happiness, which was used as a factor to create balanced samples in the study, might not be a sufficient control. In other words, it could be that the married women in the study who suddenly started watching porn were driven by sexual dissatisfaction, which might be better linked to their elevated divorce risk than their introduction to X-rated movies.

David Ley, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexuality, and the author of “Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure,” makes a similar point. “The fact that women who use pornography experience higher levels of divorce may in fact reveal that these may be women who are, or become, sexually dissatisfied in their relationship and their continued use of pornography reflects their continued incongruence in meeting their sexual needs with their husband,” he said. “Women may use porn as a way to say to their husbands, ‘This is what I want, let’s do this,’ and women may learn from porn use that their sexual needs are important for them, and that they are not shameful.”

More Study: Most Teen Boys Think Porn Is ‘Realistic’

Sex therapist Ian Kerner says the findings are somewhat contrary to what he sees with clients in his office. In recent years, he’s noticed couples, and women in particular, becoming much more comfortable with porn—both in terms of watching it and in terms of thinking of it “as a form of fantasy-based entertainment” as opposed to reflecting the “real-world interests” of their partner. “If anything, couples are less alarmist about porn use, and less alarm means less anxiety and distress,” he said. Kerner has seen porn used as an effective way to address libido disparities in relationships and even reduce the urge to cheat.

“In my opinion, porn viewing is more likely to contribute to individual and relational health, and giving up porn is likely to reveal and often create cracks in a marriage that increase the chances of divorce,” he said. Kerner also suggested that views on pornography are changing so quickly that the study might not reflect current attitudes.

Perry is quick to point out that he is not “fighting against pornography on some moral crusade.” He says the study’s findings “can help individuals make more informed decisions about what sort of media they’re consuming and what sort of consequences it could have on their relationships under certain circumstances,” but he emphasizes that nuance is required in interpreting the results.

On that point, Ley agrees: “The most powerful thing in this research, however, is the continued evidence that the effects of pornography are not black-and-white or easy to explain or address.” He argues that this research shouldn’t be used to conclude that porn is bad for marriage. “Instead,” says Ley, “we as a society must look carefully at how we are helping people to acknowledge, understand, and manage their use of pornography within themselves and their relationships.”