SEX

Study: Men Who Watch Porn Less Happy In Relationships

Research finds lower interpersonal satisfaction among porn-watching men — but activists and researchers disagree on the study's significance

SEX
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Mar 14, 2017 at 2:20 PM ET

The debate over pornography and its effects on viewers has long consumed researchers, particularly when it comes to romance. Some studies suggest that it’s a boon for relationships and others argue that it damages them. Well, a new study has reviewed decades of research and concluded that watching porn is linked to less happiness in relationships — at least for men.

The study, published in the journal Human Communication Research, is a meta-analysis of 50 studies looking collectively at more than 50,000 participants from around the globe. In some of the studies, participants were surveyed about their porn viewing habits, while in others they were exposed to explicit material in a lab setting (which, awkward). Most of the studies asked the participants about their happiness in their current relationship or how sexually satisfied they were.

After reviewing all of the findings, the researchers behind the current study found no association between women’s relationship satisfaction and porn viewing. But male participants’ porn-watching was associated with lesser happiness in their relationships — both sexually and generally. The researchers also reviewed studies looking at porn viewing and sexual self-esteem and body confidence, but they found no link, which will come as a surprise for those who argue that pornography leads to unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards. And, contrary to claims of a “public health crisis” around increasing access to pornography, the researchers found no link between the year of study and outcomes, which suggests that there is no great difference in impact whether one is consuming porn on VHS or tube sites.

As for the reason for men’s porn-linked unhappiness, the researchers note that past studies have proposed various theories — including that men are more likely to watch porn alone, as opposed to with a partner, and this might be more damaging and “displace coupled sex.” Or — since correlation does not equal causation — it could be that men who watch porn are more likely to be unhappy in their relationships in the first place. That’s something the study points out, although the authors ultimately conclude that “the convergence of results across cross-sectional survey, longitudinal survey, and experimental results points to an overall negative effect of pornography on men’s sexual and relational satisfaction.”

The study has emboldened some anti-porn activists, including Dawn Hawkins, executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which was formerly known as Morality in Media. “Pornography is sex-negative,” said Hawkins in a press release celebrating the study. “Pornography rewires an individual’s sexuality to pixels on a screen rather than to a real person, which is inherently inconsistent with healthy, organic relationships.” (While we’re talking about ideas of “healthy, organic relationships,” it’s worth noting that Morality in Media linked legalized same-sex marriage with mass murder.)

But not everyone is taking the results as a wholesale indictment of pornography. David Ley, author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure,” says the study is “further validation that sex, and porn, are complex, individualized issues with different effects in different people.” He adds, “The overall message is [that] porn may indeed correlate with negative relationship satisfaction in some people, but not others, and that in order for our society to have better conversations about helping those people, we need to be having much more nuanced conversations about porn,” said Ley. “The whole Chicken Little routine regarding porn is increasingly distant from the real facts.”