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Neuropsych

Want a better relationship? Watch porn with your partner.

A recent study casts doubt on the notion that watching porn, whether alone or with a partner, damages romantic relationships.
Couple watching TV. (Credit: Max Harlynking via Unsplash)
Key Takeaways
  • In media and psychological research, it has often been assumed that watching pornography harms romantic relationships.

  • A new study challenges that idea by showing that couples who watch porn together tend to report higher sexual and relationship satisfaction. 

  • In terms of watching porn alone, relationships only seem to suffer when there are significant differences in sex drive between partners.

How does watching pornography affect romantic relationships? According to popular media, the answer often has been that watching porn, especially when one partner watches it alone, can damage relationships and lead to unrealistic or unhealthy expectations about sex. 

Psychological research has partly supported these ideas. Although few studies have proposed that watching porn necessarily hurts relationships, research has found correlationations suggesting that porn exposure leads to decreased sexual and relationship satisfaction, decreased relationship commitment, and increased rates of cheating. 

But a new study offers a more nuanced look at the role porn can play in romantic relationships. The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, challenges mainstream notions about porn, finding that romantic partners who watch porn together tend to be more sexually satisfied and content with their relationships — at least when the couple is on the same page.

The research on porn and relationships

The body of research on porn’s effects on relationships has had a few notable problems, according to the researchers behind the recent study. For example, studies often collected data from only one partner in the relationship and usually did not compare each partner’s disposition to pornography to the other. 

Studies also had tended to frame the exposure to porn as the cause of relationship or sexual dissatisfaction, omitting the possibility that watching porn is actually a consequence of dissatisfaction or maybe even irrelevant to relationship problems. What’s more, most studies on porn and relationships have not been replicated, representing a broader problem in the social sciences.

Porn, gender, and sex drive

In the recent study, the researchers examined two cross-sectional and two longitudinal samples of more than 700 heterosexual couples. They conducted four studies that, altogether, explored how porn exposure (both solitary and shared) relates to relationship and sexual satisfaction, and how factors like gender and attitudes toward porn and sexuality might contribute to the overall question of porn’s effects on relationships.

(Credit: Phillip Goldsberry via Unsplash)

“Across three studies, we found consistent evidence that partners who watch pornography together report higher relationship and sexual satisfaction than partners who do not, and notably, this association was not moderated by gender,” the researchers wrote, adding that shared porn use may improve relationships because it improves sexual communication or because it’s a novel and exciting activity.

As for relationships in which one partner regularly watches porn alone? The results show that solitary porn exposure was negatively associated with that partner’s own relationship and sexual satisfaction, but “only in cases where their romantic partners used little or no pornography alone.” 

The researchers called this the similarity-dissimilarity effect, which refers to how each partner can have different dispositions toward sex and porn. The study examined several domains of sexual differences, including sex drive, attitudes toward porn, and erotophobia and erotophilia. In terms of solitary porn use and sexual satisfaction in relationships, it turned out that sex drive was the only factor where differences between partners was significantly associated with lower sexual (but not relationship) satisfaction. 

It remains unclear whether solitary porn use causes lower sexual satisfaction or is a byproduct of it. In general, the study did not establish causal paths for porn and relationship or sexual satisfaction. Still, the strong associations cast doubt on the popular perception that watching porn necessarily harms relationships.


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