Pornography Use in Committed Relationships: More than meaning


Very little is known about how pornography use affects the quality of committed relationships.  This study examines associations between pornography use, the meaning people attach to its use, sexual quality and relationship satisfaction.  Participants were (N = 393) couples who were either married or cohabitating at the time the data was gathered.  Overall results indicate that male pornography use—but not female use—is negatively associated with both male and female sexual quality.  This finding is significant above and beyond the meaning individuals attach to its use.  Sexual quality, in turn, is positively associated with relationship quality, and pornography use is found to indirectly influence relationship satisfaction.  Following the discussion of results, implications for couples and practitioners are provided.

Pornography in Committed Relationships

To date, research focused on the effects of pornography on committed relationships is sparse at best (Manning, 2006), and with very few exceptions the existing literature is limited to therapy and sexuality studies.  Non clinical marriage and family scholars have done little if any research in this area.  Yet, there are two consistent findings extant in the pornography research literature that indicate pornography use has repercussions for committed relationships. 

For one, it is generally accepted by researchers on either side of the issue that men in fact use and are likely to compulsively use pornography at a much higher rate as compared to women (Carroll et. al. 2008; Hald & Malumuth; O’Reilly et. al. 2007).  Secondly, women are much more likely to consider pornography offensive, demeaning, and a threat to their relationship (Bergner & Bridges, 2004; O’Reilly et. al. 2007).  In the current study we are interested in exploring how the use of pornography in a committed relationship is related to the sexual quality and relationship satisfaction reported by each partner.  We are also interested in why these associations may occur.

Review of the Literature

Most of what is currently known about pornography effects has been explored in the context of sexual aggression (e.g., rape, sexual violence).  This body of research shows that exposure to violent pornography is associated with an increased risk for sexual aggression (Donnerstein & Linz, 1998; Malamuth, Addison, & Koss, 2001).  Some studies have also found non-violent pornography to be associated with acceptance of violent or aggressive behavior toward women (Allen, Emmers, Gebhardt, & Giery, 1995; Ramasubramanian & Oliver 2003); however, this literature is plagued with issues of replicability and other limitations fueling the debate as to whether non-violent pornography exposure has any negative influence on behavior.  What this research has tried to do with little success is find a causal relationship between pornography use and sexual aggression (Fisher & Barak, 2001).  The present study is interested in the more general effects of pornography use on relationships.

In the extant research on the use of pornography in committed relationships, pornography use’s main influence seems to be on sexual quality.  For example, Schneider (2002) found that pornography use by the male often leads to disinterest in physical intimacy with the partner for both the user and the non-using partner. The weakness in this research is that the findings are based in therapy samples (unlike the current study) that are not generalizable to a normal population.  In a more general sample pornography use has been found to influence partners’ (a) expression of affection, (b) perceptions of physical appearance, (c) sexual curiosity, and (d) sexual performance (Zillman & Bryant, 1988).  This finding was true for both males and females.  Although the body of research tying pornography use to sexual quality is thin, the empirical findings tying sexual quality to relationship satisfaction is more established.  Christopher & Sprecher, (2000), found a strong relationship between a couple’s sexual satisfaction and the overall relationship satisfaction reported by the partners.  In general, increases in both the quality and quantity of sexual intimacy in a relationship correlate well with the increase in general relationship satisfaction (Aron & Henkemeyer, 1995).  One important component that pornography research lacks is a theoretical explanation for how and why pornography use might affect committed relationships.

In the current study, we use a symbolic interaction perspective which recognizes meaning and interpretation as central to an individual’s response to behavioral stimuli (Snow, 2001).  Blumer (1969) asserts that people interpret their world through the lens of meaning and that this meaning is constructed based, in large part, on contemporary social values.  Gecas and Libby (1976) extend this theory to sexual behavior, stating that it is “predominately a reaction to social scripts which define parameters for behavior in certain contexts”.  Utilizing this framework, one would assume that the relationship between pornography use and sexual quality would change depending on the meaning individuals attach to it.

In modern society there seems to be two prevailing ideologies that individuals utilize to construct meaning.  One of these is the idea that pornography use is a form of discovery through which individuals can broaden their understanding of sexuality (Warner, 2000).  Although we know of no empirical support for an increase in sexual benefit associated with pornography use, there is at least one study where authors provide results that suggest that most women don’t see pornography as having any negative effects on their romantic relationships (Bergner & Bridges, 2004).

The second major social script is a more traditional one derived from tenants of an individual’s religious beliefs.  This script views pornography as deviant and therefore cause for disruption in the relationship.  Support for this script can be found in research showing that individuals higher in religiosity are more condemning of pornography usage (Sherkat & Ellison, 1997).  Individuals who subscribe to this religious view are likely to see pornography use as a breach of commitment and even a form of infidelity.

Three questions form the basis for our analysis.  First, does pornography use predict sexual quality in committed relationships and in what direction?  Second, using a symbolic interaction theoretical framework, do the two prevailing social scripts mentioned above (i.e., Pornography as Discovery and Religiosity) explain the relationship between pornography use and sexual quality?  Third, does pornography use have any direct effect on relationship satisfaction?



The sample was gathered from couples who completed a survey via the internet during 2009.   Participants were 393 heterosexual couples (786 individuals), 204 of which were married and 189 who were cohabiting at the time of the study.  Religious affiliation for females was 23% Protestant, 30% Latter-day Saint, 13% Catholic, 2% Jewish, 1% Hindu, 1% Buddhist and less than 1% Islam. Twenty percent reported no religious affiliation and 10% chose not to respond.  Males reported 21% Protestant, 30% Latter-day Saint, 13% Catholic, 3% Jewish and less than 1% Islam, Buddhist and Hindu; 23% reported no religious affiliation and 8% chose not to respond.  Participants were predominantly White (83%) and the majority were well educated with 56% of the males and 57% or the females having a bachelors degree or higher.


This study used measures from the RELATionship Evaluation Questionnaire (Busby, Holman, Taniguchi, 2001; RELATE).  RELATE is a 300 plus item questionnaire designed to evaluate the relationship between romantically linked partners.

Specific measures utilized in this study were as follows:  (1) a religiosity scale including three items (e.g.  how often do you pray), Cronbach’s α = .91 for males and .90 for females.  (2) A pornography as discovery scale including five items (e.g. Pornography is an acceptable way for couples to “spice up” their love life), Chronbach’s α = .86 for males and .89 for females. (3) A pornography item that asked, during the last twelve months on how many days did you view or read pornography (i.e., movies, magazines, internet sites, adult romantic novels)?  (4) A sexual quality scale made up of two items, Cronbach’s α = .79 for males and females (5) A relationship satisfaction scale that included five items, Cronbach’s α = .90 for males and .91 for females.

Analysis Strategy

Analysis was conducted utilizing Analysis of Moment Structures (AMOS) software version 17.0 (Arbuckle, 2008) to graphically create and compute a Structural Equation Model (SEM; see Figure 1). As there may be significant gender differences in the way pornography effects relationships, the model includes both the male and the female reports on each variable.


Descriptive Analysis

Female pornography use was very low with 69% reporting no pornography use and 94% using pornography once a month or less.  Pornography use among men while still low (38% reporting no use) showed a lot more variability. A paired samples T-test was conducted to evaluate differences in male and female pornography use. The test was significant t(375) = 13.007, p < .001. Males used more pornography (M = 1.28, SD = 1.429) on average than females (M = .41, SD = .747).

Model Analysis

The model (see Figure 1) explored direct and indirect relationships between pornography use, the meaning individuals attach to pornography use as measured by religiosity and a pornography as discovery script, sexual quality, and relationship satisfaction.  The model fit the data well (χ² (402) = 660.400, p < .001; TLI = .968; CFI = .974; and RMSEA = .041).  For sexual quality squared multiple correlations for males was .13 and .07 for females.  Squared multiple correlations for Relationship satisfaction were .43 for males and .48 for females.  Of the 20 interpreted path coefficients in the model, 10 paths were significant and are denoted with an (*) in Table 1. Maximum likelihood bootstrapping with a 95% confidence interval was used to test the mediating relationships.

Results for the first question; “does pornography use predict sexual quality in committed relationships and in what direction” were as follows. In the model significant path coefficients indicated that male pornography use had a consistent negative association with both female and male sexual quality.  Female pornography use was consistently and positively associated with sexual quality for both partners.  Due to the inconsistency of how male and female use affected sexual quality we looked deeper into gender differences in pornography use.  We found that most (52%) women who used pornography at all used it almost exclusively with their partner whereas most (60%) of males used it alone but never with their partner.  This difference in how they use likely accounts for differences in the effect as well.

In analysis of the second question; “using a symbolic interaction theoretical framework, does the way individuals make meaning out of pornography use through either a religious script or viewing pornography as a discovery process explain the relationship between pornography use and sexual quality,” maximum likelihood bootstrapping with a 95% confidence interval revealed that the standardized indirect (mediated) effect of Male Pornography Use on Male and Female Sexual Quality is not significantly different from zero at the 0.05 level.  The same is true of the mediated effect of Female Pornography Use on Female and Male Sexual Quality.  Thus, pornography as discovery and religiosity do not explain any unique effect on sexual quality above and beyond that of pornography use.

The third question “does pornography use have any direct affect on relationship satisfaction or is it mediated by sexual quality” was also analyzed using the bootstrapping method.  Results were that the mediated effect of Male Pornography Use on Male and Female Relationship Satisfaction is significantly different from zero at the 0.01 level.  Female Pornography Use also had a mediated effect on Male Relationship Satisfaction but not on Female Relationship Satisfaction.  In short, Pornography Use (in three of the four circumstances) seems to explain some unique variance in Relationship Satisfaction above and beyond Sexual Quality.   However, pornography use by either partner did not directly predict Relationship Satisfaction. For size and direction of these relationships see Table 1.


Results of the analysis showed that male pornography use had a consistent negative association with both male and female sexual quality.  This finding was consistent with expectations that male’s pornography use would be negatively associated with female sexual quality. That his pornography use negatively predicts his own sexual quality is consistent with Schneider’s (2000) clinical study, showing that in 18% of the sample of couples where the male used pornography compulsively, the female partner reported decreased sexual quality.  This is all the more surprising in the present sample as relatively few (35%) of the males might be considered compulsive users.  One shortcoming of this study is that it is not known whether the female is aware of the males pornography use or vice versa.  To an extent this limits what can be interpreted about why his use is hurting sexual quality.  What is clear; however, is that male pornography use seems to be detrimental to sexual quality on all accounts.  Alternatively, female pornography use had a slightly positive association with male and female sexual quality.  As indicated in the results we surmise that because most women in the sample who use pornography do so exclusively with their partner—which is quite different from the usage patterns of men—women’s use is not likely to predict sexual quality in the same way as males’ use.  This gender effect might lend partial support for the pornography as discovery script when and if both partners are complicit.  This finding is also in light of a low usage rate for women in the sample (69% reporting no pornography use).  Future research in the area of female pornography use needs to be conducted to further understand how male and female pornography is so different.

The second interest we had was to see if after accounting for prevailing social scripts the associations between pornography use and sexual quality held significant.  Results were that neither Pornography as Discovery nor Religiosity explained unique variance above and beyond that explained by the use itself.  Rather, pornography use itself seems to impact sexual quality in a romantic committed relationship separate from the meaning people attach to it.  Thus, contrary to our assumption, symbolic interaction does not adequately explain why pornography use negatively affects the sexual quality couples experience.  It is possible that some other meaning is in play that we are not accounting for.  For example, pornography use may affect the individual in a manner that changes their view of their partner and or the sexual relationship.  Doidges’ (2007), treatise on how pornography use actually changes the brain might explain the unique effect pornography use has on a relationship distinct from the meaning people attach to it.   In sum, pornography use seems to have a bug of its own.

The last question was whether Pornography Use has some unique influence on Relationship Satisfaction.  The mediation analysis showed that males use does negatively influence male and female Relationship Satisfaction through Sexual Quality and that female’s use positively influences male Relationship Satisfaction through Sexual Quality.   This means that pornography use explains a small but statistically significant part of why decreases in sexual quality lead to decreases in relationship satisfaction.


This study has several implications for educators, therapists, religious leaders and others interested in how pornography use influences marriage and/or other committed relationships.  The strongest finding in this study is that when a husband or male partner uses pornography, there is an increased likelihood that his love life will suffer as well as his partners’.  This may occur even when his partner is unaware of the use.  This study also shows that this effect is likely to occur among cohabiting couples as well as married couples and that the effect remains regardless of your personal attitude toward pornography. The data suggest that helping males overcome pornography use at any level would improve their love life and their relationship overall.  For females the story is different.  The fact that the profile of use for a female is so different than that of males’ suggests that most females use pornography as a means of satisfying his wishes as opposed to her own.  An alternate possibility is that her compliance in the use suggests that the couple has communicated and an understanding about how and why they use it has been established.  This, in turn, may change and improve the sexual dynamics of their relationship. The problem with this as a feasible working model for a couples sex life is that as shown in this study, males’ and females’ use profiles are not in sync.


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Figure 1.  Initial Heuristic Model

Table 1.

Decomposition of Effects from SEM on Sexual Quality and Relationship Satisfaction

Direct Indirect Total
Effects on Male Sexual Quality .13
Male Pornography Use -.263 -.067 -.330*
Female Pornography Use .207 .020 .227*
Male Pornography as Discovery -.300 NA -.300*
Female Pornography as Discovery .249 NA .249*
Male Religiosity .194 NA .194
Female Religiosity -.170 NA -.170
Effects on Female Sexual Quality .07
Male Pornography Use -.059 -.059 -.274*
Female Pornography Use .163 -.007 .157*
Male Pornography as Discovery -.176 NA -.176
Female Pornography as Discovery .106 NA .106
Male Religiosity .037 NA .037
Female Religiosity -.011 NA -.011
Effects on Male Relationship Satisfaction .43
Male Sexual Quality .654 NA .654*
Female Sexual Quality .023 NA .023
Male Pornography Use .071 -.223 -.152*
Female Pornography Use -.082 .152 .069
Effects on Female Relationship Satisfaction .48
Male Sexual Quality -.165 NA -.165
Female Sexual Quality .822 NA .822*
Male Pornography Use .010 -.171 -.161*
Female Pornography Use -.019 .092 .072

Notes: NA= not applicable; * significant at (p < .05)

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