Although many people do not realize it, the pornography industry is enormous. Widely hidden from view, it generates an estimated $13 billion dollars a year from within the United States alone, which is more annual revenue than Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, eBay and Netflix produce combined.1
With its widespread availability, pornography is becoming what a lot of people want to call “normal.” After all, it is just sex, so how can it be bad? A common refrain I hear about porn from the couples I counsel is women complaining how they don’t like it, while their men say, “it’s normal and every guy does it.” So who’s right? Maybe they both are.
It is not surprising that men have a more positive view of pornography than women.2
It is interesting, however, that little research has been done to understand how porn viewing affects men. As porn has become more available and accepted into the mainstream of American life, there is an increasing interest among researchers to better understand the effects of porn on relationships.3 What is being discovered is that the effects of porn watching are much more significant than most people think.
In a recent study, researchers from the University of Tennessee examined whether pornography has an influence on men’s romantic relationships.4 They were specifically interested in whether viewing porn changes men’s view of gender roles as well as their attachment styles.
Beliefs that are often labeled as “sexist” arise from rigidly defined gender roles and can result in the devaluation or violation of the opposite sex. This gender role conflict for some men has been related to negative and stereotypical views of women, sexually aggressive behavior, an increased chance of forcing sex, and acceptance of sexual harrassment.5
The researchers suggested that it would be reasonable to assume that men who have such thinking, “may have a tendency to view materials that depict women in a sexually stereotypical manner, degrade women, and/or convey the message that women’s bodies may be stared at, touched, and used by a man at any time he so pleases.”6
The other impact of pornography use the researchers questioned was men’s attachment styles. Since having problems with attachment has been related to gender role conflict, the researchers wondered if men with attachment problems might use pornography as a coping mechanism for their shortcomings in interpersonal relationships and to avoid intimacy within a romantic relationship.
To understand the effect of pornography on men’s romantic relationships the researchers examined pornography viewing among young men who were in heterosexual relationships. They sampled 373 college-attending men who were involved in relationships of 4 months to just over 7 years in duration. The men were asked to complete a series of questionnaires, including measures of gender role conflict, attachment style, relationship quality, and pornography use. The questions measuring porn viewing asked about frequency, amount of time each week and per sitting, and if porn interfered or negatively impacted daily life.
What did they find? The frequency of men’s pornography viewing was positively associated with gender role conflict, insecure attachment, lower relationship quality, and decreased sexual satisfaction. As the researchers note, however, it’s difficult to determine that porn causes these outcomes based on these results. For example, does gender role conflict lead to more anxious and avoidant attachment styles, which leads to more pornography use? Other research suggests that gender role socialization leaves many men lacking relational and sexual skills that can lead them to pornography in order to experience sexual gratification. Or does lower sexual satisfaction increase the likelihood of using pornography? Unfortunately, these data do not answer those questions.
Although the reasons men view pornography can be debated, these findings show that pornography use is associated with relationship quality and sexual satisfaction. As I counsel men and women through the conflict many of them have over the use of pornography within their relationships, although watching pornography may be common, and even considered normal by many, it is not necessarily far from harmless and without negative effect.
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1Ropelato, J. (2007). Internet pornography statistics. Retrieved March 8, 2010, from http://internet-filter-review.toptenreviews.com/internet-pornography-statistics.html
2Carroll, J.S., Padilla-Walker, L.M., Nelson, L.J., Olson, C.D., McNamara, B.C., & Madsen, S.D. (2008). Generation XXX: Pornography acceptance and use among emerging adults. Journal of Adolescent Research, 23, 6-30.
3Attwood, F. (2002). Reading porn: The paradigm shift in pornography research. Sexualities, 5(1), 91-105.
4Symanski, D. M. & Stewart-Richardson, D. N. (2014). Psychological, relational, and sexual correlates of pornography use on young adult heterosexual men in romantic relationships. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 22(1), 64-82.
5O’Neil, J. (2008). Summarizing 25 years of research on men’s gender role conflict using the Gender Role Conflict Scale: New research paradigms and clinical implications. The Counseling Psychologist, 36, 358-445.
6Kilbourne, J. (1999). Can’t buy my love: How advertising changes the way we think and feel. New York, NY & London, England: Touchstone.
Kurt Smith, LMFT, LPCC, AFC – Website
Kurt’s research specializes in understanding men, women, and the issues they face in relationships together. His daily experience as a practicing clinician provides a unique window into examining the challenges facing today’s couples while applying present-day research to gain new insights.