Is Porn Really Bad for Your Relationship?

Lamu is a small county on an island 200 miles northeast of Mombasa, in Kenya. The town is among the oldest Swahili settlements along the coast of East Africa. It is also among the most controversial.

Some 60 percent of marriages in the town end in divorce. That’s a remarkably high percentage, given that Lamu’s entire population stands at only a little over 25,000 people.

Research done at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 2014 shows that only 15 per cent of unions in Kenya end in divorce.

So, why do most married couples in Lamu end up parting ways?

In September last year, the office of Lamu Senior Resident Kadhi Swaleh Mohamed issued a report blaming the town’s divorce problem on internet pornography.

“A man would rather be alone and get his sexual gratification from watching videos,” says Abubakar Shelali, an official on the Lamu Council of Elders. “They rush for divorce at the slightest provocation because they are addicted to this dirty habit.”

That is quite an indictment – not only of the men of Luma but also of pornography as a whole. But then the Lamu council is, of course, not alone in assuming that porn is bad for relationships.

Critics have blamed porn for widespread marital infidelity and divorce.
Critics have blamed porn for widespread marital infidelity and divorce.

The Problem with Porn

Over the past few decades, the popular media has blamed pornography for just about every calamity that couples might encounter in the bedroom. A quick online search will yield countless articles blaming porn for bestiality, marital infidelity, and even sex abstinence.

If we are to believe some of the more sweeping claims, porn is also answerable for poor sex education, sexual dysfunction, and rape.

To be clear, the critics of porn have not pulled their claims out of a hat. Many of them reference the results of past studies linking porn to compulsive sexual behavior, porn addiction, and a gamut of unfavorable relationship outcomes.

Lately, however, a number of experts have pointed to major problems in these hitherto incontestable earlier studies. These experts now suggest caution in drawing cause-and-effect conclusions from them.

“The problem with beginning any sentence with ‘Porn is’ is you know right from the start that a person is about to generalize about all sexually explicit media, and that’s really a mistake,” says Emily Rothman, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.

Many studies link porn to compulsive sexual behavior, porn addiction, and a gamut of unfavorable relationship outcomes.
Many studies link porn to compulsive sexual behavior, porn addiction, and a gamut of unfavorable relationship outcomes.
(Photo: Daniel Yaeger/Wikimedia Commons)

Public Health Crisis or Easy Scapegoat?

What makes Rothman’s argument intriguing is that isn’t based on solid scientific data. It’s actually premised on the lack of it. And that’s precisely what is driving questionable claims about the negative effects of porn on relationships, say some experts.

The fact is that academic literature on pornography is not like that of climate change or COVID-19 where practically all scientists agree on the big picture.

There is no science-based consensus on whether Pornhub and xHamster represent a real public-health crisis or an easy scapegoat for dissatisfied couples.

Instead, there is a diverse group of researchers and advocates who are deeply divided on the broader social consequences of widespread porn consumption.

Researchers David Ley, Nicole Prause, and Peter Finn looked into the debate as it relates to popular notions concerning porn addiction, in particular. Their research findings saw publication in the journal Current Sexual Reports in 2014. 

What the three behavioral experts found was that most research on porn is hindered by “poor experimental design, limited methodological rigor, and lack of model specification.”

In short, most other research has made a fine mess of studying porn addiction, so there is no real basis for arguing its legitimacy as a societal menace.

There is no expert consensus on whether Pornhub and xHamster represent a real public-health crisis or an easy scapegoat for dissatisfied couples.

Cause or Effect

Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute in Indiana, says many of the design problems in porn research involve basic methodology.

For instance, survey forms typically ask, “How often have you used porn in the last year?” or “How often have you used porn since you started your relationship?”

Such questions make recall bias a significant likelihood because people are not very accurate when it comes to estimating their media usage, says Lehmiller.

There is also the matter of relevant time-frames. A number of earlier studies on porn addiction fail to account for problems arising from past relationships.

That alone confounds any attempt at determining causality.

“In fact, we know that people in sexless relationships often turn to solo sexual activities to fill the void, which means that porn use can sometimes be the consequence – not the cause – of a bigger issue,” says Lehmiller.

So, is porn really all that bad for relationships? How exactly did it become the boogeyman for so much sexual and social dysfunction?

A number of earlier studies on porn addiction fail to account for problems arising from past relationships.
A number of earlier studies on porn addiction fail to account for problems arising from past relationships.

What Porn, the BBC, and Dr. Fauci Have in Common

Few will disagree that porn can expose vulnerable consumers to an endless range of false, decontextualized, and possibly harmful ideas about the world. That just might be what’s happening to the porn-watching husbands of Lamu.

But if those unwanted consequences sound familiar, it’s because they’ve also been attributed to the BBC , CNN, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and certain essays by George Orwell.

“It’s certainly the case that the people who think it’s bad, it’s bad for them,” says Prause, who’s also the principal investigator at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Lab, in Los Angeles. “The actual inherent ‘badness’ there’s very little evidence for.”

Rothman is of a similar opinion – but she takes it a step further.

The truth, she argues, is that internet porn is like food. The vast majority of it is harmless. Quite a few are bad. But some others are actually good, she says.

She concedes that porn use can become compulsive. Current research says that viewing pornography can evolve into an addictive behavior for 5 to 8 percent of the world’s adult population.  But she is quick to add that the same is true for television.

In fact, Rothman says that, in some cases, porn might just be what some young people need.  

That’s why some sexologists are even now suggesting that porn be shown openly in public-school classrooms.

Since younger generations learn about sex though porn, it might as well be discussed in school, they contend.

Rothman agrees, at least in part. Younger people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender might discover in pornography a window into their own experience, she tells The Atlantic.

“They might see pornography almost like a safe space,” says the Boston University educator. “It can be inspiring and really helpful.”

What’s your story? Do you think all porn can be categorized in the same way? Why not share your views by reviewing this article below.


 

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