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Pornography and Relationship Quality: Establishing the Dominant Pattern by Examining Pornography Use and 31 Measures of Relationship Quality in 30 National Surveys

Abstract

Numerous studies have examined the association between pornography use and various measures of relationship quality. Yet scholars have also pointed out the limitations of many such studies, including inconsistent findings for men and women, non-representative samples, and negatively biased measures that could result in misleading findings. The purpose of this study was to establish a dominant pattern in the association between pornography use and relationship quality in a way that mitigated these issues. Data were taken from 30 nationally representative surveys, which together included 31 measures of relationship quality: 1973–2018 General Social Surveys (1 repeated measure); 2006 Portraits of American Life Study (13 measures); 2012 New Family Structures Study (12 measures); and 2014 Relationships in America Survey (5 measures). This allowed for 57 independent tests examining the association between pornography use and relationship outcomes for married Americans and 29 independent tests for unmarried Americans. Along with bivariate associations, full regression models were estimated with sociodemographic controls and interaction terms for gender. For married and unmarried Americans alike, pornography use was either unassociated or negatively associated with nearly all relationship outcomes. Significant associations were mostly small in magnitude. Conversely, except for one unclear exception, pornography use was never positively associated with relationship quality. Associations were only occasionally moderated by gender, but in inconsistent directions. While this study makes no claims about causality, findings clearly affirmed that, in instances where viewing pornography is associated with relationship quality at all, it is nearly always a signal of poorer relationship quality, for men and women.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Campbell and Kohut (2017, p. 7) argued that much of the previous research (citing studies like Lambert et al., 2012) “assumes, assesses, and subsequently confirms that pornography is detrimental to relationships.” Particularly problematic, it was argued, is that studies often do not measure nonnegative outcomes, but rather structure questions in ways that either confirm or fail to confirm negative effects. This potentially places critical limits on what can be learned about pornography’s association with relationship outcomes.

  2. While PALS has 13 measures of relationship quality, one of those questions asks explicitly about “marital separation” and thus only 12 are used for unmarried Americans.

  3. In ancillary analyses (available upon request), an index was constructed from the continuous-level measures of relationship quality presented in Table 3, after having been standardized into Z-scores (α = .82). Associations between pornography viewing and this index were statistically significant at the bivariate level (unmarried: r = − .24, p < .001; married: r = − .11, p < .001) and with controls in OLS regression models (unmarried: b = − 1.24, p < .001; married: b = − .58, p < .001). Gender interactions were nonsignificant.

  4. In ancillary analyses (available upon request), an index was created from the continuous-level measures presented in Table 4, after having been standardized into Z-scores (α = .94). Associations between pornography viewing and this index were significant at the bivariate level for married participants (r = .08, p = .011), but not unmarried participants (r = .06, p = .076). In OLS models with controls in place, pornography use was only marginally associated with this relationship quality index for unmarried Americans (b = − .37, p = .063), though this association was quite significant for married Americans (b = − .72, p < .001). Gender interactions were nonsignificant.

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Correspondence to Samuel L. Perry.

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Perry, S.L. Pornography and Relationship Quality: Establishing the Dominant Pattern by Examining Pornography Use and 31 Measures of Relationship Quality in 30 National Surveys. Arch Sex Behav 49, 1199–1213 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-019-01616-7

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Keywords

  • Pornography
  • Romantic relationships
  • Marriage
  • Relationship satisfaction
  • General Social Survey
  • Portraits of American Life Study
  • Relationships in America Survey
  • New Family Structures Study