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Are Pornography and Marriage Substitutes for Young Men?


Substitutes for marital sexual gratification may impact the decision to marry. Proliferation of the Internet has made pornography an increasingly low-cost substitute. We investigate the effect of Internet usage, and of pornography consumption specifically, on the marital status of young men. We show that increased Internet usage is negatively associated with marriage formation. Pornography consumption specifically has an even stronger effect. Instrumental variables and a number of robustness checks suggest that the effect is causal.

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  1. 1.

    All aggregate statistics are from NCHS tables [accessed March 2015].

  2. 2.

    Interestingly, only 67 percent of young men believe that it is acceptable to use pornography.

  3. 3.

    This paper uses only the 2,000 wave.

  4. 4.

    The effect is particularly strong for teenagers, who cannot easily access non Web-based pornography.

  5. 5.

    The determination of the bargaining share α is an ongoing research area. In the extreme case, a higher-quality wife might not add any utility for the husband if she can claim all the surplus brought to the marriage by her own quality. Otherwise, when the surplus is split, there is a net increase in male utility associated with a higher-quality wife.

  6. 6.

    There is an extensive literature on this point. Higher-income men do have higher marriage rates overall and are able to marry higher-quality spouses [Chiappori et al. 2012], but they might be delayed as more desirable men can afford to wait for better matches to materialize. See Weiss et al. [2009] for a detailed discussion of decision problems of this variety.

  7. 7.

    The US Census Bureau reports that 9.1 percent of households from the 2,000 census involved couples living together unmarried but in a “close personal relationship.”

  8. 8.

    It would be good to have panel data to explore the stability of marriages over time, but owing to the limits of our dataset the best we can do is to observe instantaneously whether the respondent is married. Doran and Price [2014] claim that pornography usage does destabilize existing marriages.

  9. 9.

    The variable on pornography usage does ask about the number of times it was used during the last 30 days (in three levels of usage categories), but frequency of use is presumably reported even less truthfully. In any case, we ran the regressions in the paper using an index of intensity of pornography usage rather than a dummy and the results were not much different.

  10. 10.

    A variable that measured frequency of job changes is another option, but this is not available in the GSS.

  11. 11.

    We also tried including a vector of time dummies δ t . But our sample covers only 5 years, and the results were almost the same.

  12. 12.

    No-fault divorce laws are a potential source of heterogeneity across states. Unfortunately, GSS responses are not coded by state, so the data do not allow us to control for this.

  13. 13.

    This is coded in the GSS as an index on a 1–10 declining scale of urbanization.

  14. 14.

    Well-cited examples are Trostel et al. [2002] and Solon [1992]. The mother’s level of education is another possibility, but it is substantially weaker.

  15. 15.

    The F-statistic from the first-stage regression is a standard diagnostic for two-stage least squares. But the first-stage OLS results should be viewed as descriptive only for the other estimation methods used in the paper; their asymptotic properties as a diagnostic for estimation methods other than two-stage least squares are not established in the literature. This caveat is particularly true for pornography usage, which is binary.

  16. 16.

    These are for a small marginal change at the mean and obviously cannot be generalized over a large interval as the probit function is flattened at the extremes. For example, using the fitted probit function with mean values of other regressors, a discrete change from 0 to 1 in pornography viewing is associated with a 40 percent reduction in the probability of marriage for the bivariate probit estimates and an 8 percent reduction for the probit estimates without instruments.


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Appendix A

Mathematical results from theoretical model

The utility function for a single man is US(x, z), where x represents extra-marital sexual activities and z represents other consumption. The utility function is concave and increasing in both arguments. The price of consumption z is normalized to 1 and the cost of extra-marital sexual activities is p. When income is m, a single man solves the following constrained maximization problem:

The corresponding indirect utility function VS(p, m) gives the maximized value of utility. It is increasing in m but decreasing in p.

The utility function for a married man is UM(x, z)+θ, where θ is non-pecuniary utility specific to marriage. The utility function UM(x, z) is also assumed to be concave and increasing in both arguments, although the marginal utility of x may be different than that for a single man. A married man solves a similar constrained maximization problem to that given above, and his corresponding indirect utility function is VM(p, m)+θ.

Recall that income in the first period is m1 and income in the second period is m2. Where future payoffs are discounted at rate β, a man who chooses not to marry enjoys lifetime utility:

For men who marry, their monetary income available for consumption is αm. Thus, men who marry and remain married through the second period enjoy lifetime utility:

Men who marry but divorce in the second period face a cost of c associated with divorce, reducing their incomes, which generates lifetime utility of:

Thus, where divorce occurs with probability μ, expected lifetime utility at the beginning of period 1 for a man who chooses to marry is:

An expected utility maximizer will marry during the first period whenever EV lifetime M exceeds V lifetime S. Solving this inequality, the minimal level of marital utility θ that justifies marriage is:

Anything that increases threshold spousal quality θ* leads to a decline in marital probability (the probability that a single man will encounter a potential mate who satisfies the threshold), and conversely anything that reduces threshold quality level θ* leads to more marriage.

The marginal effect of an increase in the cost of paid sexual activities p on threshold spousal quality level is:

This can be either positive or negative, because an increase in p has marginal effects on the utility of both single and married men. For a benchmark case, let us begin by assuming that only single men use pornography (i.e. that marital sex is a perfect substitute for pornography). In that case, the marginal effect is:

Even in this case, the sign of the derivative is ambiguous. A reduction in the value of p raises the value of being single but it also raises the value of being divorced. As income is reduced by c as a result of divorce, concavity of the utility function implies that the marginal utility of a reduction in p has a stronger impact for a divorced single man than for a never-married single man. Thus, when divorce is expensive and likely, a reduction in the cost of pornography can increase the man’s propensity to marry by making it less costly to get divorced.

In the more general model, where paid sexual activities x can contribute utility both for divorce and for marriage, there are additional ambiguities in the sign of the comparative static because a reduction in p can add to utility both for married and single men.

For the other comparative statics, inspection of the expression for threshold quality θ* shows that it is declining in bargaining share α but increasing in separation cost c. The impact of changes in income is ambiguous in income from both periods. Precisely:

Higher income contributes utility both to married and to single people. Married people typically are able to consume only a lower share of their incomes (when α<1), but whatever share they do claim has higher marginal value.

In the body of the paper, we have raised the possibility that the divorce probability μ may not be exogenous, but may itself be a function of a married man’s consumption of extra-marital sexual opportunities. Precisely, μ(x1m) depends on a married man’s choice of x in the first period during which he is married. Thus, μ depends indirectly on p since the maximized value of paid sexual activity x* for a married man is itself a function of p. For a small, marginal change in p, the envelope theorem allows us to ignore this indirect effect in computing the derivative, and the results will be the same as above (as long as the dependence is smooth). We discuss discrete changes heuristically in the main text.

Appendix B

Table B1

Table B1 First-stage OLS regression results

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Malcolm, M., Naufal, G. Are Pornography and Marriage Substitutes for Young Men?. Eastern Econ J 42, 317–334 (2016).

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  • pornography
  • divorce
  • marital formation

JEL Classifications

  • J12
  • O33