Marriage and Pornography

     I recall listening to a sermon in a Spanish-speaking church while in college in which the pastor cautioned married couples to avoid watching pornography together.  This was in the 1990s.  The internet had just been invented which allowed pornography to be easily accessible without going into an adult bookstore.  In the years that followed, pornography producers started marketing “instructional” videos targeting married couples.  Curiosity, and believing that such videos are harmless, has resulted in many Christian couples viewing these together.  Was the Spanish-speaking pastor right to warn couples against this or are these videos a harmless way to enhance the sexual life of a married couple?  How does pornography impact a marriage?

Married couple watching porn together.

     Aaron Frutos and Ray Merrill published a scientific article in Sexuality and Culture in 2017 that “In a study of 1,291 unmarried individuals in romantic relationships, couples that never viewed pornography had higher relationship quality than those that viewed pornography alone. Those who viewed pornography together had a higher level of dedication and sexual satisfaction than those who viewed pornography separately. Those who viewed pornography together compared with those who never viewed it differed only in that never viewers had lower rates of infidelity.” [emphasis added]  This study shows something alarming for couples that view pornography together.  When viewed together, the pornography does not diminish the marital quality.  Couples that viewed pornography together enjoyed the same quality relationship level as couples which neither partner ever viewed pornography at all but the difference was that infidelity was higher with those couples watching pornography together.  The pornography did not seem to damage the relationship on the surface so there were no red flags to alert the couple of a coming crisis.  Yet it led to infidelity of at least one of the partners.

     Samuel Perry published a scientific article on pornography and marriage in a 2018 issue of the scientific journal Personal Relationships. He wrote, “While there is general consensus that pornography use — as it is most commonly practiced — tends to be negatively correlated with relationship quality, there is far less consensus regarding the primary mechanisms at work in this association. The most popular theory suggests that viewing pornography can influence relationship quality by shaping viewers’ ‘sexual scripts’ about sexual relationships, intimacy, and body image. To the extent that viewers internalize these scripts or messages, they may be less satisfied with their actual romantic relationships in terms of sexual quality and/or physical appearance…

     These authors theorize that for Americans embedded in moral communities that oppose pornography use, viewing pornography has greater ‘psychic costs’ and thus affects the religious more strongly… Snawder (2017) also demonstrated that the negative associations between pornography use and measures of parent–child relationship quality were stronger for more frequent worship attendees. This latter finding suggests that parental distress or withdrawal due to moral incongruence is the more likely factor… What their findings imply is that Americans who violate their own moral convictions by using pornography are more likely to experience moral incongruence, which may lead them to withdraw from intimate relationships or otherwise be less invested

     Viewing pornography at all predicts lower levels of marital quality over time and this relation is not significantly moderated by whether married Americans are violating their moral views by using it. This would suggest that the primary issue is not whether pornography users are experiencing moral incongruence thereby negatively affecting their marriage, but the other factors that are attendant to pornography use that could include negatively influencing viewers’ sexual scripts or creating tension in the relationship around one partner’s private pornography use…  It was not possible [in this study] to see whether married participants were viewing pornography alone or with their partner… The moderating effect of moral incongruence would likely look different (or be nonexistent) among couples who view sexually explicit material together as opposed to one partner viewing it alone.” [emphasis added]

     The study done by Frutos and Merrill found that couples viewing pornography together did not diminish marital quality.  However it did not look at the role moral convictions may play.  Perry’s study focused on the role moral convictions play but did not look at couples viewing pornography together.  Many couples using pornography together do not perceive any harm from it.  In the short-term, it provides a little spark which they perceive as a benefit, thus they continue to use it. However given the information we have from the scientific studies, the perceived benefit is simply an illusion.  It is also possible that while one spouse feels a benefit, the other feels a diminished quality in the marriage due to moral incongruence.

     One point that is noteworthy is that no studies have ever shown that pornography enhances a relationship long term.  In 2013 Spencer B. Olmstead released a scientific article that reported over 70% of men and 45% of women in college said they would watch pornography with their partner. Only 22% of men and 26% of women felt pornography had no place in a relationship.  In a scientific article published by Amanda Maddox in 2011 she reported nearly 45% of couples claimed to view pornography together.  She “found that people who didn’t view any porn had lower levels of negative communication, were more committed to the relationship, and had higher sexual satisfaction and relationship adjustment. Their rate of infidelity was at least half of those who had watched sexual material alone and with their partners. But people who only watched porn with their partners were more dedicated to the relationship and more sexually satisfied than those who watched alone.”  Couples watching porn together is common and not as harmful as when just one of the spouses watches it alone by him or herself.  However no study has shown a long-term benefit to the relationship. The preacher was right.  Couples should avoid pornography completely.